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Cobbles Baby #3: Predictor Lotto Preview

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So first, the identity thing... I know I've taken the requisite cracks at the new sponsor -- You're Pregnant and all that. But a larger point is, what exactly should we call them? They've had three names in four years. Davitamon-Lotto... Lotto Domo... Lotto Adecco (before the Domo merger). Can't we just call them Lotto? This is a company that's invested in Cycling non-stop for fifteen years. Yo, Lotto... respect. And nice website.

As for their classics prospects, Marc Sergeant has been hedging his bets on the rest of the Pro Tour calendar for years. Roots and roster aside, Lotto are less a Belgian team than a Pro Tour team, with legitimate, reachable goals in just about every month of the season. Is that success? Cycling doesn't have a Super Bowl, the one benchmark of success, and so if Lotto score a green jersey, coupla one-days, and get Cadel Evans high up on the GC at the Tour, then maybe we should respect that. Then again, their official Pro Tour position was 16th.

Facts...

  • Predictor-Lotto's current $7.8 mil budget is one potential excuse for their uninspiring position. Only three teams (Saunier Duval, Liquigas, Unibet) spend less. They're outgunned by Bouygues Telecom.
  • Not winning or even focusing on the Tour of Flanders is a cardinal sin for a Belgian team, right? OK, but Lotto project a more foreign face than Quick Step, with Robbie McEwen delivering the most wins, and Cadel Evans is their big gun in places like Liege and Huez. But... 21 of their 30 riders are Belgian, and by that I mean Flemish. Unlike Quick Step's comfortable disdain of the grand tours, Lotto's mediocrity in the home country is more of a problem.

As for those classics... last year was an unmitigated disaster. While Quick Step dominated the peloton, Lotto barely got a whiff of the front. After Bert Roesems' win at Nokere Koerse (March 15), they got bubkis. Nothing! Look at the teams that won in Belgium: Discovery, Rabobank, Chocolade Jacques, Caisse d'Epargne, CSC, FDJeux. Is this acceptable?

So you can sympathize with Sergeant's decision to force out longtime Classics stalwart Peter Van Petegem, based largely on his narrow focus, fading results, and advanced age. A man who did the Flanders/Roubaix double in 2003, Van Petegem was still effective last year, finishing in the first chase group at both of his target races (before the P-R DSQ), but he gave no hint that he could close out either affair had he been on the front.

So out with Van Petegem, and in comes Leif Hoste. This is a great exchange on its face. Hoste is not yet thirty, won Three Days of De Panne, and was himself one rail crossing incident from second at both Flanders and Roubaix. Hoste can close out a race, albeit not straight up against Boonen perhaps, but in the finale of these races he has a chance and will be around for a while.

But I can't help feeling like they hamstrung themselves again just as they were fixing things. Maybe Van Petegem couldn't be convinced to stay on in a supporting role, but he's exactly what Hoste could use if he's going to break through at De Ronde. Or maybe he needs someone like Gert Steegmans for protection and leadouts. But they're over at Quick Step shielding Boonen and Bettini, while Hoste's supporting cast is, by comparison, watery broth. Hoste is truly solid, but I don't see how one guy can be expected to win, with no help chasing breaks or softening up the field, unless he can uncork the "ride of his life" like Cancellara at Roubaix.

If there's good news, it's that Hoste isn't the only threat. Another possibility is McEwen at Gent-Wevelgem; not a likelihood, but if Robbie ever gets to the last KM without feeling too spent, he's got a fine shot. Cadel Evans could be in the mix at any of the Ardennes races, though the new trend of climbers who can sprint is bad news for guys like Cadel in one-day races.

Predictor-Lotto are victims of a lack of focus, or maybe the wrong collection of riders, competitive everywhere but never among the strongest team in any one discipline. Leif Hoste is a guy you can build around for the next couple years, but Lotto haven't done that yet, and still bring a second-rate team capable only of winning on home soil in second-rate events.