Divorce in the Kingdom: Omega, Lotto and Gilbert

Friday, 29 April 2011

Not all marriages last. Today came confirmation of a split in the Kingdom of Belgium between Omega Pharma and the Belgian lottery, Lotto. Both are long term sponsors of pro cycling. Omega boss Marc Coucke is a big fan of the sport and cycling is the most popular sport in Belgium, meaning the state lottery is almost obliged to get involved.

Reynders + Gilbert

Reynders and Gilbert: a classic "politician with sportsman" pose... or is there more to it?

But there’s a twist, as explained by Greg Ienco of Cyclisme Revue. Lotto is effectively under the control of Belgian politician Didier Reynders. He’s perhaps the top representative of the Walloon region, being both deputy prime minister and finance minister. Plus as there’s still no government, he was also an informateur, a role appointed by the King to help form a government but like others, couldn’t get a parliamentary majority in place. Put simply, Reynders is big in Belgium.

As such Lotto is keen to create a national team built around Philippe Gilbert and there are obvious electoral gains from certain politicians wanting to associate with Gilbert. If Lotto is to stay in the sport and Walloon politicians are involved then it seems unthinkable that Philippe Gilbert will go anywhere else. Already a fan of Gilbert, Reynders is from Liège.

Finances
Phil won’t come cheap, he can name his price. But there’s already talk of new sponsors from national telecom firm Belgacom plus Addeco, an international recruitment agency. In addition, it’s the country’s finance minister who might call the shots. A politician in charge of the nation’s finances has an unlimited budget.

In return the world number one gets a team that is built for him, a loyal cadre of riders to help him succeed. As we’ve seen several times this season Gilbert’s successful modus operandi is based on having a team close gaps and above all, sheltering him from the slightest effort until he launches his trademark devastating attack. As such this could be reminiscent of yesteryear when teams were often built around a single leader; although I suspect the new squad will realise it needs other winners too

Merger mania
Meanwhile Omega Pharma’s been interested in exploiting the growing internationalism of the sport as it tries to push its products across Europe and beyond. The company is listed on the Brussels stock exchange and Couke is the CEO. In order to help the sales push abroad Coucke wants to spend more money on foreign riders, aim for more races outside of Belgium and to have a wider presence beyond the small but cycling-mad country.

Marc Couke

Chef Couke

A “merger” with Quick Step is on the cards, although a point to note is that the existing Omega – Lotto team is owned by Coucke and his business has the contracts of several riders too. So where Coucke goes, many riders will follow as will the ProTeam licence from the UCI. But any link with Patrick Lefevere’s Quick Step is far from a done deal. Not long ago two businessmen injected a lot of money into the team, they will want a say and presumably already have ambitions for the future without any need for Coucke and his cash. Plus any deal with Coucke and Lefevere might well involve a clash of ideas when it comes to running a team.

Speculation and certainty
All this is due happen from 2012 onwards. Right now the team will continue until the end of the year. We can only speculate on the outcomes but today saw the rumours of this sponsor divorce confirmed. Amongst all this there is one certainty: whilst many will want Gilbert to sign for them in 2012, the new Lotto team won’t want Gilbert… it needs him.

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{ 10 comments }

Larry T. April 29, 2011 at 11:44 pm

And what about rumors of Gilbert going over the border to Shleck-embourg? I heard some talk that this was the reason for the whimpy attacks once it was just down to three at L-B-L. I hate the thought of Gilbert going there almost as much as I hate the thought of him being “gifted” a win by future teammates! Silly-season seems to be getting underway VERY early this year, no? We’re just pouring gasoline on the fire until the Giro gets underway I guess.

ColoradoGoat April 30, 2011 at 12:21 am

Sad really…I prefer teams which hold some sense of national origin. IN a sport where teams last for what seems like an instant compared with other professional sports, having something to root for (beyond just the race itself, the course and certain riders), the sport is healthier when fans feel some sense of pull towards certain teams based on national pride.

barbara April 30, 2011 at 1:04 am

If Gilbert goes to LT what will the other riders do? Will all of them be working for Gilbert in next year classics? I cannot believe that. It would be the end of cycling for me…

Nick April 30, 2011 at 2:36 am

I’ll eat my hat if Gilbert goes to Leopard.

Nick April 30, 2011 at 2:36 am

Will not happen.

JustJoshinYa May 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm

He will go to Astana before he goes to LeopardWrek, I think. Of course, it’s “show me the money” time.

I’m not sure OmegaPharma-Quick Step can fit across the chest on a jersey. And, how will the two shades of blue be combined? Details about kits aside, the idea of Gilbert + Boonen + Chava is very interesting if not extremely improbable.

Jarvis May 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Marc Madiot was mentioned in one article about this story… he does have the infrastructure, is a very good friend of Gilbert, but it doesn’t sit well with the “Belgian team scenario” and it’s not as if he has a Protour licence to tout

Jerome May 2, 2011 at 11:19 pm

If I remember correctly, Omega and Quick-Step were co-sponsors of Quick-Step/Davitamon in ’03 and ’04. That deal ended poorly, wasn’t that why Omega jumped to rival Lotto? I have a difficult time imagining Couke and Levefere want to get in bed again.

The Inner Ring May 2, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Very good point Jerome, thanks for reminding me. As you say it might be hard to make this work, especially given Omega holds the licences and contracts – it owns the current team and it’s for Lotto to set up the new structure, hire riders and staff, buy the team bus and lure Gilbert.

Tom May 3, 2011 at 12:04 am

Don’t forget Lotto is owned and managed by the Belgian state. Their resources to have a professional cycling team are not endless but they have the advantage of stability that only a few other teams can offer.
Having Gilbert on board next to a national selection in several disciplines would create solid, international year-round attention for any brand. Something with a serious pricetag, but well worth it (and within reach) for car manufacturers or electronics stores like saturn.

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