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.
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.
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
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.
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.