Blazin' Saddles: Can Deceuninck-QuickStep win all five Monuments?
With Julian Alaphilippe making it four wins in the opening four spring classics of the year for Deceuninck-QuickStep at Strade Bianche on Saturday, is it feasible for the Belgian team to pull off a Monumental whitewash in 2019? Our Eurosport cycling journalist Felix Lowe asks the important questions and weighs up the chances of the self-styled Wolfpack.
Winning with sang froid on his Strade Bianche debut on Saturday, Julian Alaphilippe became the latest Deceuninck-QuickStep rider to top the podium in what is proving to be yet another blistering campaign for Patrick Lefevere's Belgian team.
Fittingly, Alaphilippe took the win by getting the better of the other stand-out team of the season, as Astana's Jakob Fuglsang settled for second place after a spirited performance over the white roads around Siena. Alaphilippe's Tuscan triumph made it four from four for QuickStep, who many now believe could go on to secure an unprecedented clean-sweep of cycling's Monuments.
Hang on, talk about jumping the gun – they haven't won one yet
Ah, the voice of reason. But Milan-Sanremo – the first of the five one-day Monuments in the season – is less than a fortnight away and nobody looks like they can stop Deceuninck-QuickStep at this rate.
Are they really riding that well?
Put simply, yes.
Alaphilippe's victory in Strade Bianche came after solo wins for Zdenek Stybar at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Bob Jungels in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and a first career win for Florian Senechal in Le Samyn. The Frenchman seamlessly swapped Belgian cobbles for Tuscan gravel as Deceuninck-QuickStep showed that they can race on multiple terrains and all over Europe and still keep the impressive winning run going.
Has a full-house of Monuments ever been done before?
Never – although QuickStep came close in 2006 when Filippo Pozzato won Milan-Sanremo, Tom Boonen won the Tour of Flanders and Paolo Bettini won the Tour of Lombardy, with Boonen and Bettini both finishing runners-up in Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege respectively.
In fact, that marked only the third time in history that the same team had picked up podium places in all five Monuments: Leopard-Trek managed it in 2011 (despite just the single win: Oliver Zaugg at Lombardy) and QuickStep pulled it off again in 2017 – again, with just the one win (Gilbert in Flanders).
Michal Kwiatkowski pips Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe in Milan-Sanremo 2017Imago
That man Alaphilippe – which Monument could he win, then?
Alaphilippe is probably best suited to the hillier Ardennes classics, and he's been knocking on the door in both Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia.
Is Alaphilippe the team's only option in Milan-Sanremo?
Hardly. Veteran Philippe Gilbert has twice finished third on the Via Roma – and he will have been heartened to see Vincenzo Nibali win in the way he did last year. Fellow Belgian Yves Lampaert – a workhorse very much of the same ilk as Gilbert – makes his MSR debut this year, too.
Meanwhile, if it comes down to a bunch sprint, no one has been consistently faster than Elia Viviani these past two years. The Italian's record at Milan-Sanremo is not good: his best finish is ninth and he was 19th last year. But Viviani has grown in ability and confidence since joining QuickStep from Team Sky; you would write him off at your peril.
Won't they rue Niki Terpstra's departure at Flanders?
Well, they didn't miss Terpstra too much at Le Samyn, did they? Now at Direct Energie, the Dutch defending champion was in the main move but had no answers when Senechal opened up the sprint, settling for third place amid a sea of blue QuickStep riders.
Terpstra may have won both Roubaix and Flanders while at the Belgian outfit, but such is his former team's strength in depth, there are many capable of taking up the baton.
Stybar has three times finished in the top 10 at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gilbert soloed to glory in 2017 and this year Jungels is making his maiden appearance: those are three very good cards to play. And while potential joker Lampaert has yet to crack Flanders, he's a double winner of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, so the ability is there.
Ah, but without Boonen, surely they'll be hamstrung at Paris-Roubaix?
It's true that, Terpstra's solo win aside, the last time QuickStep tasted success in the Roubaix velodrome was back in 2012 when Boonen nailed his record-equalling fourth cobblestone crown.
But Stybar has twice finished runner-up and entered the top 10 on three more occasions. Now he's finally won his first Flemish classic, perhaps the floodgates will open for the Czech powerhouse?
Then there's Gilbert, who specifically targeted Roubaix last year after his Flanders win edged him closer to his own Monument grand slam – a goal he still believes is feasible. It didn't work out – he finished a solid if unspectacular 15th – but he'll certainly be among the dangermen come April 14.
QuickStep's notorious strength in depth shines through elsewhere: Senechal is a Paris-Roubaix junior champion from 2011, Lampaert finished seventh in 2015 while practically still a junior, while the tyro everyone's talking about – Remco Evenepoel – has been tipped to be the new Boonen.
With Jungels on form, they'll be dangerous at Liege-Bastogne-Liege…
Too true. Jungels has built on his Liege-winning form from last season with victory in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ahead of his Flanders debut. A win in the Ronde would be a surprise given his inexperience on those particular cobbled bergs – but the Luxembourg champion will surely be among the favourites in the Ardennes.
But, once again, QuickStep's power in numbers could be crucial: Alaphilippe was fourth last year and runner-up in his maiden appearance in 2015, while Gilbert, of course, was victorious at Ans in 2011.
Things get a bit more unpredictable at Il Lombardia, don't they?
Indeed, they do. While Gilbert is a double winner of the Race of the Falling Leaves, his last scalp came nine years ago and so he won't exactly be playing on momentum.
But if in doubt, go for Alaphilippe: the Frenchman seems to get better at every type of racing by the day, and he was runner-up at Lake Como two years ago.
Bish, bash, bosh: there's your full house of Deceuninck-QuickStep wins!
Come on, it's just not as easy as that!
Of course, it's not. And you're right to preach caution. As we established before: no team has ever won all five Monuments in one season and simply finishing on the podium in all five races has only been achieved on three occasions this millennium (although both Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly almost managed it single-handedly twice in their careers).
So, a bit of perspective is perhaps in order. QuickStep may be known as the leading classics team, but they haven't exactly bullied the field in Monuments over the past decade.
Sure, last year they won twice through Terpstra (Flanders) and Jungels (Liege) but the year before their only win came from Gilbert (Flanders). That followed a two-year barren run dating back to Dan Martin's win at Il Lombardia in 2014, the same year Terpstra won Roubaix.
The year before, in 2013, Martin (now at UAE Team Emirates) won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the year before that was Boonen's last Flanders-Roubaix double – repeating the shared feat that came in 2008 and 2009 through Stijn Devolder (Flanders) and Boonen (Roubaix).
So, the last time QuickStep won three Monuments in a single season – let alone five! – was in 2006 through Pozzato (MSR), Boonen (Flanders) and Bettini (Lombardia).
Deceuninck-QuickStep train ahead of the 2019 'Opening Weekend' of Flemish ClassicsGetty Images
To summarise, how likely is a Monument whitewash?
Extremely unlikely. They may be proving themselves to be, hands down, the strongest, savviest and shrewdest classics team in the business right now, but there are so many variables in one-day races – weather, crashes, punctures et cetera – especially races that are well over 200 kilometres.
Funnily enough, the likelihood is that this idle speculation will be over within a fortnight because QuickStep could well fall at the first hurdle: while the likes of Alaphilippe, Gilbert and Viviani will be among the favourites on the Via Roma, QuickStep have not won Milan-Sanremo in 13 years.
Perhaps before fans get carried away, we should wait and see whether winning all five is a mathematical possibility after the first race is done. That said, if the odds are good, then given their form, it may be worth putting on a little punt sooner rather than later.
Deceuninck-QuickStep on a training camp in 2019Getty Images
Finally, do QuickStep get off lightly compared to, say, Team Sky?
Ah, I see what you're driving at: when Team Sky boss the Grand Tours it's met with scepticism and rumour-mongering whereas QuickStep are lauded as one-day monoliths.
Well, the scandals that have dogged Sky over the past couple of years hardly help, but there does seem to be some double standards going on, for sure.
It's probably something to do with the way Sky go about securing their wins: more often than not, they come as a result of the entire team setting a ferocious tempo on the front of the peloton for hours on end, whittling down the pack before their star rider – whether that's Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas or someone else – delivers the killer blow.
When QuickStep do this – and let's remember, they have had serious power in numbers at the pointy end of all their winning races so far this year – it is welcomed by fans. Perhaps this comes down to the thrilling nature of one-day racing: the accumulative effect of Sky's stranglehold in Grand Tours can be seen as stifling and boring, whereas QuickStep adapt to the conditions and circumstances before the counter returns to zero at the end of each race.
So, in a nutshell, QuickStep do get off lightly – but for understandable reasons. It's probably unfair that Sky are lambasted so much whereas their classics counterparts are widely celebrated. After all, no team had more stage wins in Grand Tours over the past two years than... Quick-Step.
Care to make a quick final prediction?
Right now, five out of five wins seems very much possible. But surely it won't happen. The law of averages will see QuickStep fall by the wayside here and there – and we haven't even welcomed Peter Sagan back yet. They'll probably win two Monuments this year, and quite possibly with the same rider: Julian Alaphilippe.
They could have at least one man on the podium in all five, mind.