Several teams are sponsored by lotteries like FDJ and Lotto-Jumbo but in 2015 it’s Lotto-Soudal who’ve been lucky with the draw. Best team of 2015? Of course not but Lotto-Soudal have beaten expectations and their own records and it’s worth noting. The finish 2015 in third place on the team victory ranking.
What’s gone right this year?
Four stage wins in the Tour de France for a start. For years they were perpetual runners-up, a decent team but often seen losing races rather than winning them. It’s been the team’s best ever season with 40 wins, putting them 3rd equal with Katusha on the 2015 team victory rankings. Only in 2011 did they score more UCI points when Philippe Gilbert had his jubilee season.
A lot has been put down to André Greipel missing the Tour Down Under, worrying for the race if it says skipping it delivera your best ever season but perhaps untangling causation and correlation isn’t so obvious. Jurgen Roelandts avoided Australia too before a decent sprint campaign, you remember the wild edition of Gent-Wevelgem in the storm. For a long time Roelandts was leading the race solo and even looked like a winner until fatigue got the better of him and he finished seventh, it’d be his best showing in the spring classics. Talking of showing in the classics, Greipel was very visible in his German national champions kit as he set about doing team work for others, a generous gesture that surely wins around colleagues to help him later in the year.
Leadout: Greipel is the team’s lead rider and perhaps more than skipping the land of Skippy is the way they’ve got their leadout perfected, notably with Marcel Sieberg and Greg Henderson. While other teams work hard to control the bunch with their sprint trains throughout the last, say, 10km, it’s been common for Lotto-Soudal to gatecrash the party by only appearing on the front in the final moments. Crafty and effective.
As ever though these successes don’t happen in isolation. Greipel was brilliant in the Tour but what if Marcel Kittel had started with the same form as 2013? To which the obvious reply is that Greipel made his own luck while others had their plans fall apart. One good example of this was Stage 1 of the Tour de France when Lotto were instrumental in splitting the field apart under the stormy skies.
Belgium is a small place and there’s not much room for two big cycling teams. For years Lotto-Soudal have been the underdogs to Etixx-Quickstep and this continues to some extent. Etixx-QS is the team that’s had Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish and Michał Kwiatkowski on their books while Lotto struggles for the star factor. This must have made victory taste even sweeter for team boss Marc Sergeant whether the sight of Greipel outsprinting Cavendish or Gallopin ditching Kwiatkowski in Paris-Nice.
Adam Hansen has broken the record for riding consecutive grand tours. A personal achievement and a publicity win for the team too, it’s made the news over and over again but it’s always been a means to an end, he’s made the Lotto team for the Tour de France because he’s valuable for the way he can tow the bunch along. It’s looked fun along the way. Soudal have made some simple but clever ads on the back of it and Greipel remains a gentle giant, the “Gorilla of Rostock” looks imposing but he’s really a rather sensitive gentleman, shy even.
“At the end of May we were eleventh with 206 points, now we finish at 832… … We collected a lot of points especially in the second part of the season, after Movistar and Katusha even most of all World Tour teams.“
That’s team manager Marc Sergeant doing a season debrief with the Belgian media. Telling on two levels, first because it shows how the team has scored points and away from the spring classics when you might expect them to thrive. The second degree is the team manager quoting the absolute number of points because it’s one of the things that matters to many managers even if it leaves fans wholly indifferent as they want action and emotion rather than artithmetic.
A lot of the teams wins come from smaller races and the big gap is stage race wins, in particular in the mountains and grand tours. Tony Gallopin was strong in Paris-Nice and had a great Tour de France including 9th in the La Pierre St Martin summit finish before falling away later in the race. They took wins in the Eneco Tour thanks to Tim Wellens plus the Tour de Picardie and the Ster ZLM Tour. But the mountain stage races are a rarefied zone and not all teams can or should compete, just assembling the riders needed consumes millions of Euros from the team budget. For years the team has been backing Jurgen Van Den Broeck and he has delivered results and rankings only without much attention. He’s even finished on the Tour de France podium but this is because Alberto Contador and Denis Menchov have since been ejected. The team gave him a final trial in the Giro and apparently there were arguments and “divorce” was sought. He’s off to Katusha.
New for 2016 are Jelle Wallays who’s been a solid classics rider for Topsport Vlaanderen and provides more depth for the team. Spaniard Rafael Valls and Polish rider Tomasz Marczynski, from the Conti team Torku Şekerspor are the only other two signings, odd choices. To satisfy sponsors who want reach into their native markets or can Valls make his climbing more consistent and bag a grand tour stage?
History: the Belgian lottery backed a team in 1984, liked it and in 1985 took over sponsorship and they’ve stayed in the sport ever since, the longest run of team sponsorship in the peloton today and by some margin. Still this is to be expected in cycling crazy Belgium from a sponsor tasked with supporting sports. They been around so long there are many highlights, Paris-Roubaix in 1994 and Milan-Sanremo in 1999 both thanks to Andre Tchmil then the jackpot of the Tour of Flanders in 2000. They ventured into stage racing, notably with Cadel Evans who finished second in the 2008 Tour de France and almost won the Vuelta the next year but he wasn’t at ease and jumped to BMC. In 2011 Philippe Gilbert won all of the Ardennes classics.
If you want more reasons to like them then they’ve got their own Lotto-Soudal Ladies Team and a strong U23 team too that’s brought new riders into the team like Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot.
Several other teams have clicked this year:
- Giant-Alpecin launched with a fanfare in Berlin and delivered wins in the classics, the Tour de France and surprised in the Vuelta all while their star rider was out of action
- MTN-Qhubeka thrived when it counted with success in the Tour de France although their “hire lots of sprinters” method looks weak with several failing to win a single race
- Lampre-Merida have often been a team you’d bet against winning but 2015 has smiled on them
They’re not the best but 2015 has been a great year for Lotto-Soudal with 40 wins. Things have worked out for the Belgium’s second team, for years things looked chaotic to the point where Cadel Evans had to leave. Now they’re a strong classics squad, have one of the best sprint trains in the business and a raft of promising younger riders. Repeating 2015 already looks like plenty to ask but they are aiming high with manager Sergeant declaring one aim for 2016 is to win a major spring classic.