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Offseason Capsule: Lotto Soudal

Can the only Lotto left in town start cashing in some of their tickets?

2018 Tour Down Under - Stage 1 Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Lotto Soudal are the hipster cyclist’s favorite cycling team-- overwhelmingly Belgian, but not the most successful Belgian team, chock full of young talent, but not the most precocious of the neo pros, and boasting some of the most exciting, but not always successful, riders in the pro-ranks, while still trying to maintain the cycling team as a family but not a business feel (but perhaps not successfully), boasting (but perhaps not for long) Tom Boonen as an “advisor,” and repping the original Lotto before Rabobank thought it was cool. As of late, success has been secondary to style for Lotto, but perhaps that’s about to change.

What we said last year

Andrew was prescient in his prediction for Lotto’s 2018 season:

[W]ith 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.”

We’ll just ignore the fact that they matched their 2017 win total exactly, with 25 wins again in 2018, but otherwise the prognosis was spot on— only 2 of those wins were grand tour stages, and they dropped to 14th place in vds. At the same time, I think wins at Strade Bianche and De Brabantse Pijl qualify as success in the classics and higher profile victories.

What we got in 2018

2018 was Andre Greipel’s 8th year at Lotto. During the first 7 years, Greipel never failed to win at least one grand tour stage, with that streak extending further back to 2008 during his HTC High Road days. During his time with Lotto, Greipel earned the team 16 grand tour stage wins, including 11 at the Tour, and 94 total wins. More impressively, during his tenure with Lotto, Greipel has released some of the sickest rap tracks that the hip hop world as ever heard. In 2018, though his streak of GT stage wins ended, Greipel contributed 8 of Lotto’s 25 wins. While we can discuss the ethics of Greipel’s release as well as the effectiveness of his replacement below, it was hardly a bad year for a sprinter who turned 36.

Both Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens raced well throughout the year, with Benoot finally picking up his first pro win in an epic Strade Bianche (see below) and Wellens finding both stage race and one day success.

Victor Campenaerts plied his time trial trade well, taking the European Championship, the Belgium Championship, and 3rd at Worlds. Thomas De Gendt continued to do his crazy thing, taking break away victories at the Dauphine and Romandie and the mountain jersey at the Vuelta. Jelle Vanendert rediscovered his form, at least for the Ardennes classics.

However, not unexpectedly, Lotto were nowhere to be seen in the GC competition at the grand tours. Maxime Monfort was their best placed finisher, with a 42nd at the Vuelta. At the Tour, they managed a 65th with De Gendt, and they pulled out a 57th at the Giro with Sander Armee. While not a team designed for grand tour contention, they were probably expecting better.

Also, perhaps more unexpectedly, victories at the cobbled classics remained elusive for a team with such heavy Belgian representation.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

14th with 7,232 points

Below average (which was 8,369 points for the 2018 WT teams) but not by much. And it could have been worse-- at least they’re not Katusha!

Top Highlights

1. Tiesj Benoot at Strade Bianche

Susie Hartigan

Benooooooooooot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Enough has already been written about the epic battle at this year’s Strade Bianche, and really that picture is worth 1,000 words, but, goddamn, did Benoot choose the perfect way to finally break his victory-less streak.

2. Tim Wellens on Stage 4 of the Giro

Tim Wellens had a great season (GC at Ruta del Sol, GC at Tour de Wallonie, and 1st at De Brabantse Pijl), but this stage victory at the Giro stands out. His victory on a short and steep climb to the finish came on the first day on Italian soil after the start in Israel and would presage the fireworks to come in what would become the most exciting stage race of the year. After his victory, hindsight would reveal that he defeated the most explosive Simon Yates that we’ve seen who would look invincible on the short uphill climbs in the coming stages. More importantly, for Wellens, who had often won (and loss) races on longer range attacks, this win proved both his strength and a new found patience where he was able to go toe to toe, mano-a-mano, and gamba a gamba against a top field of riders and pull out the victory.

3. Jelle Wallays barely holding off the sprinters on Stage 18 of the Vuelta

I could have put Victor Campenaerts time trial gold at the European Championships here, but you don’t win friends with salad or time trials. Instead, let’s go with a win to bring joy to cycling fans globally, Jelle Wallays hanging onto the breakaway win by holding off his breakaway companion, Sven Erik Bystrom, as well as the charging sprinters. Good stuff from a rider who once looked to be a rising star while on the Sport Vlaanderen team after taking victories at Paris-Tours and Dwars door Vlaanderen but whose star has fizzled out at the World Tour level.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Putting down the Gorilla

A meme that is 36 years old in sprinter years meets a 36 year old sprinter

Cycling News did some actual damn journalism this year and has an informative article about the dynamics that led to Greipel not renewing his contract with the team and dropping down to the pro-conti ranks. To summarize, Lotto brought in a CEO with business acumen at the beginning of 2018, with Marc Sergeant being reduced to a DS. Lotto had long wanted to bring in Caleb Ewan and got the opportunity at the beginning of the year without telling Greipel. Instead of telling Greipel that they would be releasing him, Lotto offered Greipel increasingly insulting contracts until he decided he had to leave. At the same time, Lotto shared their offers made to Greipel to other teams, weakening Greipel’s bargaining position and resulting in his new gig at Arkea Samsic. No rap for the Gorilla for 2018, instead his soundtrack was The Supremes.

If CN’s sources are to be believed, it’s a shitty way to let the face of your team for the last 8 years go. Was it a good business decision? That’s going to depend upon Ewan’s season this year, but I’ll give you my opinion below.

2. No wins on the cobbles

The last time this Belgian team won the Ronde was 16 years ago, in 2003, with Peter van Petegem. The last time Lotto won E3 was in 2001 with Andrei Tchmil. Gent-Wevelgem was in 2005 with Nico Mattan. The Omloop was in 2002 and Paris-Roubaix in 2003, again with van Petegem. Over a decade is an awful long time to have last won on the cobbles in any of the bigger classics, particularly where the team’s focus has not been on the grand tours.

3. Jasper De vds Bu(y)st

After his barn storming season in 2017, where he scored 880 points as a one pointer, De Buyst followed it with only 175 points. Perhaps it was his schedule, which inexplicably included 62 days of stage racing and only 18 one day races, but there was definitely a regression. Things don’t look better for him in 2019, where he’s going to be part of Ewan’s leadout train and will have limited opportunities for himself.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport), Roger Kluge (Mitchelton-Scott), Stan Dewulf (neo pro), Carl Fredrik Hagen (Joker), Brent Van Moer (neo pro), Brian Van Goethem (Roompot), Gerben Thijssen (neo pro), Rasmus Iversen (neo pro).

Outs: Andre Greipel (Arkea Samsic), Lars Bak (Dimension Data), Jens Debusschere (Katusha), Moreno Hofland (EF), Marcel Sieberg (Bahrain), James Shaw.

Renewals: Tim Wellens, Thomas De Gendt, Tosh Van der Sande, Adam Hansen, Remy Mertz, Enzo Wouters, Nikolas Maes.

Let’s discuss that Ewan for Greipel swap. Besides Lotto’s weird peccadillo for sprinters who are most successful in Australia (Both Greipel and Ewan have won more at the Tour Down Under than any other race, Greipel having 18 stage wins and Ewan having 7), this was a great move. Whatever Greipel’s prior contributions to the team, there are not many competitive 36 year old sprinters, and Greipel was likely consuming a large part of the team’s budget. Ewan is only 24 years old and has been knocking on the door of a breakthrough season for the last several years. It’s like trading a 1989 corvette with 250,000 miles, a slipping transmission, and $15,000 still owed to the bank for a completely paid off brand new Tesla. Sure, the Tesla might unexpectedly catch fire, but there’s not a lot of sunk costs associated with it.

Along with the Greipel-Ewan swap, Lotto also swapped out lead out riders, bringing Roger Kluge with Ewan from Mitchelton-Scott and signing Adam Blythe, who has worked with Ewan previously. With Ewan having a disappointing season last year, that was mostly the result of being a lame duck on a GT-oriented team after having signed with Lotto at the beginning of the season, it’s easy to forget that he was one pesky Sicilian away from winning Milano-Sanremo. With a supportive team behind him and a leadout specifically built for him, look for Ewan to have his best year as a professional yet.

Besides the blockbuster sprinter swap, Lotto has been focused on signing neo pros during the last few seasons. This year, they bring in Stan Dewulf, the winner of last year’s Paris-Roubaix espoirs race, as their premier neo pro signing, but also signed Gerben Thijssen, the u23 Belgian National champion, as well as Brent Van Moer, who looked competitive in the one day u23 races. They will join a bevy of developing talent, demonstrating Lotto’s desire to build a team that can can end their cobbled classics drought.

The most disappointing exit was Jens Debusschere leaving for Katusha as he was good for hoovering up points in the classics with top 10 finishes. At the same time if Lotto is building for the future and wants to develop riders that can actually win the type of races in which Debusschere could get a top 10, releasing him to give the young riders some opportunity make sense for Lotto.

Most intriguing rider

It was a hard start to the season for the young Belgian prodigy Bjorg Lambrecht, who would be pulled from startlist of his first planned professional race at the Tour Down Under after a technical screw up in signing up for anti-doping controls. Things would gradually get better for him throughout the season as he learned to ride in the pro peloton, with Lambrecht getting his first professional victory at the Tour des Fjords with a stage win and a 2nd in the GC. He would follow that up with top 20 performances in 2 World Tour one week stage races and a start at the Vuelta where he seemed to get better as the race went on before the team pulled him after Stage 14 as a preventative measure. He would then take 2nd at the u23 Worlds on the hard Austrian parcours. Lambrecht already looks like a burgeoning stage race talent and a rider who should flourish where Louis Vervaeke not too long ago fizzled with the same expectations.

End Belgian child labor, now!
Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick / Lillers - Grand Prix de Lillers-Souvenir Bruno Comini, 6 mars 2016 (B141) / Wikimedia Commons / Cc-by-sa 3.0

So, what happens next?

As Andrew said last year, Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot are two great 20-something riders to form your team around. Wellens looks to be a perennial contender in one week stage races and hilly one day classics, while Benoot is multi-talented and can be competitive on the cobbles, on the hills, or in the mountains. Despite Benoot’s first professional victory last year, he still looks like a rider that is going to have difficulty finding a way to win at the end of races as he lacks the sprint of many of the other hardmen roleurs. Hopefully, though, with his development he can find a way to win and come closer to fulfilling his original hyperbolic promise as the next Boonen rather than becoming the next Sep Vanmarcke.

Overall, the outlook for Lotto is not much different than last year. They’ll hope to get more victories from Ewan than they did with Greipel last year and will continue to ride opportunistically with the likes of De Gendt, Wallays, and Vanendert. The big question will be whether they can start to get some positive output from their cadre of young riders, including the aforementioned Lambrecht as well as Harm Vanhoucke, Enzo Wouters, Remy Mertz, and the four neo pros. Vanhoucke, in particular, looked like a star in the making in the u23 ranks but had a difficult first year with Lotto last year. If he can progress, Lotto will have a much needed mountain goat who can score points in races in which they usually cannot compete.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Twelve
The real reason that we call him Crazy is for his inexplicable affinity for Richard Nixon
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

With the absence of Debusschere (and to a lesser extent Moreno Hofland) there will also be a gap to fill in the sprinty SSR races that litter the Belgium calendar, and there does not seem an obvious candidate to fill that gap. If not one of the young riders, perhaps Jens Keukeleire, or maybe even Lawrence Naesen, can seize that opportunity.

Really, though, this is a team that shouldn’t look too much different than 2018 or 2017. 25 wins might be difficult to replicate, but this should still be one of the most exciting group of riders to watch, whether it be De Gendt going on a 150 kilometer solo breakaway in the Pyrenees, Benoot pedaling with grit while caked with grit, Wellens charging off the front in a monsoon, or Ewan pocket rocketing himself around the elephantine girth of a sprinter like Kristoff.