Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Patrick Lefevere and the Yellow Jersey: Unconsummated Lust

As the boss of OmegaPharma-QuickStep, and with his history in MG-GB, Mapei, and Domo-Farm Frites, it can be argued that Patrick Lefevere is one of the most successful among modern cycling managers. His riders have won every classic at least once, and their domination of the spring classics is so complete that longtime fans rue that too much time has past since his team's last 1-2-3 win in Paris-Roubaix. Add to this multiple World Cup wins, World Championships, and stage wins / jersey wins in the grand tours.

Patrick Lefevere, from Wikipedia Commons.

One glaring omission is that Patrick Lefevere has never won the general classification (GC) of the Tour de France (TdF). In this article we recall his various attempts to buy, grow, cajole GC champions for the TdF.

To start with, let's recall the last time Lefevere had a rider in the top-ten of the final GC of the TdF. Looking back in time, the last time this happened was in the 2000 TdF with Daniele Nardello.

But who is Daniele Nardello? Isn't he the classics guy who won the Championship of Zurich back in the day, and helped Andrea Tafi win the Ronde van Vlaanderen? Yep, that guy. Notably, Nardello also finished in the top ten in 1999 and 1998; in fact it has been pointed out that every single GC finishers ahead of him in those TdFs have been implicated for doping - either for those TdFs or at some other point in their careers - thus, Nardello could be the last clean guy standing. And yes, we are well aware that the state of GC history is in a huge flux right now, but we try our best and determined that Nardello was the last notable GC finisher of Lefevere.

If Lefevere's Yellow Jersey record is pitiful, it's not for lack of trying.

At the formation of the Quick-Step team in 2003, from the ashes of Mapei and Domo-Farm Frites, he boasted GC hopefuls Michael Rogers of Australia, and the Spanish duo of Juan Miguel Mercado and José Antonio Pecharroman. Rogers was a promising young talent then: not only was he a top TT rider, he showed surprising endurance in the mountains to help teammate Richard Virenque win his last King of Mountains jersey in the 2003 Tour de France. However, after a few Worlds TT wins, his climbing prowess appeared to fade away and he left the team in 2006 for T-Mobile. By all accounts, he has established himself as a reliable super-domestique.

Both Mercado and Pecharroman were recognized as emerging talents in 2003: both won multiple weeklong stage races and Mercado even won a stage of le Dauphiné Libéré. Mercado managed to win one stage of the TdF in 2004, even if he failed to contend for the GC. Pecharroman had a completely empty 2004 and 2005. Neither result was sufficiently pleasing to Lefevere and he bid his Spaniards adios. The two riders haven't had any significant results since.

Perhaps Lefevere was so eager to remove his two Spaniard GC dreams in order to make space for Venezuelan climbing sensation José Rujano.What a sensation he made in 2005 while riding for Colombia-Selle Italia: he went pedal-to-pedal with eventual winners of the Giro d'Italia and won the queen stage. His build was so slight and strange that it seemed no helmet was small enough to snugly fit his strange-shaped head. Colombia-Selle Italia knew the prize they held in their hands and made a deal so that Rujano would ride for them up until the end of the Giro, and then ride for Quick-Step for the Tour de France.

This crazy plan inevitably led to a disastrous outcome. Rujano abandoned the Giro on stage 8, with no clear explanation. He further left the team.

The next experiment was perhaps the most unusual and ill-conceived: the team endeavored to convert Stijn Devolder - who just won his first Tour of Flanders - into a GC hopeful for the 2008 Tour de France. It is perhaps instructive to read his Cyclingnews diary entry written at the pre-race meet in Brest.

It's going to be my first ever Tour de France. Up until now, I'm not noticing too many differences if I compare it to any other bike race, really. It doesn't feel different. To me, it compares best with the Spring Classics; there is a very important race coming up, like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
I've been working extremely hard for this one, for more than two months now. I hope to see the fruit of that, especially when the roads go uphill. I told the media this afternoon that I'm dreaming of yellow in Paris, but not this year. A top-10 result is more realistic, and that would be fantastic.

After much suffering, Devolder abandoned on Stage 15, after his GC dream was shattered to pieces. To his credit, he did keep a top-10 GC position up to the first high mountains stage.

His latest experiment was Levi Leipheimer. Perhaps Leipheimer came as part of the Specialized parcel. What better way to sell an American brand bicycle to Americans than to have an American GC contender? He had finished well in the grand tours in past editions - the Vuelta a Espana and the Tour de France - but were they fueled by performance-enhancing drugs? We may never find out what his natural talents really are, as he fell out of contention early in the 2012 Tour de France, and after all the doping scandal he may never ride for a top team again.

Should Lefevere give up on the Yellow Jersey? Share your thoughts below!

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