INTERVIEW: PATRICK LEFEVERE
The man behind Belgian winning machine Quick-Step Floors, Patrick Lefevere, tells Procycling what drives him
The brains behind Quick-Step Floors on what keeps him motivated year after year
There is a photograph on the wall of Patrick Lefevere’s office in the anonymous building on an industrial estate near Kortrijk that houses the Quick-Step Floors team’s service course. It has been cropped long and thin, and shows a pencil-slender youth with wild curly hair, his eyes looking directly at the camera as he pedals slowly towards the photographer, with a bouquet of flowers on his handlebars.
There are trophies on the wall, fine artworks, and a jersey from a little-known team, Ebo, which Lefevere rode for, but the photograph is closest to his heart, you sense. It was taken in the Quick-Step boss’s second year as a junior, he says, a season when he won over 30 races. “I still have my notebooks,” he says, and pulls out of the cupboard a pile of lined exercise books. The writing inside would be neat for an adult, but for a teenage boy, it speaks of an almost painfully close attention to detail.
We met in April, as the Flemish Classics season was at its height; by October, QuickStep had won 73 times, wins headlined by the Tour of Flanders for Niki Terpstra and the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour de France for Julian Alaphilippe. Most importantly, perhaps, 14 of their 28 riders had crossed the line first. Quick-Step was, by a large margin, the most prolific team of 2018, and the key to that success lies in this office, in the head of their head honcho, and - arguably - in those notebooks.
The races in Lefevere’s notebooks are listed meticulously: the number of starters, the place, his performance, all in those tiny, perfect letters. There are press cuttings, photographs; everything a cyclist would keep. But it is the tiny, perfect writing that hits you. This is no youth scrawling down casual thoughts. This stuff mattered. It must have been everything this boy lived for. Lefevere is a driven man, and one who lives for detail. Why? Go back to his childhood in the village of Ledegem, not far from Roeselare, up the road from Kortrijk.
“I was left-handed,” he says, before going on to explain how at primary school he was subjected to an attempt to make him right-handed. “They bound my left hand to the chair arm.” When the teacher at his Catholic school asked if he was still writing with his left hand, Lefevere recalls, “I told him I was still doing it and I would never use my right. He hit me. I didn’t care.” The priest’s response was to tell him, “‘If you come here and ask for work, you will never get a job because you are left-handed.’
“I turned professional in 1976. After two years I went to another team, not quite the equivalent of WorldTour but a bit bigger and we were able to do the Vuelta.” There, he won a stage in 1978, aged 23; his other major professional win was KuurneBrussels-Kuurne. “Then I stopped in the middle of the season. I didn’t discuss it with anyone, I spoke to my uncle that morning – he was like my second father. I said to him, ‘This is the last time you put this bike in your car.’” Lefevere had no job to go to, but he had trained as a bookkeeper and he found his way into management at the Marc-Superia team. In one year, 1980, they won Omloop Het Volk with Eddy Merckx’s former domestic Jos Bruyère and mountain stages in the Tour de France with another former Merckx gregario, Jos de Schoenmaecker, and the journeyman, Ludo Loos. But none of the team’s Belgians were selected
“I write everything down. Every Monday morning I spend an hour looking at the papers, the internet, getting information”
for the 1980 Worlds at Sallanches, and the sponsor pulled out. Lefevere was only 25.
A year on, after the demise of his next team, IJsboerke, Lefevere went back to Marc, the soap company that had sponsored his first squad, bought a computer and taught himself to use it. Then he restructured the enterprise. From there it was back to cycling, often with Walter Godefroot, a Flandrian hardman iconic for his longevity, cunning and bloody-mindedness.
Most Belgian squads between 1981 and 1990 had Lefevere in there somewhere: Aernoudt, Hitachi, Lotto, Domex, TVM - a brief Dutch exception - and finally GB-MG, born of Italy’s Del Tongo team and the chaotic Tonton Tapis outfit managed, kind of, by four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Roger de Vlaeminck. It was relatively plain sailing until Mapei (itself the fruit of mergers with Eldor-Viner and ClasCajastur) linked up with GB-MG in 1995 to form the super-squad that has indirectly morphed into today’s all-singing, alldancing, all-winning Quick-Step Floors. Lefevere is Flandrian cycling through and through. “This region is full of small factories, there are two sports: cycling and football. The first Belgian winner of the Tour, Odile Defraeye, was from my village. It was a way to escape poverty; it still is. Look at Yves Lampaert, who is from this area, from Roeselare. He went to agricultural college, and if he hadn’t turned professional, he’d be working in the fields. I like that. He still speaks dialect, not quite pure Dutch, and when he was in the TV studio after winning Dwars door Vlaanderen, the interviewer said to me, ‘Don’t teach him to communicate.’ He’s a rider who’s stayed authentic, not like all the guys who make it.”
He continues: “It’s special here, of course, although it’s the same in Colombia; it’s just that no one knows about it. You start out, you become the hero of your village. The guys in the factory bet on the races, even just five euros. You can touch the riders - at Manchester United, David Beckham was 100m away; at a kermesse, it’s one metre.”
In April, Lefevere was already looking for a backer to come in alongside Quick-Step for 2019. The search took him until early October, and pretty much proved what he told me when we met: it’s not easy running a team in the 21st century, no matter how many races you win. “It looks good here, but if you take away the government involvement in Flanders and Belgium as a whole, you take away Lotto and Topsport - which is funded by the Flemish government - it’s a disaster.”
Team budgets are too big for the small to medium sized companies that are the most
suited to backing a team. “It’s not about multinationals. Companies that come into cycling usually have one boss, who is still the owner; sometimes their passion is for sport, some have rational reasons to sponsor a team, some are cyclists.”
Getting those companies to back a team is tricky; the budgets are large, and there need to be as few backers as possible, to maximise their respective exposure. The sport is, however, far better structured now. “Back in the day, guys like Albert De Kimpe or Lomme Driessens would pick up the yellow pages and phone up the companies. By May, the budget would be gone. It was amateur.”
Lefevere knows what his teams can do. “We can make names familiar for people within a year. Domo had a tricky reputation after a tax affair, but we turned that around. Davitamon, we made them a household name in the space of 12 months. GB, that was a tricky one, they were two letters that had come from the merger of three companies. They took us on to get a winning feeling, because the unions weren’t happy and the workers weren’t motivated; now, everyone knows of them.”
Ask Lefevere what drives him, and the answer is simple. “What is more beautiful than coming to a race and winning with a guy that no one knows, and they all say, ‘Where the f*ck did you find this guy?”
The supply of motivated, talented, young riders matters, although Lefevere is unsure it will continue. “There are fewer races for professionals in Belgium, and fewer riders racing in the youth categories,” he says. “I think we have problems. Parents are afraid of the traffic for their children. They send out a young lad of 12 and they aren’t sure if they will see him in the evening. We are losing against field sports - rugby, hockey, stadium sports.”
Bur how does he do it? How does Lefevere turn up gems such as Lampaert, Álvaro Hodeg and Fabio Jakobsen, season after season after season? The answer lies in those notebooks he showed me in his office. “I write everything down. Every Monday morning I spend an hour looking at the papers, looking at the internet, getting information,” he says.
“I believe that you can discover talent when a rider is a junior. They must have good parents, go to school properly, have a margin for improvement. I have people on the ground looking as well.”
There’s a paradox, though: the way cycling is structured, there is no incentive for someone like Lefevere to run a U23 development team, which he used to do under the banners of Bodysol-Brustor and Klein Constantia. “The problem is that you have zero guarantee that the riders will come to your team.” Instead, he now scouts riders for his WorldTour team.
It’s this drive to unearth new talent that has fuelled Lefevere for the last 30 years and which has this year, as in the past, made him the most prolific manager in cycling. That drive has given the WorldTour Lampaert, Hodeg, Fernando Gaviria, Alaphilippe and many more. And, from 2019, he will have on his books the best junior cycling has seen for many years, Remco Evenepoel.
He calls it “looking for the white blackbird.” In 2018, those white blackbirds have laid him a very large basket of eggs.
“We can make names familiar for people within a year. Domo had a tricky reputation after a tax affair, but we turned that around. Davitamon, we made them a household name”
Mapei’s Tom Steels gets a helping hand from Lefevere before the 1996 Paris- Roubaix
Lefevere welcomes Terpstra home after the Dutchman won the Tour of FlandersBack in 2001 and Richard Virenque and Lefevere confer about tactics mid-race Steven Kruijswijk was imperious in the Alpe de Siusi TT, but bad luck killed his race