Hey, TDU hasn't started yet, so this still counts! I'm not too late! You're not my boss, you can't fire me.
(picture by a great and subconscious girl)
First, a quick introduction. TopSport Vlaanderen is the government-run - well, one of our government at least - sports program of Flanders. It isn't just for cycling, that is just one part of it. But since the dawn of time, or somewhere mid nineties at least, there has been a TSV cycling team, for both road cyclists and trackies. They're a ProContinental squad that like the classics, no surprise, but also usually participate in your second-tier Spanish or Italian climby stage races (think Burgos). They have a modest budget of 2.5 million euros, and have produced some great names in the past: Tom Boonen, Tom Steels, Stijn Devolder, Leif Hoste, Björn Leukemans and Jelle Vanendert are all former TopSporters. Unlike other teams, they want their talents to leave the team as soon as they're ready (but no sooner). Talents don't quit TSV, they graduate from it.
What we thought coming in
Well, I don't know what you thought, but I was hoping for the top names that stayed - Michael Van Staeyen, Pieter Van Speybrouck and Kris Boeckmans, I'm looking at you boys - to step up a level. This being a development squad, there's no use in hoping for classics win or GT podium stages. No, let us look at this with a bit more realism. Semi-classic podium performances - like Sep Vanmarcke's second place in 2010's Ghent-Wevelgem - or sprint wins in tours of say Britain, Turkey and Oman are the absolute height of what you can expect of them.
Kris Boeckmans spent the better part of 2010's spring swapping the title of Great Belgian Sprint Promise with Jens Keukeleire. Even though he lost that fight, 2011 should have made him step up a level. Maybe bag a win in, say, the Tour of Qatar? Or podium in de Scheldeprijs? Same goes for Michael Van Staeyen, though he only comes alive for the autumn part of the year. In a steady development winning a stage in 2010's Tour of Denmark should translate into, what, a stage in 2011 Eneco Tour? Tour of Poland perhaps?
On a climbier level, Jerome Baugnies was well on the way to a top 15 in the Ardennes classics and the likes. Of their incoming talents, Jelle Wallays was the 'biggest' name, having won the U23 Paris-Tours in 2010, one might expect him to be quite quick.
What we got
Nothing of the sort, really. Kris Boeckmans failed to impress, though in his defence he missed all of the cycling season before May, which, to a Belgian, is pretty much all out of the cycling season. Michael Van Staeyen had his usual half-year nap and then stuck to results that, in terms of worthiness, were basically on the same level as the year before, maybe even slightly lower.
The other kids weren't quite alright either, baggin only one win and fifteen podium spots in total. And it's not that they were too busy attacking to win. They were far less visible too. They didn't even get into the doomed break at RVV. TSV should always be in the doomed break at RVV. You never know, maybe that doomed break isn't so doomed this time after all.
Top Three (sort of) Highlights
- Kenny De Ketele taking over the sceptre from Iljo Keisse, De Keizer van 't Kuipke, by winning the Ghent Six Day. We're not really track fans, us Flemish people, but that was kind of awesome.
- Weirdly enough, their greatest success was not for their own team. The guys they sent out last year are doing really, really well elsewhere. Thomas De Gendt, in his first year in the big league, won a stage in Paris-Nice. Paris-Nice! He won a stage in de Tour de Suisse, where he held off Schleck junior on a rampage. Tour de Suisse! He came fourth in the final TdF ITT, ahead of Cancellara. Cancellara! That's a great first year. Vandewalle was one of the few QST boys who didn't have a completely useless year - more on that later - Lodewyck is now one of PhilGil's two trusty lieutenants (he and Adam Blythe), and then I haven't even mentioned... Sep. The Sep. Yeah.
- Jelle Wallays podiumed at the national champs road race. The one won by Phillipe Gilbert, which meant lots of pictures and media attention. With Jelle on the podium with him. That was nice.
- Next year. I hope. I have faith in their transfers at least. Gijs van Hoecke is part trackie (won the scratch world cup in Astana just now, and was third at the world champs omnium) but he likes the road too (though probably not in an Olympic year). Zico Waeytens is a great talent, who, in his first week as a pro stagiaire, came in 9th the - remember how we talked about different expectations - Tour of Denmark GC. That's not bad. There is hope.
Bottom Three (sort of) Lowlights
- One victory. One! That's just sad. Pieter Vanspeybrouck won the 1.1 Sparkassen Giro Bochum, that's it.
- Only one of their boys got a pro contract at one of the big teams. Kris Boeckmans - who had a much better year last year than this - signed for Vacansoleil. Last year they sent out five of their sons: Vandewalle to QST, Lodewyck and Neyens to OPL, crazy Thomas to Vacansoleil and the incomparable Sep to Garmin. A handful, that's their average. One? One is sad.
- Of course, it should have been two. Pieter Vanspeybrouck (see number 1) signed a contract for the Shack (dixit Sporza), which they ripped up once the Leopard-deal came through. Boo RadioShack, boo!
- Now that I mention the Shack, know what else is a shame? Jasper Stuyven signing for Trek-Livestrong. Cause if we're talking about Flemish cycling talent, Stuyven (1992) is the real thing. Junior results don't mean everything, but being a junior world champ and junior Paris-Roubaix winner, that's not a bad thing. I don't know if TSV went after him of course, but if they did and he declined them for Livestrong, that makes me sad.
Where Do They Go From Here?
In the same direction as they have been going, just maybe ride a little faster. You're not always going to have a Boonen or Vanmarcke in your squad, sometimes a Boeckmans will have to do. The peloton isn't just Belgian any more and, and I truly believe this, that's a good thing. OmegaStep find their young kids in Poland (via the Shack) and the UK (via An Post) these days; Lotto-Belisol - that new Belgian-centered team - signs a New-Zealander and an Iranian. The world is getting bigger, the bar has been raised. My TSV boys will just have to learn to jump higher.