Lotto-Belisol have been around as a team since 2006, but if teams can be said to have break-out years then 2009 was their break-out. New signing Rochelle Gilmore who had been bouncing around Itlay on short-term contracts for the previous two years got lots of podium places, Lizzie Armitstead picked up a few young rider jersies, including that for the Giro, and best of all their long-term support for home riders finally produced a Belgian star in Grace Verbeke who finished 13th in the UCI rankings. And I suspect that both Armitstead and Verbeke could have done better if they had ever sat down and worked out a deal as to who leads out who and when, rather than drag-racing each other down the final straight to 3rd and 5th places.
Sadly Belisol have pulled out of the sponsorship deal, and Armitsead has moved on to Cervelo, but the team has come up with a novel strategy to compensate. They have struck a partnership with South Africa’s other top women’s cycling team, Biogen Toyota (Toyota Supercycling in 2009) whereby two of their top riders will come and race in Europe during the summer, and the Lotto girls will have the chance to train/race in South Africa during the winter. The South Africans look to be taking cycling very seriously in the run-up to the next rounds of the Commonwealth and Olympic games, so expect this to be a lot more serious an exchange than just a “swap you two riders for a holiday” deal.
I don’t know whether or not there is some similar reciprocal arrangement with an Australian team, but Lotto has always had two or three Aussies on their team. Emma Mackie has left, but in come Vicki Whitelaw and Josie Tomic to boost the numbers again.
And finally, at the heart of the team, are a group of Belgian women that have been on the team pretty much continuously from when the team was first founded, namely Sofia De Vuyst, Elise Depoorter, Kim Schoonbaert, Annelies Van Doorslaer, Lien Lanssens, Kathy Delfosse and Grace Verbeke. It took a few years in the peloton for Verbeke to really show her ability, so it is very possible that we may see something from one of the other six this year. And even if that doesn’t happen it’s still nice to see a team sticking by its junior members rather than looking on them as interchangeable supporting extras for a star rider.
So here’s a brief run-down of the rota:
Rochelle Gilmore. She finished last year 8th on the UCI rankings, although most of her points came from wins in minor races and other podium places in the bigger events. UCI regulations on the sort of terrain women can race over probably work to her disadvantage as she’s quite slimly built, but the shorter stages and lack of really nasty mountains tend to favour sprinters built in the Chris Hoy mould.
Grace Verbeke. A winning Belgian on a Belgian team should be a sponsor’s dream, so the team will be looking to Grace to better last year’s performance in their hunt for a new co-sponsor. She seems certain to be given undisputed leadership in the stage races and although the team may not be able to match Cervelo and Columbia in coming over the crucual climbs with three serious contenders, the new signings look likely to provide solid support.
Lynette Burger and Ashleigh Moolman, the two South Africans, both rode in the Toyota team that took part in last year’s Tour de l’Ardèche, and performed respectably (read some of team DS Ciska Austin’s old Twitters), even if killing yourself to get your team leader up there in the sprints doesn’t count for anything when the finish list gets printed. Burger is also the all African road champion (and came second in the TT), and is also listed as team captain of the Biogen Toyota team for 2010. New graduate Moolman is also on their rota, so these two may only be in Europe for the sunny months. I wonder how much the Belgian definition of summer coincides with the South African one.
Vicki Whitelaw. Probably the nearest equivalent to Jens! that I can think of in the women’s peloton, Vicki is an immensely strong domestique on the flat, in the hills and in sprints, and given the chance she can also ride a pretty good time trial. Her palmares are packed with the sort of top twenty placings that you get after dragging your team leader to the last, crucial, point of the race then are left to wheeze across the line alone. Last year she was signed up to Nicole Cooke’s unfortunate Vision 1 team, then after that collapsed she pretty much hitch-hiked her way around Europe with her bike, racing wherever she could get a lift to. They don’t make them soft in Oz
Josie Tomic. Young Aussie trackie, winner of the Omnium at the 2009 World Championships, but as yet untested on the road.
Veronica Andréasson. Comes after three years riding as a domestique for Bigla, doing a very full season for the last two. Will she be able to cope with the change in team photographer? Last year Bigla had some of the best team portraits, Lotto some of the, erm, most unusual.
Liz Hatch. One of the highest profile riders in the US, yet quite oddly hers was the name missing when Lotto published their 2010 team five days ago. By all accounts she is a real team worker, happy to get stuck in and do the most unglamorous tasks in the peloton, and riding on the front just when no-one is there to notice. She was part of the first Vanderkitten team that beat other far better funded teams on the US circuit in 2008, then recovered from a very nasty crash early in 2009 to finish the season in Europe.
It’s an interesting team, but there’s a sense that what they really need is a finisher or two. I see lots of podium places, lots of ranking points gathered along the way, but no top-level victories, unless Vicki Whitelaw comes good with the job security and the team managers actually learn how to manage a twin threat.