What a year for Omega Pharma, a/k/a Lotto, as Philippe Gilbert kept lighting up the roads of Europe on a regular -- and I mean regular -- basis. And Jurgen Vanden Broeck delivered the best Belgian GC performance at the Tour de France since Claude Criquelion's eqivalent fifth placing in (I shit you not) 1985. Gone (for now) is Quick Step's domination of the Belgian media. Gone too is Lotto's irrelevance at the races that matter most to Belgians and fans everywhere.
So why do their point totals keep shrinking?
What We Thought Coming In
Hm, I think there might have been some brilliant, unique and insightful analysis over at Podium Cafe Premium, but the servers are down at the moment (they're re-doing the gold leaf on the exterior). I'm pretty sure I flipped a coin between "Gilbert will crush everyone" and "Gilbert will come back to Earth." Can't remember how it came out though.
More on the flip...
What We Got In the End
It may seem like *-Lotto have turned into a two-man show, and the flight of well-known riders continues with Greg Van Avermaet, Leif Hoste and Danny Moreno following Cadel Evans and last year's other departees on the way out. By all appearances Lotto are in the process of a non-mega-budget long-term makeover, after years of investments not really panning out. Yeah, Leif Hoste was OK and Greg Van Avermaet produced a steady stream of points, but niether one of them lived up to the headline-grabbing leadership role DS Marc Sergeant had in mind for them. Hoste's highlight was the day Gilbert was nowhere to be found, as he rolled into the velodrome in Roubaix alone in a respectable 8th place. But after years of top finishes in both of the cobbled monuments, Hoste looked less and less like the major threat to win his team needs in this neighboring megarace. Good Flandrien types age slowly though, and Hoste may slot in better in a secondary role at Katusha next year.
Too frequently the wondrous Gilbert was plan A, B and C for *-Lotto, particularly in the hypercompetitive spring classics, and while Van Avermaet might enjoy a less pressured role at BMC next season, Gilbert might eventually appreciate a little more help. Despite the lack of assistance and the spotlight following him, Phil-Gil rang up an unreal string of results: third in Gent-Wevelgem, third in de Ronde, winner of Amstel Gold, sixth in La Fleche, and third in Liege. Name another rider alive who can take third in downtown Wevelgem and sixth on the Mur de Huy. OK, besides Valverde. The performance at the worlds and in the fall races was mere icing on the cake. Really, it was over this incredible array of spring results where Gilbert showed his true greatness.
Vanden Broeck, meanwhile, climbed consistently if unspectacularly to Belgium's best result of the year, IMHO. The Tour being what it is, and with no Belgian stage victories, Vanden Broeck's fifth overall was the product of good, steady riding from Arenberg to the Tourmalet. Not that anyone is sizing him up for yellow, thanks to his decidedly average time trialling, but for the first time since Axel Merckx in 1997 Belgian fans have an overall contender worth cheering on.
After that, Adam Blythe had a few wins in the Franco-Belge, and Jurgen Roelandts was in on the sprints at the Tour, graduating to the level of bunch-gallop stage-hunter. And that's about where the excitement levelled off.
Top Three Highlights
- Vanden Broucke's arrival at the Col du Tourmalet. With non-crono types like Gesink behind him in the standings, Vanden Broeck pretty much cemented his fifth place when he rolled in more or less with the podium contenders after Bert and Andy.
- Gilbert's win at Amstel Gold. If Belgium's thirst for victory was temporarily allayed by the Brabantse Pijl success of Seb Rosselaer, it was positively slaked by the sight of their top star adding another major classic to his palmares.
- Grace Verbeke in de Ronde. OK, I would settle for Gilbert's win in Lombardia here, but honestly, does it get much better than having your
team kitsponsor's name shown giving the victory salute in Ninove on the first Sunday in April?
Bottom Three Lowlights
- The offshore breeze in Geelong. The Belgian national team was built entirely around Gilbert and four Lotto teammates could be seen hammering up the climbs all day long in order to put the wood to anyone who wanted an easy ride on Gilbert's wheel to the line. Gilbert launched when it was time to go -- is there any point second-guessing him now? -- but the headwind he faced in the final 3km doomed his chance to win the world title with nobody else in the picture.
- Missing Phil in July. There was never any thought to sending Gilbert to the Tour this year, for good and practical reasons. But it's a shame that millions of temporary fans didn't get a glimpse of the sport's most electrifying rider. Ask Vuelta fans about that.
- Brabantse Pij -- For once, Lotto were all over the front of that race (Gilbert, GVA, Moreno), but they missed the three-man breakaway that made it to the finish. While all of Belgium was willing anyone from the home country to win something.
Where Do They Go From Here?
The makeover continues. Lotto will rack up some wins with the newly retooled sprint team headed by Andre Greipel, although he comes with eerily similar caveats as Hoste did several years back: can he beat his bete noir on the big stage? It'll be fun to watch. The grand tour team might get a little help from Jan Bakelants, an impressive 19th in his first Vuelta. Jurgen VandeWalle is a good helping hand on the climbs. They'll be outgunned at the Tour for the foreseeable future, but then Vanden Broeck did much of his work this year alone.
Their classics team is getting a bit more interesting. Youngsters like Klaas Lodewick and Sven Vandousselaer have nice resumes for young twentysomethings, the former taking fourth in Paris-Tours already while the latter grabbing third for Jong Vlaanderen at the U23 Ronde. Add in guys like Marcel Sieberg and Frederik Willems for help and you've got a nice team around Gilbert for the next several years.
I know these reviews spawn a lot of debate about how to rate these teams, and I wind up having to defend comparing the results to what my subjective expectations were. But hey, that's blogging. Anyway, in that vein I really do like what Lotto are doing with their middlin' stash of Euros. Gilbert is a major star in his prime, worth building around. Vanden Broeck brings them relevance where they need it most. Greipel, at worst, is a foreign mercenary who will bag them wins, maybe even some big ones. And a younger, fresher team made largely from homegrown talent is being stitched together around this core. To me, that's a hard plan to argue with.