Eyewitness: Etixx-QuickStep in Calpe

Tony Martin pulls to the side of the road and waits for the following car.
A time-trial bike is lifted from the roof and handed to him. He climbs aboard, receives a push start from the mechanic and settles into position.
A people carrier filled with journalists pulls alongside. The large, sliding door is opened to its fullest extent, offering a window on one of the finest time trialists the sport has seen. It is a rare privilege.
Martin’s prowess on the time-trial bike is not the story today, however. The combination of brute force and skill he has brought to the race of truth is long-established. Of greater interest is his recently announced interest in the Northern Classics. How might he fare?
“People have already told me for years that I should try the cobbled Classics. I was not ready for it,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it seriously for a year, and after the stage win at the Tour de France, on the cobbles, I was pretty sure that I should try now. This is the right time for me.”
There is a world of difference, however, between a cobbled Tour stage and the Queen of the Classics, but don’t take my word for it: Jakob Fuglsang finished second on stage five of the 2014 Tour, after shepherding his leader Vincenzo Nibali over nine secteurs on a 152.5km stage from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.
“You have maybe 20 guys on the GC who want to be in the front and ten other guys that want to do well, who are normally the cobblestone specialists,” he told me this time last year, at a hotel along  the coast. “The rest, they just want to survive these days, so it’s not the big fight as at Paris-Roubaix, where 200 guys want to be the first on every secteur.”

It says much for Etixx-QuickStep’s strength in depth that Martin is only now considering an assault on the Northern Classics, nine seasons into his professional career.
Even now, it is his decision. He has not been called upon to prop up the team’s ambitions. With Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra, the Belgian squad has three leaders capable of winning the biggest prizes of spring.
The team that has existed under various names, all including ‘QuickStep’, for the last 12 years has won 500 times, bagging 15 Monument Classics along the way. Last season alone they added 56 victories to their tally, more than any of their rivals.
In 2016, the team’s ambition will extend to the Ardennes Classics, as well as those of the north.
Last year, the Ardennes were something of a face-saver – Michal Kwiatkowski’s victory at the Amstel Gold Race and Julian Alaphilippe’s breakthrough performances at Fléche and Liège (second to the vastly more experienced Alejandro Valverde on both occassions) – after a fruitless campaign on the cobbles.
“We’re one of the very few teams that can win every one of the Classics,” new recruit Daniel Martin told me in Calpe.
The Irishman, who came within 300 metres of back-to-back victories at Liège in 2014, will strengthen Etixx-QuickStep’s Ardennes arsenal significantly. The official line is that he will mentor young Alaphilippe too: a huge implied compliment to Martin. Then there is the signing of talented 23-year-old Bob Jungels from Trek Factory Racing.
“Julian, myself and Bob are three different riders who can get results,” Martin said. “We each have different characteristics, but we complement each other. We can win in different ways; however the race pans out.”

Martin is arguably the most underrated rider in the sport – two times a Monument winner, two times a Grand Tour stage winner, and twice a winner of prestigious week-long stage races – and while he is in demand from the journalists who have descended upon Calpe, the greatest scrum falls around another major signing.
Marcel Kittel has already banished the demons of his season from hell, if judged by his mood on the Costa Blanca. He is affable and amusing, fencing with reporters in good spirit, and giving every indication of being comfortable in his new surroundings.
There is little doubt who is the new star of the team. Kittel has lost none of his lustre, despite an almost entirely barren campaign last season. Most attest to the aphorism concerning the relative longevity of class and form.
Tom Boonen – routinely, but accurately described as the team’s talisman – has combined the two for decades. Now 35, he hopes for an injury-free campaign, the last to be pitted against long-term rival Fabian Cancellara, who has declared that 2016 will be his final season. Will it be more special as a result?
“It will be for him,” Boonen quips. “I hope it will be more special for me.”
The first dipping of the sun reminds everyone that this is January after all, even in sunny Calpe. Media duties performed, the riders return to the hotel and the journalists to their laptops.

EQS is a team at ease with itself, but the focus on winning is unmistakeable, even at such an early stage of the season. Niki Terpstra is already busy at the Rotterdam Six and Fernando Gaviria has remained in Colombia to shorten the journey to the Tour de San Luis, where he first served notice on the WorldTour by winning two stages, ahead of Mark Cavendish, last year.
Kwiatkowski, Rigoberto Uran and Cavendish have departed, but in Martin, Jungels and Kittel, they have adequate replacements, and in new sponsor LIDL, a backer from outside of cycling’s traditional sponsor base.
The team’s horizons have broadened, even if, in the eyes of the Belgian media especially, it will stand or fall on its performance in at De Ronde and Roubaix. It will again run with the fastest sprinter in the world, despite the change in personnel, and must accomodate a winner of the hilly Monuments, as well as the biggest cobbled races.
It is a youthful outfit, despite the perception that EQS is a team of established talent. The average age is 26, and in 20-year-old Laurens de Plus, second in last year’s Baby Giro, and signed by EQS on a three-year deal, they have the youngest rider in the WorldTour.
“We are investing in young riders,” CEO Patrick Lefevere confirms. “I have a full-time scout who goes to all the races.”
They will run a development team again, to be known this season as Klein Constantia, in the hope of continuing a graduation that has brought Alaphilippe, Czech national champion Petr Vakoc and Poland’s Lukasz Wisniowski into the ranks of the senior team.
EQS will trade the mellow climate of the Costa Blanca for the wind and rain of Belgium come spring. Preparation has already begun in earnest.
Visit 1.cc again soon for full interviews with Tom Boonen, Daniel Martin, Marcel Kittel, and Tony Martin

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