If Quick Step are the kings of Belgian racing (the part where the border extends down past Roubaix to Compiegne), Marc Sergeant and his Lotto squads have long played the role of Belgian kings of international cycling. And they're playing it shrewdly these days, maximizing their returns on a thinner roster than their homeland rivals and nearly catching them on the CQ Team Rankings. Fifth for 2007 is their highest placing in years, though they're regulars in the top 10.
Yet one wonders what exactly the plan is. At QSI, by contrast, it's clear: we're going to own the spring... and rest on our laurels for another nine months. Not sure how many sponsors would sign up for that, but in Flanders it sells. And more to the point: everyone knows this about them. Who can say, by contrast, what Lotto's plan is? Is Belgium simply not big enough for the two teams, or for Lefevre and Sergeant? They'd love to win everywhere and have riders to do it... but what part of the calendar are Lotto fully committed to?
On a more positive note, in past years their Cobbles seasons have been a disaster, but Leif Hoste has singlehandedly made them relevant on the biggest days of the Flemish calendar, after a few years of hoping for one last gasp from Van Petegem or Leon Van Bon. Hoste probably wouldn't count 2007 as his finest year, and his unbelievable last-meter loss to Alessandro Ballan in the Tour of Flanders might haunt him forever if he's not careful. He was more consistent in 2006, when he was soundly beaten in de Ronde by Boonen and had an outstanding Paris-Roubaix second-place taken away by the train crossing nonsense. But 2007 saw Hoste come home and put in a Ronde-worthy effort over one of the strongest fields imaginable. He also won the national ITT, placed third in the national tour and fourth at Eneco... as if anyone cares. Bottom line: the guy is the second best bet at Flanders every year, and at 30 he's got several more shots.
In terms of the organizational plan, Hoste was 2007's biggest upgrade, but when it comes to points the greatest impact came from Cadel Evans. Now ranked #1 with 1949 points for 2007 (a full 600 points fewer than Boonen in '06), Evans mastered the art of high placings in massive events: 7th in Paris-Nice, 4th in Romandie, 2nd in the Dauphine, 2nd in Le Tour, 4th in the Vuelta, 5th at the Worlds, and 6th in Lombardia. Number of individual wins in 2007: one -- the Beijing 2008 course test time trial. If you like riders with flair, look away.
But Evans is still a great story and a potential grand tour winner, if only his team would offer him some occasional help. Chris Horner gamely worked for Cadel this year, and nobody throws a better body-block on the flats than Johan Van Summeren... but that's about it. This year his grand tour lieutenant will likely be Yaroslav Popovych, a top graduate of the Johan Bruyneel School of Yellow Jersey Team Defense. Will that actually help Evans, who turns every mountain stage into a personal time trial? Color me skeptical, but it's worth a shot. Anyway, Evans is among the cream of the current (somewhat thin) grand tour crop, especially in the chrono-heavy years... as in, sometime other than 2008.
Robbie McEwen is the other big name, and there's not much to discuss here that isn't already known. Bumps and bruises ruined his blueprint this season, which is centered around Tour stage victories, of which he bagged one -- on the same day of his fateful crash. His ranking fell from 6th to 22nd, but since he deals in wins, the real news is his plummet from 12 (and a green jersey) in 2006 to 8 (and no points titles) this season. At 35 one wonders if this drop is a sign of the end nearing, but that's pretty hasty. After all, the one sprint he showed up for at Le Tour he won. And his primary competition consists of younger riders whom he's outfoxed time and again: Boonen, Bennati, etc. The Green Jersey heavily favors the kind of pack-smarts which ooze from his pores, and until McEwen loses a MPH or the young guys hone their craft, a healthy McEwen has to be considered a sprint favorite in July.
Lotto otherwise consist largely of useful, anonymous riders, but there's one last guy worth mentioning: Greg Van Avermaet. A former U23 Belgian Champion, Van Avermaet either started or resumed (from toddler-hood??) a nice, budding rivalry with Quick Step's young gun Wouter Weylandt. In his first season (at 22 y.o.) on the Pro Tour level, Van Avermaet scored four wins, including the Memorial Rik Van Steenbergen, a 201-km affair over Nico Eeckhoudt, Baden Cooke, Steven DeJongh and some other notables. He also beat Weylandt out at the Tour de Wallonie for a stage win, a second and a fifth... but Weylandt had his number at the Tour of Belgium, Picardie, and West Flanders. Van Avermaet sits at 60th on the QSI rank, six spots back of Weylandt. This should be fun. Oh, and he has a website, of course.
I'm not a big Evans fan and don't expect his performance to go anywhere but down slightly this year, but I have no problems at all with Lotto when they bring out their big guns. Yaro-Pop might help them in the Ardennes, but mostly I see them getting stronger on the Cobbles and consolidating their Grand Tour prospects. This is all a credit to Sergeant, who will likely never outspend Lefevre in the pursuit of Flemish glory, but who also does his job with little of the sport's characteristic suspicion hanging over his team. That won't stop me from making fun of their sponsor year in and year out... but don't mistake my stupid jokes for lack of respect.