News feature, July 29, 2005
Crazy about Tom
The Tour's over, but for Quick.Step-Innergetic, the season's far from finished
Quick.Step-Innergetic general manager Patrick Lefevre went into the 2005 Tour de France with high ambitions. What he wanted was a few stage wins and overall victory in the green jersey competition from his star rider Tom Boonen as well as a top-10 finish in Paris with Michael Rogers - but the end result was that his team realised only one of out three objectives. Cyclingnews' Anthony Tan talked to him about what went wrong, and finds one of cycling's wise old men is still incredibly motivated by thoughts of a rainbow jersey.
Every once in a while, a rider comes along which Patrick Lefevre just can't let go. Once, it was Johan Museeuw. Then it was Paolo Bettini. Now it's Tom Boonen.
"Well, I think I can say that even though I don't have such a big budget anymore, the image of my team, Quick.Step-Innergetic, is still one of the three best in the world - and that's important," said Lefevre to Cyclingnews, speaking about the difference between his time at the helm of super-team Mapei in the 90s and today.
"We are very professional and we have charismatic riders; I had until last year [Richard] Virenque, I had [Johan] Museeuw, and now I have Boonen and Bettini... people like our team."
While he was reminiscing about the good old days, we felt it was a good time to ask a man who has seen Lance Armstrong come, grow, win and now leave the sport on the highest of high notes, what it means.
Said Lefevre: "I understand his decision; I have a lot of respect for Armstrong the athlete, because coming back after his illness was not so easy. I can only say that I have a lot of respect for the way he did it - he took cycling to a higher level and professionalism, and I wish him a good life after his career."
Though for 24 year-old Tom Boonen, his career's only just getting started.
There's no doubting the winner of this year's Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix would have been a popular winner of the green jersey competition. At the end of the first week, Boonen was leading the classification thanks to his two back-to-back stage wins in Les Essarts and Tours, as well as a second place to Robbie McEwen in Montargis. But on Stage 11, he crashed heavily on his right side descending Courchevel and required a 150 kilometre escort from Guido Trenti all the way to Brianšon.
"I don't know how I got to Brianšon with the bike," said Boonen to sportwereld.be after the stage. "I rate this performance higher than both of my wins in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. I couldn't stand up for the first two minutes. It was as if there was something broken behind my right knee. I couldn't stay in the saddle because of the pain."
It turned out Boonen had a hairline fracture in his knee, with a build-up of liquid preventing him from riding his bike until last week. When asked how he was doing, Lefevre answered: "I talked to him two days ago, and he was getting 20cc of liquid out of his knee again, but he feels better. He's been doing a little training, one to two hours, not fast, [averaging] 27 kilometres per hour."
However, being the last day of the Tour de France, and seeing Credit Agricole's Thor Hushovd walk past, looking resplendent in the maillot vert, it was hard to be optimistic. "After Boonen went home, the classification didn't change, so I can maybe say he would have won the green jersey.
"Then after, I was disappointed because [Michael] Rogers came for a top 10, and didn't start well with a disappointing time trial on the first day, and in the mountains, he wasn't good, either," Lefevre continued. "Maybe he has some excuse... at the start of the Tour of Switzerland, he was sick, but he came back to win, though on the last day, he lost against Aitor Gonzalez and he spent a lot of strength there - I think that was the problem."
Lefevre, for one reason or another, has never been able to recruit a rider who has been able to seriously challenge for the podium at the Tour de France, so it's little surprise to see his disappointment with Rogers at the Grand Boucle - or the fact that next year, he will centre almost the entire team around one man.
Asked if it's a little dangerous to do so, especially in light of Boonen's current injury, he said: "I'm not nervous."
Continued Lefevre, "You have Armstrong, you have Basso and you have Ullrich. After that, you have a lot of riders; they don't have the same charisma of Tom Boonen - they are good riders, but after tomorrow, nobody remembers who was fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. You have to have a very good climber who can do something spectacular in the mountains, or you have a guy who has the charisma to be a real leader the next few years - and unfortunately, I don't have the money to buy him."
However, the departure of Rogers and Patrik Sinekwitz to T-Mobile did free up the Quick.Step trust fund somewhat. The day before Cyclingnews spoke with Lefevre, he signed Fassa Bortolo rider and one of Alessandro Petacchi's main lead-out men, Matteo Tosatto, and a few days before that, Steven de Jongh and Kevin Van Impe also penned their names on the dotted line.
"Now, I'm going to sign two young Italian guys, who are climbers," he added. "We will see, I am not nervous at the moment; the market hasn't moved so much, so I think a lot of riders are looking for a new contract and there are less teams who have money, so we will see."
Although the discontinuation of Fassa Bortolo freed up the market and enabled him to snap up Tosatto, Lefevre isn't rejoicing in terms of the bigger picture. "It's not a good thing for cycling; when a good team like Fassa Bortolo with Petacchi doesn't find a sponsor, that's not a good sign. I was disappointed for them, because [Giancarlo] Ferretti's a real professional and it was a beautiful team, but that's life," he said.
Amidst all the success Boonen's had the past two years, it's easy to forget that the rest of Lefevre's team aren't a bunch of no-hopers. They still have Olympic champion Bettini, Filippo Pozzato and Luca Paolini, who are all preparing themselves for the August classics, and a little further down the road, the world road championships in Madrid.
"Paolini's contract is near the end, so I think he will be a little bit... hungry," Lefevre added with a smile. "I hope my Spanish guys, [JosÚ Antonio] Pecharroman and [Juan Miguel] Mercado, will be good at the Vuelta; Mercado won the Tour of Austria during the Tour, so we will see. HEW-Cyclassics may be a bit early for Bettini because he just started training again, but San Sebastian and afterwards, I think he will be in good form; he will do the Vuelta and then the World's in Madrid."
But with talk turning to the World's, the conversation ultimately reverts back to Boonen.
"He has a real chance. He's fast, he's good... I hope that the Belgian coach [Jose De Cauwer] will have the intelligence to put the best men [to ride] for Tom and not look at politics to try and satisfy everybody in Belgium, like they always do.
"I'm crazy about this jersey," grinned Lefevre when asked how nice it would be to have the rainbow jersey in his team. "I had it a few times on the team, and I'm crazy about this jersey... it's the most beautiful jersey that exists."