Soudal Quick-Step Team Talk: Can Remco Evenepoel steady an unsettled ship?

Reviewing the Belgian team's good but not amazing 2023 season, and looking ahead to a more Grand Tour-focused future

Clock15:28, Monday 6th November 2023
Remco Evenepoel is central to Soudal Quick-Step's plans

© Sprint Cycling Agency

Remco Evenepoel is central to Soudal Quick-Step's plans

It has been an unsettled off-season for Soudal Quick-Step who were nearly swallowed into the Jumbo-Visma machine. Headlines spoke of a ‘merger’ but in reality what was on the table was more of a takeover, with the Dutch set-up effectively cherry-picking sponsors and riders from Quick-Step, possibly leaving one of cycling’s institutional teams as good as gone.

All that never came to pass but, while it may look like things quickly went ‘back to normal’ on the surface, the anxiety and perceived injustice of those couple of weeks won’t be forgotten quickly. For a team that calls itself the 'Wolfpack', with a motto of 'no wolf being left behind', you have to wonder about the knock-on effect on morale within the team going forward.

If there was uncertainty surrounding the team’s future, then it followed from uncertainty surrounding the team’s star rider, Remco Evenepoel. Rumours that he was flirting with other teams began over a year ago, but intensified in the summer, with notable tensions between team boss Patrick Lefevere and Evenepoel’s father, also named Patrick. The team had already begun to lean away from its traditional identity – the Classics and sprinting being their bread and butter for many a year – in favour of Evenepoel’s stage racing ambitions, and the young Belgian called for more.

Read more: Remco Evenepoel considering Giro d'Italia Tour de France double, Lefevere 'advises against'

Whether Lefevere has fully satisfied the desires of the Evenepoels remains to be seen, but Remco is, now more than ever, the central figure of this team. The misfiring cobbled Classics department hasn’t had much investment, double world champion Julian Alaphilippe has struggled for a couple of years, and gone is the lead sprinter, Fabio Jakobsen.

Evenepoel, meanwhile, is set to take centre stage on the biggest stage of all in 2024: the Tour de France. A debut and leadership at the world’s biggest race beckons, against the likes of Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar. It will be a huge moment for both the rider and team.

GCN’s 2023 Review

Soudal Quick-Step didn’t seem to have the greatest of seasons, based on feel, but the stats tell a slightly different story, a testament to the winning machine that has been created over the years that, well, it just keeps on rolling. There were 55 in total, flattered somewhat by a clean sweep at the Tour of Slovakia, but still containing five stage wins across all three Grand Tours, plus a Monument.

It was Evenepoel who provided the high points, winning 12 of those 55 races, with the UAE Tour GC to start off, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the world champ’s jersey in the Spring, plus a stage in the Giro and three in the Vuelta. He also added the world time trial title to replace the road race rainbow jersey, but still, there will be a tinge of disappointment given he came away with no Grand Tour GC result to speak of. COVID-19 was an unfortunate sucker punch when he looked like the runaway favourite near the half-way point of the Giro, but his dramatic off-day at the Vuelta was legitimately concerning, raising questions over his robustness that will carry into 2024.

Read more: Remco Evenepoel and Soudal Quick-Step left shell-shocked after complete Vuelta a España collapse

For the second season in a row, Evenepoel won Liège to ‘save’ Quick-Step’s Classics campaign. The Belgian team used to dominate the Spring and although bad luck and crashes provided mitigating factors once again, there was very much a sense that they’d lost their perch, especially given the quality of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, not to mention new kid on the cobbles, Tadej Pogačar.

In that respect, Alaphilippe once seemed to belong to the electrifying top echelon of the sport, but, despite a stage win at the Dauphiné, has seen his status slip with another anonymous campaign.

In terms of sprinting, Fabio Jakobsen laid claim to being the best in the world at the start of the season but was unable to back it up. Injuries ruined his Tour but still, seven victories for the year won’t have satisfied his expectations. Instead, it was Tim Merlier, the supposed second-tier sprinter, who led the line with 11 wins, including a stage at Paris-Nice.

All in all, it doesn’t sound like the happiest of campaigns for the team. And yet, several riders chipped in to take the win tally to 55 – not quite the 60s and 70s they were hitting a few years ago but still very fruitful – and the UCI ranking to third – way behind UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma but ahead of Ineos Grenadiers. This is a team in the midst of some soul-searching, but still managing to fire on many cylinders.

GCN rating: 7/10

Good, but not as good as it once was, and not as good as it should be.

Ins & Outs

After a merry little dance around the subject, and after the brush with Jumbo-Visma, Evenepoel has openly committed his future to the team, with a contract that runs through 2026. In terms of his ever-growing support network, the marquee new arrival is Mikel Landa, who’ll park his own Grand Tour ambitions to become a dedicated domestique.

The Landa signing will divide opinion, given the Basque rider will soon be 34 and isn’t best known for his self-sacrifice – #FreeLanda was a social media joke/campaign for a good few years. On the other hand, he was fifth at this year’s Vuelta and third at last year’s Giro. The bigger point is that he’s the only real addition to the Evenepoel group, and it wasn’t for lack of trying, with several approaches for the likes Laurens De Plus and George Bennett coming to nothing.

The team’s new faces for 2024 are mainly fresh ones, with four riders graduating from their own development team, and two from others’. Meanwhile, they’re losing some key riders, with the sprinting arm weakened not only by Jakobsen’s departure to dsm-firmenich but also acclaimed lead-out man Michael Mørkøv’s reunion with Mark Cavendish at Astana, as well as the exits of Davide Ballerini and Florian Sénéchal. With talented and useful riders like Andrea Bagioli, Mauro Schmid, and Tim Declercq also leaving, it’s difficult to argue anything other than the team being weaker than it was in 2023. There are still some spots open on the roster, but not many options available on the market at this point in the year.

Read more: Astana Qazaqstan sign Michael Mørkøv as Mark Cavendish aims at 2024 return

Where Soudal Quick-Step’s wins will come in 2024

Evenepoel is at the heart of the team’s fortunes for 2024. He won the most races of any of their riders in 2023 and will surely head into the double figures once again given just how good he can be on his best days. The big question is around his Grand Tour success and that all-important Tour debut.

Expectations will be – and indeed already have been, by Lefevere – tempered by the staggering level of Vingegaard at the past two editions, and by Pogačar either side of his off-days. The Giro d’Italia, then, with its 68km of flatter time trialling, will be tempting, but for a rider who arguably came back too hurriedly from his pelvis break in 2020 and – as Lefevere has suggested – from COVID-19 this year, clarity is critical when building his campaign.

Read more: Patrick Lefevere has doubts about the level Remco Evenepoel can reach at the Tour de France

When it comes to sprinting, Quick-Step is no stranger to losing their leading light, operating something of a sprinter conveyor belt in recent years, so it’s no real concern that Jakobsen is leaving given Merlier’s qualities and the arrival of Luke Lamperti (more on him later). What’s more worrying is the lead-out unit, with Mørkøv, Sénéchal, and Ballerini all gone. What’s more, arch-peloton puller Tim Declercq won’t be around to control the early phases. Their status as the leading sprint unit is very much under threat now.

As for the Classics, that process has already begun, and again the loss of Declercq means they’ll be dictating proceedings even less, slotting into more of an underdog role. Still, it was only two years ago that Asgreen dispatched Van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders, while Yves Lampaert on his day can compete for podiums, and Alaphilippe can add a genuine threat if he can get back to his best and chooses to get back to the cobbles.

Tour de France, Classics, sprinting – they’re the pillars of Soudal Quick-Step’s season. Given the list of departures and the shortage of established replacements, there’ll be heightened importance on those areas, and particularly on the team’s big-name leaders. Lefevere has never been shy of criticising his higher-salaried employees and they’ll be well and truly in the firing line in 2024.

Soudal Quick-Step’s next breakout rider

Amid a slew of neo-pro signings, the one that stands out is Luke Lamperti, the 20-year-old from the USA. He’s perhaps best known for his criterium racing, winning the US title three years in a row, but he has impressed on the road with the Trinity Racing team that was initially set up to house Tom Pidcock. This year alone has brought nine wins, including a stage win at the U23 Giro d’Italia and the gravel-peppered Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic in the UK.

It’s those two races that encapsulate Lamperti’s skillset: sprinting and the Classics. His finishing speed is clear and it’ll be interesting to see how Quick-Step – who have a great track record of getting success out of young sprinters – handle him in that respect. He’s the kind of rider who likes less of a pure sprint stage and more of a hard race, which bleeds into his Classics potential – the CiCLE Classic featuring numerous off-road sectors.

At 20, Lamperti will need time to find his feet at WorldTour level, but there’s a degree of excitement around his signing that suggests this is a rider with bags of potential who may not waste much time making his mark.

Do you agree with our take on Soudal Quick-Step's season? Can they get close to their old winning ways in 2024? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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