Some years it seems like Lotto and Quick Step are the yin and yang of Belgian Cycling, never intersecting, just covering 100% of the landscape in joint harmony. Quick Step wins everything in sight in April? Lotto takes over (or tries to) from there.
In reality, what you have are two top-heavy teams whose stars wouldn't necessarily go head-to-head on all the biggest stages, but their directeurs' ambitions certainly do overlap. How could they not? In Cycling-mad Belgium, is there any forgiveness for not staffing the Tour of Flanders properly? In a sport dominated by the grand tours, would the spendiest teams take a pass on showing their brand in France every July? Obviously not, and anyway settling on some status quo division of spoils isn't working out that well. The two teams regularly inhabit the top 10 on Cycling Quotient's scoresheet, with Quick Step always a step up, but never before has the contest been closer than it was in 2007.
[Actually, I'll cover Lotto in a second post, this evening. So for now...]
The great QSI wave of victories was supposed to only grow stronger in 2007. The team boasting the two-years-running top ranked rider (Tom Boonen) and the #3 rider then holding the rainbow jersey, tricolore and gold medal (someone "Bettini"?) had nearly blanket coverage on every race from March 1 to May 1... and a few more pickings later on too. Moreover, Boonen's gaudy 2006 record of 20 wins didn't include Paris-Roubaix or really any of the mini-classics before E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, races he'd left to teammates. Nor did Bettini score as high as he could last year in the Ardennes. And if they'd lost Filippo Pozzato's and Nick Nuyens' points, well, they'd stacked the roster with veterans and newcomers who could make the lives of Bettini and Boonen better, as well as snagging wins of their own.
Whether it was luck or more a physical matter of exhausting their prolonged run of success, Bettini and Boonen both fell off in the points department rather significantly, and the likes of Peter Van Petegem, Gert Steegmans, Wouter Weylandt and co. weren't usually there to pick up the slack.
You can't really blame the supporting cast. Van Petegem came with plenty of warning labels as to his aging gifts and limited interests. Weylandt, a ripe old 22, scored a handful of wins and rocketed into the top 100, and I'm assuming he didn't shirk his support duties too badly in the process. Steegmans tried to defer to his captain, winning only when it couldn't be helped, like his overly-fast leadout in stage 4 of the Tour. He was as good as advertised.
Boonen, though, saw his win total fall to 13, his points drop by over 1000, and his world ranking slip to 10th. Gone were his wins in the April monuments, replaced (if you can call it that) by the first of perhaps many Green Jerseys in July. He also failed to replace Pozzato's points on the Via Roma, taking only 3rd at the still elusive MSR. He couldn't even take the start in his home race and personal property, the Scheldeprijs.
So is Boonen fading already? Not bloody likely. Stomach bugs and crashes and bizarre hot weather killed his point total in spring more than anything for which Boonen himself can be blamed. A lot of things have to go right to win, and after two years of nearly everything going right, well, 2007 wasn't Tommeke's year.
Bettini, meanwhile, suffered through what can only be called a mediocre year. Yes, he got his form together for Stuttgart and his World title defense, but til then he'd had little to show that he'd defied the Rainbow Curse. He'd spent the winter alternately coping with unimaginable tragedy (his bro) and parading his new colors around, talking big things about even Flanders. Then the crashes started happening, and by September he was still hunting for his first win in Rainbow, outside of a Tour of California stage. His form took just enough hits in spring to limit him to 4th in Liege (and 21st in de Ronde), and the DiLuca buzzsaw deprived him of wins on classics-type stages of the Giro... as well as the points title. Only as the season drew to a close did a desperate Bettini rally his form and his luck, salvaging his season with a win and a couple seconds at the Vuelta before winning the Worlds again. Reality was right back again at Lombardy where he was outside the top 100.
Bettini will be 34 when the peloton hits the cobbles this year, and can't be expected to keep this up forever. But he can be expected to stop running into road signs and other non-moving objects, and be right in the thick of things this season. He's supposedly grooming Giovanni Visconti in the supportive understudy role, and Visconti showed his promise with a top-10 at Lombardia, near win in a Giro stage, and road national championships victory. Visconti is ten years' the junior of Il Grillo; with luck he'll be ready when the Bettini energy source finally (if ever) runs out.
Basically, you have a team that underachieved this year for reasons unlikely to be repeated. Their two stars were unlucky in several respects, and while luck is fleeting, it's bound to improve before long. The changes to roster of supporters and secondary captains took time to gel, something that should be improved in 2008. Weylandt is ready to pick up wins formerly left over for Nick Nuyens, if not more. And then you have an incoming Stijn Devolder, whose versatility gives Patrick Lefevre plenty of places to slot him where he won't get in Boonen or Bettini's way. They may not have the firepower to slow Cadel Evans, but they can still be Belgium's supreme team just by getting back to what they do best. And stealing Robbie McEwen's green jersey again won't hurt the cause either.