Quick-Step Floors were the sport’s team with the most wins in 2017 for the fifth year in a row. Among their 56 triumphs, the highlights were Philippe Gilbert’s wins at the Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race, Marcel Kittel’s five Tour stage wins and Fernando Gaviria’s Giro quartet. Little wonder the squad’s CEO Patrick Lefevere was ebullient during his theatre interview at the recent Rouleur Classic.
Yet even pro cycling’s most successful team is not to immune to the sport’s general problems. Lefevere only secured Quick Step’s sponsorship for the future in June. How does he see the present state of the sport? “It’s all people who pay for their hobby, it’s not healthy,” Lefevere said.
“Andy Rihs, BMC, Bakala, Orica [Gerry Ryan]. And you look at FDJ, it’s the ministry, the government. Lotto-Soudal: Belgian government, LottoNL-Jumbo, UAE, Bahrain, the government too.”
Does he worry about Quick Step? “I don’t because I’m an old man, I can go and retire tomorrow. But I worry about cycling because in my heart, there’s still a bike. I want this beautiful sport to go on.
“And don’t listen to [UCI president] Mr Lappartient about six riders [in each Grand Tour team in the future] because he doesn’t know anything about it,” Lefevere said, eliciting applause from the Rouleur Classic theatre audience.
He was in a mischievous mood. Asked about the future stars of the Classics, Lefevere replied: “I believe in instinct and scouting … if Gaviria can keep his feet on the ground, he will be very promising. Of course there’s Gianni Moscon. He’s very strong – if he keeps his hands on the handlebars.”
In Alaphilippe, Gilbert, Stybar and Terpstra as well as the Colombian sprinter, Lefevere is a man with options for future Monuments. “We will share leaders for the Classics for the next years. I will never put all my money on one rider. No way,” Lefevere said.
However, the Belgian is sad to lose Matteo Trentin to Orica-Scott next season. The Italian won four Vuelta stages and Paris-Tours this autumn and had been with the team since turning pro in 2012. “So he went, and then he started winning. We had a little party in Madrid and we were both sad. Because I knew I lost a real Quick Step guy, but he knew that probably he signed [with Orica] too early.”
Lefevere has a history of turning talent into bona fide stars, from Tom Boonen to Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe. But the prospect of the modern generation got away. Peter Sagan went for a test with the team as a 17-year-old in 2007. “Unfortunately, I was a bit stupider then than now and I didn’t have a translator. Peter didn’t speak English or Italian then,” Lefevere said.
“I think two years ago I was able to take him [on at Quick Step], of course for a lot of money, but he’d bring eleven people. I think he asked for four riders and the rest was staff.
“I don’t want an island on my team. I have one team, there’s one boss and everybody is very clear who that is – me. There are no favourites. Boonen, Gaviria, Cavendish, of course they have privileges, they can ask to have a team-mate but not 11 people. It disturbs a team so much. For Bora-Hansgrohe, it was a gift they had to take with both hands. But I couldn’t. With the level we are at, if I took Sagan, I’d have no team anymore.”
Arguably, Lefevere didn’t need him either. Until his retirement after this year’s Paris-Roubaix, he could rely on Tom Boonen, the outstanding star of Belgian sport. In all, he spent 15 seasons with Quick Step and Lefevere. The pair go way back.
“I went to a race with these 15 and 16 year old kids and I saw three riders: Tom Boonen, Roy Sentjens and Gert Steegmans,” he recalls. “Sentjens was the best, then Steegmans, then Boonen.
“They grew up, the sports directors from your youth team want to promote their riders. I said ‘I want Gilbert and Boonen’, and they said Boonen has a big arse and he never pulls on the front. But then he went to US Postal and I saw he was third in Paris-Roubaix  and not happy.
“One day I was alone in my car and Paul De Geyter, Boonen’s agent, called me, asked if I was alone and said ‘are you interested in Tom Boonen?’ I said ‘are you kidding me?’
“I parked my car, he said Boonen wants to go, but there’s a fine to pay and they cannot pay it. Don’t worry, I pay it. So I signed Boonen for two years, make them pay back the fine. But after five months, I signed him for another three years and the rest is history.”