An anonymous year for Belgium’s second team was made livelier by their near-constant attacking. This is a squad of animators and they’re always fun to watch.
Also, because I need to find a space to say this, I really like their jerseys. So there.
What we said last year
We didn’t. However, I always say, if you can’t get Fontecchio, Shakespeare will have to do.
A poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Okay, harsh and more than a little silly, but I think there’s something here. With de Gendt, Wellens, Marczynski and the departing Gallopin, this is a squad that attract most of their attention through long-range attacks. When they work, it is glorious, but the rap on these guys coming in was that they would waste a lot of energy and might not get the returns…
What we got in 2017
… which is exactly what happened. Tiesj Benoot continues to be the best rider to have never picked up a professional win, a record that was at first irrelevant, then troublesome, and is fast becoming a millstone. He rode well in patches but there’s still a question over where best to deploy his undoubted talents.
Andre Greipel, despite turning 35, had another excellent year, winning at the Giro to take his consecutive Grands Tours with a win to a ridiculous 12 (going back to 2008). That streak ended at the Tour and he looks to be declining, but he isn’t done yet. His annual reinvention as a cobbles domestique par excellence is always a joy.
The rest of the squad did what they do, with plenty of attacks and a few wins, the plurality of them falling to Tim Wellens. Picking up four stages of the Vuelta was a neat achievement, too.
FSA-DS Ranking 2017
8th. I’m as surprised as you are. This is a reward for strength in depth, with 15 riders scoring over 100 points. Greipel topped the list with yet another rock-solid return.
1. Andre Greipel’s Giro win in Tortoli was a great moment for the gorilla, who won me over years ago with his consistency and honest attitude. If he was a football (soccer) player, he’d be the big target man who gets better into his thirties and comes off the bench to win games. The terraces always love that guy.
2. You can pick your favourite of the Vuelta stages, but I’ll take Tomas Marczynski’s first win. At 33 and after a long career mostly in service of other riders, this was the biggest victory of his career, and a win for anonymous riders everywhere.
3. If Tim Wellens wins a World Tour race and nobody notices, does it make a sound? He picked up the victory in Guangxi, taking both the Queen Stage and the overall. Lots of WT points and some handy pocket money for the offseason, but hardly a prestigious win. Still, it was deserved after what was comfortably his best season to date.
1. This isn’t so much “lowlights” as “total absence of highlights”. First of all, let’s take the moment Greipel crossed the line in the Roubaix velodrome in 7th, just behind Demare. Not a bad result for Greips by any stretch, but it marked the end of a cobbles campaign where the highlight was… Benoot finishing 4th in Kuurne? It has to be Greips’ 7th, doesn’t it? That isn’t good enough for any Belgian WT team.
2. On the same note, nobody noticed Benoot finishing 11.05 back in Il Lombardia, in 57th, but it was the end of another season where, and I’m sorry to bang on about this, he didn’t win a race. He really needs to get that seen to in 2018. Given his results in Canada, Brabantse and San Seb, he’s starting to look like a hilly classics rider, but he needs to step forward sooner rather than later.
3. Thomas de Gendt was the Tour’s top animator in 2017, getting into 11 breakaways and riding more than a thousand kilometres (sic) in front of the peloton. Not only did he not win a stage, he didn’t make a podium. In a cruel twist, the race organisers gave the most combative rider award to home favourite Warren Barguil, who’d already won stages and polka dots. Harsh.
Comings and goings for 2018
Ins: Victor Campenaerts (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott), Lawrence Naesen (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect).
Outs: Sean De Biew (Verandas Willems-Crelan), Bart De Clercq (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale), Jürgen Roelandts (BMC Racing), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (retired), Louis Vervaeke (Team Sunweb).
Renewals: Jasper De Buyst, Frederik Frison, Tomasz Marczynski, Maxime Montfort, Jelle Wallays, Jelle Vanendert.
I think I’d be nervous if Team Sunweb took any of my guys, given that they appear to have cycling’s equivalent of the midas touch. Verkaeke hasn’t ever really lived up to his promise and it’d be disappointing for Lotto if he did so elsewhere. Tony Gallopin will be another big loss, as will Roelandts. Keukeleire will enjoy being back on a Belgian team and he has leadership potential, but overall this squad looks weaker for 2018 than it did for 2017. Existing riders need to step up.
Most intriguing rider
I admit to being intrigued by Jens Debusschere (a man whose name I spellcheck on google every single time I type it). He’s 28 and seemingly has all the attributes to be a hardman-sprinter of the kind that thrives in Belgium, but after winning Dwars in 2016 took a step back in 2017. He could get back to winning ways in 2018.
Instead, I’ll go for new boy Jens Keukeleire. With Roelandts leaving and Benoot seemingly focused on climbier races, the stage is set for the Bruges Bruiser (yup, I just made that up. What of it?) to step into leadership of a cobbles team for whom hope is perennially high. Keuks has flashed the talent to compete (he was the only rider who could stay with Greg van Avermaet in this year’s Gent-Wevelgem) but is far from consistent and not yet among the favourites. He’ll need a career year but there’s absolutely no reason he shouldn’t have one, and that would make a huge difference to this squad.
So, what happens next?
The transfer market doesn’t make for happy reading, and there’s no expectation that 2018 will be appreciably better than 2017. In fact, with Gallopin leaving and Greipel aging, the odds of maintaining 8th place and matching the 25 wins (including 5 GT stages) of 2017 are quite low.
On the other hand, Keukeleire, Benoot and Wellens gives the squad a cadre of talented twenty-something Belgians to build around. Achieving elusive success in the classics and picking up some higher-profile victories seems like a necessary and achievable goal.