Quick Step have Spring in their step, now for the next challenge… Bettini and Garate are the men entrusted with the responsibilities.
The pressure is off at Quick Step, after winning the sport’s two most prestigious cobblestone classics this Spring. The clamouring press (largely Flemish in their makeup) are off their back, Tom Boonen can relax for a few months before another assault on the green jersey in July. However, being a squad with a strong Italianate edge, a strong showing at the Giro d’Italia is still high on the agenda. Inspirational captain and world champion Paolo Bettini will be searching to banish his run of bad luck with a stage win, with Juanme Garate their option for the GC. With the jersey of Italian national champion on his back, Giovanni Visconti is also a potential threat.
Quick Step for the 2008 Giro d'Italia
Paolo Bettini (Ita)
Alexander Efimkin (Rus)
Addy Engels (Ned)
Mauro Facci (Ita)
Juan Manuel Garate (Spa)
Hubert Schwab (Swi)
Kevin Seeldrayers (Bel)
Andrea Tonti (Ita)
Giovanni Visconti (Ita)
Bettini in full flight in Milano-San Remo Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti
The Giro d'Italia could well serve as Paolo Bettini's farewell Grand Tour. One of the generation's best Classics riders came so close to a stage win last year, denied by crashes, bad weather and mere inches. Despite crashing and breaking a rib at the Tour of the Basque Country – curse of the rainbow jersey, anyone? - the tenacious "Grillo" finished ninth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and will be hungry to shake off his bad luck with a couple of tappe and perhaps even the maglia rosa in the first ten days. On his day (and preferably a slightly uphill finish), Bettini can still mix it with the best fast men in the sport. Be it breakaway, hills or on the flat, he is still one of the most dangerous riders in the pack.
The "next Paolo Bettini" is also in attendance: the man Bettini believes will be his successor, Giovanni Visconti. Despite a poor showing in the Ardennes Classics, you can be sure the youngster will be looking to show what he’s worth in his home race, buoyed by the Italian tricolore jersey. After Devolder’s showing in the Tour of Flanders, I’m beginning to think this national champion kit provides the wearer with some kind of superpower.
Quick Step's last Giro stage win, courtesy of Juanme Garate on the Passo di San Pellegrino
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
The man entrusted with the overall responsibilities is Juan Manuel Garate. His record here speaks for itself and suggests a top-ten finish is likely for the former Spanish champion: seventh and a stage in 2006, fifth in 2005, tenth in 2004. His seventh-place finish in Switzerland last week suggests that his condition is good. If the opportunity presents itself, Garate will also be gunning for another stage, after the memorable "moment" where Jens Voigt rewarded him with the stage win on the Passo di Pellegrino two years ago.
Efimkin wins a stage at the Settimana Ciclista Lombardia in 2007.
A lot of racket is being made about Alexander Efimkin, another member of a cycling brother-double-act making waves in the sport. Twin brother Vladimir may have been a pro slightly longer, but since signing the contract with Barloworld in 2006, Alexander has put in consistently impressive rides. After completing his first Tour de France last year, the Russian finished tenth at Paris-Nice and sixteenth in Fleche Wallone in the spring. A finish in the top-twenty is a reasonable milestone for him in a race of such difficulty and grandeur.
What about Grand Tour debutant Kevin Seeldrayers? Largely overlooked, the talented Flandrian enjoyed a fine first year in the pro ranks in 2007, with fifth at the Tour of Georgia, and top-twenty finishes in the mountainous Tours of Catalunya and Austria. He could be the best Belgian stage racer since (ahem) the likes of Wim van Huffel and Kurt van de Wouwer. In all seriousness, Seeldrayers – five years Efimkin’s junior at just 21 years of age – has considerable climbing potential. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but I’m convinced this youngster will make a name for himself in the future.
Italians Andrea Tonti and Mauro Facci are both handy riders, as domestiques or in their own right. After years supporting Gilberto Simoni as a domestique for the mountains, Tonti has switched to Quick Step to back friend Bettini. Both he and Facci are good climbers, though perhaps not talented enough to reliably support Garate in the mountains when the hammer goes down. That said, former Fassa Bortolo rider Facci was Quick Step’s highest finisher last year, coming in 34th overall. He's known to like breakaways, so watch out for this man on the attack.
Finishing off the Quick Step team are Addy Engels and Hubert Schwab. Engels is a reliable domestique, and has finished the last three consecutive Giri d’Italia. Schwab, meanwhile, wore the maglia bianca of best young rider for a couple of days last year and made it into some breaks.
In Recent Years…
Plenty of second and third stage finishes last year thanks to Bettini and his apprentice Visconti, but a victory eluded them. However, that is something of an anomaly in that they won stages, the mountains jersey and wore the maglia rosa thanks to Bettini and Garate in the two years preceding that. History suggests that a stage win is likely when “Il Grillo” is in attendance; Quick Step will be hoping the same.
To Sum Up…
A Garate jour sans would extinguish any of their already fledgling GC hopes – the Spaniard is a fine top-10 rider, but no race winner – while still giving him carte blanche to escape to victory in prestigious mountain stage wins. It will be interesting to see how Quick Step and Garate play it. Considering the number of flat and hilly stages that could burn off the key fast men, you'd have to say that Bettini has a good chance of a stage or two, providing he's fully recovered from his injuries. Keep an eye out for Efimkin and Seeldrayers too.