Nobody hands out team grades before we even get to March or a few classics. Evaluations before Milan San Remo — seriously? Insane, pointless, bad form and poor taste. Except for Twisted Spoke. We always have our red pen ready to both embarrass and extoll.
So with barely a few races run, even we don’t an entire report card ready but we do have one grade and one observation: A+ for Pat (face almost as red as Pat McQuaid) Lefevere’s Quick Step Pharma crew. They have been smokin’ from day one and are showing signs of both rejuvenation and transformation.
Down on the flat and deserted and dusty roads of Qatar, former superstar Tom Boonen showed he is finally and fully recovered from the numerous crashes that have kept him from challenging Fabian Cancellara in the cobbled classics. He sounds happy, confident, tanned and ready to challenge again.
In the freaky Argentinean Tour of San Luis — also known as Alberto Contador’s last race before his CAS induced vacation — both Francesco Chicchi and Boonen won stages and new hire Levi Leipheimer won the overall. Chicchi has been an under-achiever for several years but perhaps the self-styled sheriff who loves American Westerns is finally ready to put a solid season together. All in all, you can’t ask for more revolution in South America.
Jump another week forward to the Big O, the Tour of Oman, the Belgium of the Middle East and another HTC-Highroad refugee Peter Velits wins the overall. More big media news for Quick-Step and clear indicators that the team has a new personality and far more firepower.
While world time trial champion Tony Martin has yet to start hitting the gas and breaking clocks, Paris-Nice may be the first place for him to make some noise. We all know that Cancellara has re-dedicated himself to being the best in the universe — and every great champion needs a tremendous rival — but every indication is that Martin will continue to place first or second in every time trial that matters. Spartacus and the emaciated Brit Bradley Wiggins have their work cut out for them.
Lefevere likes to downplay the big changes at Quick Step because to do otherwise would call attention to the slippage under his watch in the ancien regime. But even so, he’s clearly pleased with the results of what he calls the “facelift.” Most cosmetic surgery in Hollywood doesn’t go as well as the Quick Step skin job has so far.
Looking ahead we still have yet to see what we expect: results for an aggressive and opportunistic Sylvain Chavanel. The Frenchman was one of the big surprises in the 2010 Tour de France and we expect he’ll steal a major race with that Frenchie panache this year and a stage win in Le Tour wouldn’t be a huge surprise either.
The arrival of Leipheimer, Martin, Velits and the wise and aggressive leadership of HTC-Highroad director Sportif Brian Holm is already paying dividends. The general consensus was that Quick Step had been on auto-pilot for a few years, just riding Boonen’s dominance in Flanders and Roubaix. When that ended they were lost, behind the times, eating stale frites. But this ain’t your old Quick Step.
Now, maybe some of the old school Belgian guys will freak out when they see what Leipheimer eats for dinner and what crazy recovery tools he and his personal sports physiologist Allen Lim have cooked up. Maybe they don’t want to wear those inflatable Normatec boots after a race. But there’s no arguing with results and the little guy from Montana won the Tour de Suisse, inaugural US Pro Cycling Challenge and came in second at the Tour of California at age 38.
We don’t know if the “facelift” analogy really goes far enough. We’re talking about a mind, body and soul lift. A+ for the Quick Stepping Pharma boys in late February.