What we thought coming in:
As far as formal capsules go, we haven't had one on Lotto since 2010, and not entirely without reason. Aside from Greipel's sprinting prowess, the team hasn't had a lot of excitement after the departure of Phillipe Gilbert several years ago. After his win in San Sebastian last year, as well as a few other notable results, Tony Gallopin was on our radar. But aside from that young promise, it seemed a combination of "let Greipel do his thing" and hoping Van Den Broeck would pull out one of his good years rather than a bad luck one.
What we got instead
At a first glance, it could seem like a down year for the team with Greipel starting guns blazing before crashing heavily in the Finale of Ghent-Wevelgem, not only breaking his collarbone but also tearing a few ligaments as well. From that point onward, it was recovery mode for the Gorilla and he never quite got his full power back. He took 13 wins over the course of the season, but for a sprinter of Greipel's caliber, that is a little low. The wins total doesn't convey the whole story either - a number of his wins from June onwards were in smaller stage races like the Tour of Luxembourg rather than any of the Grand Tours. He notched a win on Stage 6 of the Tour de France, outlasting Kittel in the run towards the finish and out-kicking Alexander Kristoff and the other hard man type sprinters. This was as good as it got for Greipel, though, and the results trickled in after that.
Scratch beneath the surface of Greipel's rough season, though, and there were a few gems in Lotto's year. Tony Gallopin confirmed the glimmer of talent we saw last year when he won the Clasica San Sebastian. His season started with a 10th at Paris-Nice on a course that was favorable to punchy riders who could climb and followed it up with a 6th in the cobbles and bergs of E3 Harelbeke. But, the highlight truly came at the Tour de France, where Gallopin rode ably through the hilly first stages and over the mud and rain-soaked cobbles and then took yellow after making it into the breakaway on Stage 9. Though he lost yellow after holding it only a day, he duped none other than Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb to narrowly win Stage 11, showing both power and tactical savvy. As the season ran through the summer months, Gallopin's form picked up again and he notched a 3rd in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal and the 9th in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec before nabbing a 6th in the world championships.
More optimism came later in the summer as Tim Wellens won the La Redoute stage of the Eneco Tour and thusly secured his overall victory there. Though the fourth
grandest grand tour (of the low countries) isn't quite as prestigious as the Tour de France, it is nonetheless fiercely contested and Wellens' victory was hard won. After that, Wellens' role as a provacateur solidified with a 4th in the Giro di Lombardia and memorable forays off the front in the closing kilometers of a number of races, particularly the GP Wallonie.
Beyond those two, there were a few reasons to crack open a bottle of champagne. Jelle Vanendert found the form he last really saw in 2012 to take a second at Amstel Gold and sixth at Flèche Wallone and Jens Debusschere took a trio of wins, among them the Belgian National Championships. For a Belgian team, that counts for a lot - even if it isn't a win in Flanders. All in all, a rather good year for the other Belgian team.
Top Three Highlights
- Tony Gallopin wins Stage 11 of le Tour: A Tour stage win is a Tour stage win; it's as simple as that. But it was also the manner of Gallopin's win - exploiting the tactical nuances of a quartet containing both Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb - that made him worth watching. It was a victory carved out of a similar situation as his Clasica San Sebastian win last year and one that demonstrated a lot of promise for a rider who - at 26 - is still short of his prime.
- Tim Wellens wins the Eneco Tour: A young rider's first big win is always an occasion for celebration, and especially when it requires a rider to excel in as widely ranging terrain as Eneco does. Time trials, cobbles, crosswinds, and the long, grinding climbs of Liége-Bastogne-Liége - Wellens proved he can do them all well. Greipel's Tour stage win could go here, but for a team needing more than just one marquee name, I have a hunch Eneco was more welcome in the long run.
- Greipel wins Stage 6 of the Tour: While he took several wins in his comeback from fracturing his collarbone early in the season, their quality was pretty low - Tour of Luxembourg, anyone? But everyone on the team must have breathed a sigh of relief when Greipel crossed the finish line on Stage 6 with his hands in the air in celebration. The powerful sprinter was clearly not up to his best and would struggle to compete at the sharp end of bunch sprints in much of the race, but some of the familiar speed was starting to come back. Plus, if your top sprinter can nab a stage win at the Tour while firing at 95%, you can be optimistic about the next year.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Greipel's collarbone: When an injury takes out a world-class sprinter for a few months, it's always bad. But, as Chris noted in June, Greipel sure looked like someone about to make a statement in Flanders when he crashed out of Gent-Wevelgem. That made the injury hurt even more.
- Jurgen Roelants crashes out of Flanders: Podium finisher from last year, DNF this year. That stings, especially on a Belgian team.
- Van den Broeck's Tour de France: You go fourth in the Tour twice and keep crashing out of the other ones, but then only manage 13th? After a scintillating ride in the last stage of the Dauphine, where Van den Broeck went on the offensive early with eventual winner Andrew Tolansky, things looked good for the perennial Belgian hope for Tour relevance. But while things didn't exactly go pear-shaped in July, they certainly didn't go well either. A promising ride over the cobbles - he is Belgian, after all - amounted to naught for Van den Broeck. Next year, he's skipping the Tour to focus on shorter stage races and possibly the Giro - Vuelta double, which isn't entirely surprising after this season.
What's Coming Next
In four words, more of the same. Lotto played little in the transfer market, only losing Frederik Williams (retirement) and Van Genechten (IAM) while picking up Thomas De Gendt. With the status quo mostly intact, it will be the job of the current riders to change how the team performs next year. Grapple can be assured to deliver a boatload of wins and a grand tour stage or three every year, especially with the effort Lotto has put into bulking up their leadout train. Similarly, Van den Broeck is likely to keep up his hallmark consistency of top ten placings at various week-long races. It will be interesting to see how he copes with a renewed focus, but don't expect a huge turnaround in quality.
The real potential for growth lies in some of the younger riders. Gallopin is only 26, Wellens 23, and Debusschere 25. With another year of development, each is likely to see better results all year long. Gallopin is a threat in almost any of the classics, save Paris-Roubaix, and for punchier stage races. Wellens is too, and it will be interesting to see if he can do anything in the Ardennes classics. De Gendt is the real black horse here - he could have a year like 2012 where he won the Stelvio stage of the Giro and finished third, or he could be anonymous as he has been since he transferred away from Vacansoleil to Quickstep. My bet is with a team more out of the focus (Thanks, Etixx-Quick Step!), he will start to find his old, crazy, and occasionally brilliant self again. All told, it won't be a complete turnaround for that other Belgian team, just (hopefully) more gradual development.