In public, Patrick Lefevere usually leans on his training as a frugal bookkeeper whenever his teams struggle at this time of the year. The final balance sheet for the Classics, he always points out, is only ever tallied after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and that old maxim rang true last season when Remco Evenepoel bailed everybody out at La Doyenne.
On the privacy of the Soudal-QuickStep bus, however, Lefevere surely has a rather more urgent message for his riders this year, who are floundering for the second cobbled Classics campaign in succession.
With favourites Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel seemingly out of reach and on another planet at the Tour of Flanders, Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen suddenly takes on outsized importance for a team whose fall has been as precipitous as it is perplexing.
A relative lack of recruitment for the Classics department in recent seasons may not have helped, but the very same riders who dictated the terms of engagement on the Flemish Ardennes just two years ago are now apparent also-rans, stumbling from one subdued performance in the Classics to the next.
Tim Merlier’s Nokere Koerse victory is their lone win on Belgian roads this year, and a glance at the position of Soudal-QuickStep’s highest finishers across the Classics calendar makes for sobering reading: 6th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 9th at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, 30th at Strade Bianche, 11th at Milan-San Remo, 3rd at Brugge-De Panne, 16th at the E3 Saxo Classic and 14th at Gent-Wevelgem.
In the past, the occasional mis-step in these races could quickly be written off as an aberration. In 2023, Lefevere’s charges have no such luxury.
Another fall, Albert Camus’ La Chute, comes to mind: “Don’t wait for the last judgement. It’s taking place every day.”
The irony is that the man who has been judged most harshly by Lefevere in recent months is also the rider most likely to shake his team from its torpor.
Julian Alaphilippe’s 2022 season was plagued by crashes and illness, but that didn’t spare him from some rather tough love from Lefevere over the winter. “He can’t keep hiding behind that,” his patron sniffed.
Still, Alaphilippe’s absence from the cobbled Classics was keenly felt last year, and the decision to send him back to Flanders this Spring was made in the belief that he was one of the very few riders on the planet capable of competing at the same exalted levels as Van Aert, Van der Poel and Pogačar. Indeed, on his very best days, like those World Championship Sundays in Imola and Leuven, Alaphilippe has occasionally gone to places even those lofty rivals could not quite reach.
Yet as the Ronde approaches, however, the precise state of Alaphilippe’s form is a mystery.
A stylish, assured victory at the Faun-Ardèche Classic ahead of David Gaudu in February suggested that the Frenchman was on track, but he was anonymous at Strade Bianche a week later. Alaphilippe then went close against Primož Roglič on the uphill finish in Tortoreto at Tirreno-Adriatico, but at Milan-San Remo, he was out of position – or was he simply off the pace? – on the Poggio, while he abandoned the E3 Saxo Classic last Friday citing stomach problems and fever.
Although there was little sympathy from Lefevere in his Het Nieuwsblad column the following day – “What do you want me to say to that? If you have a fever, you shouldn’t start” – the Soudal-QuickStep manager must know that Alaphilippe still represents his best chance of making an impact on the cobbles this year.
Or, as Het Laatste Nieuws put it after the team’s latest misadventure at Gent-Wevelgem, where Merlier (14th) was the highest finisher: “All hopes for the Ronde now rest on the shoulders of one man: Julian Alaphilippe.”
Directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters conceded as much as he stood in spitting rain outside the team bus on Menenstraat afterwards.
“He’s the only one of us who can be considered capable of following Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pogačar,” said Peeters, who revealed that Alaphilippe had already returned to training the previous day following his abandon in Harelbeke.
On Tuesday it was confirmed that, as planned, the 30-year-old would join Merlier as the co-leader for Dwars door Vlaanderen, with Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert rested for the Ronde.
Van Aert, Van der Poel and Pogačar have all opted to skip Dwars door Vlaanderen, preferring to throttle back ahead of the main event at the weekend. Their absence will raise the hopes of plenty of riders – including Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Tom Pidcock (Ineos) and Van Aert’s companions Tiesj Benoot and Dylan van Baarle. Above all, it seems to raise the stakes for Soudal-QuickStep even higher.
If Alaphilippe and company can’t summon up a performance here, what hope have they got of competing with the Big Three on Sunday?
While it’s true that Alaphilippe – and the on-form Evenepoel – will also race in the Ardennes, the most important Sunday of Soudal-QuickStep’s season has traditionally been the first one in April.
Wednesday’s race from Roeselare to Waregem is not as full a Tour of Flanders rehearsal as the E3 Saxo Classic but Alaphilippe’s performance across the succession of cobbles and hills here should still reveal plenty about his and Soudal-QuickStep’s prospects all the same.
At this time of year, the judgement is always constant on this team, but a midweek Classic has rarely seemed to carry this much weight and significance.