Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Eve of OmegaPharma-QuickStep's Most Critical Season

Such is the weight of expectation on Belgian super-team QuickStep -- now called OmegaPharma-QuickStep -- that despite star Tom Boonen's convincing win in Gent Wevelgem its 2011 season was considered a failure. As the 2012 spring classics season approaches, we think that this will be their most critical season yet since the team's founding in 2001 as Domo-Farm Frites.

Tom Boonen and His Merry Band of Flemings, in better times.
For a team that specializes in, and has dominated, racing on pave for as long as most of us can remember, 2011's Paris-Roubaix was the first edition in which they failed to place a single rider in the top 10. Add to this a lethargic showing at the Tour de France, with no stage wins and no days in a leader's jersey.

What were the roots of QuickStep's lackluster 2011 performance? Here are our thoughts.

1. Dependence on few stars and poor succession planning. 

QSI's continued dominance in the cobbled classics from 2001-2009 owed much to Museeuw's leadership and his willingness to recruit a young Tom Boonen to serve as his apprentice. When Museeuw retired, Boonen was ready to take up the mantle of the Lion of Flanders. Boonen is still only 31, but QSI needs to start thinking of the next great hire. For the time being at least, Boonen seems to have kicked his recreational drug habit ...

Succession planning issues also arise in the domestiques' ranks. When Boonen was under suspension or non-performance due to injuries, his merry band of Flemings dispersed. The team managed to re-hire Gert Steegmans, but it is worth noting that in the last Paris-Roubaix they had to field a few newbies. This is not a good sign for the team whose domestiques' ranks used to be deeper than USPS' TdF domestiques' ranks.

2. The UCI points system. 

The UCI points system demands that teams earn points in order to guarantee status, team car position in the race caravan, and other benefits. Unfortunately, QSI had no real points-earners other than their top stars. In recent years they had hired Chicchi and Ciolek, both respected sprinters at the time of their hiring, but neither succeeded in winning races. This in turn put pressure back on Boonen to contend in sprints, something he has said he didn't like to do.

In any case, there is no denying that the lack of points early in 2011 was cause for concern. Boonen had to change his preferred program of racing E3 ahead of de Ronde to racing (and winning) Gent-Wevelgem instead, because GW would net World Tour points.

It's hard to argue that Boonen's results would have been better if he had raced E3, but the points system has put pressure on the team has made them re-think their recruiting and racing strategy.

3. Strong pressure to perform.

That Lefevere was running into money problems was not a secret. He had to take cash infusion from Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala and cede majority control of his management company.

On to performance pressure, the team basically has two mini-seasons. First is the spring classics mini-season including a few short stage races such as Paris-Nice. Second is the Tour de France. It is telling that these days they rely on the same star riders for both mini-seasons.

In the past QSI itself consisted of two mini-teams, one built around Museeuw and Boonen for the cobbles and one built around Paolo Bettini for the hilly classics, the Giro, and the fall classics. In the Tour de France, the best of both are selected and allowed to take their chances. This reduced overall pressure on the team and gave them more than just two small windows of opportunity.

4. Bad luck all around.

It may sound lame to blame relatively poor performance to bad luck, but having said that Boonen's chain suck in the middle of the forest of Arenberg and Chavanel's crashes were unusual. It is said that riders who are in better shape have much fewer crashes and flats, but it's hard to argue that the two weren't in good shape after their showing in de Ronde. Both continued their poor luck into the Tour de France.

Looking ahead to 2012.

Team manager Lefevere is the most successful manager in the classics today. His list of accomplishments is ridiculously long: he has led riders including Johan Museeuw (of whom he said that all his riders are equal, but Museeuw has a special place), Paolo Bettini, Stijn Devolder, and now Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel. He is demanding and I suspected he broke the fragile heart of Frank Vandenbroucke after the latter was chastised for not trying hard enough. Recently Stijn Devolder left after being criticized for betting everything on only one race, de Ronde.

Clearly eager to not repeat 2011, Lefevere has taken several mitigating steps as it looks ahead to 2012 and beyond.

First is the acquisition of Levi Leipheimer and Tony Martin. These riders guarantee coverage across a wider range and aspect of the season, with Leipheimer certain to get significant (north American) press come Tour of California and Tour de France. Tony Martin is very likely to earn a medal in the Olympics time trial, maybe a gold one. Further, Slovak Martin Velits can challenge the spring classics and twin brother Peter Velits can challenge the later part of the season.

The question now is not whether they are too narrow in focus, but whether they are too broad in focus. They run the risk of chasing too many butterflies and ending up with none.

Second is the acquisition of a major co-sponsor OmegaPharma. This reduces financial pressure and allows the team to make investments with a longer view, i.e., to hire younger potential stars and keep them around. We suspect that having been in the business for a long time, Lefevere is acutely aware of this issue, especially after being snubbed by Philippe Gilbert as his star shone brightly in 2011.

How do you think will OmegaPharma-QuickStep fare in 2012 and what do you think they should do?

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