#8 – Omega Pharma-Lotto (Preview Ranking: #11)
What We Said:
Last season, Silence-Lotto was to the autumn what Quick Step was to the spring—maybe even a bit better. And while Quick Step might have more top riders for the classics, Omega Pharma-Lotto has one who will consistently ride well from March to October: Philippe Gilbert. As a result, they head into the new season ranked a spot ahead of their compatriots.
Anyone who saw Gilbert dominate last October knows what I’m talking about. He’s had a quiet winter, racing peacefully down in Qatar and Oman. But this weekend we should see if he intends to pick-up where he ended in 2009. He’s already won the Omloop twice in the past; a 3rd time would be a terrific way to welcome himself back to the top step of a Belgian podium. Gilbert possesses a rare mix of power, acceleration, and aggression, attributes that make him a favorite in just about every monument from now until the end of April. With the exception of Roubaix (relax, Leif Hoste), Gilbert has the talent to win Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Amstel, and Liege—as well as any number of minor classics along the way. It’s a long stretch though, and he’ll have to see how his form develops before making promises. Still, that’s a not bad problem to have.
After Gilbert, there’s a huge drop-off though, making me a bit nervous about ranking them so high. The departure of Cadel Evans will be felt by the entire squad. Yes, Cuddles had a lackluster season until winning Worlds, but lackluster by Evans’ standards is still quite good compared to most. Evans played a big role in Gilbert’s autumn success too, forcing teams to address two captains rather than one. In the Ardennes, having a rider like Evans would take an enormous amount of pressure off Gilbert’s shoulders, while giving the competition two riders with which to contend.
In the grand tours, Lotto enters 2010 relying on Jurgen Van den Broeck to develop perhaps a year or two earlier than some might have expected. Here again we see an effect of Evans’ departure. With Evans, Van den Broeck might have had one more year to ride in the service of someone else, perhaps riding himself into a high placing if given the opportunity. This year, he’ll enter the race as “the man”—can he handle the pressure?
Man of the Hour: There’s perhaps no other rider I’m more eager to see come classics-time than Gilbert. In fact, he’s my early favorite for Saturday’s Omloop.
On the Hot Seat: Last year, I expected a lot from Greg Van Avermaet, but he failed to deliver. He needs a good season to protect his reputation as one of Belgium’s brightest young stars.
Up-and-Comer: Jurgen Van Den Broeck really should be spending one more season as everyone’s up-and-comer—not as Lotto’s designated leader for the Tour de France. He has the talent to ride a good race, but the pressure to succeed is something many young riders fail to anticipate. Let’s hope he can avoid the hype. Maybe he and Quick Step’s Seeldraeyers will be the ushers of a new era of Belgian Tour champions?
Best Pick-Up: Jan Bakelants won a lot of races in 2008—his last race as an amateur—including the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Triptych Ardennais. Now he heads to the Pro Tour following a year learning the ropes with Topsport-Vlaanderen. He reminds me of a young Philippe Gilbert—convenient for Lotto, no?
Biggest Loss: Evans is the obvious choice, for reasons I’ve already explained. However, don’t discount the effects of Johan Vansummeren’s transfer to Garmin. Leif Hoste fine-tunes his form perfectly for the second weekend in April. Vansummeren’s been a loyal and dedicated domestique at Roubaix, often spending large amounts of his time pulling Hoste into position. Without Vansummeren’s service, it’s hard to see Hoste even finishing in the top-10. Mark my words: Lotto’s loss will be Garmin’s gain.
What We Saw:
Thanks to Phillippe Gilbert and Jurgen Van den Broeck, Omega Pharma-Lotto enjoyed a banner season in 2010—even though it won only 11 races. From the outset, the team knew it’s best chances for big wins would come in the spring classics, the Tour de France, and the fall classics, with Gilbert and VDBeke leading the way.
The season opened with the bulk of the squad’s classics contingent heading for sunny skies and warm weather in Australia, Qatar, and Oman. Lotto was content simply following wheels, while putting the odd attack in here and there in anticipation of bigger goals to come. As a result, there were few results to speak of, aside from Jurgen Roelandts and Kenny Dehaes each scoring a third-place stage finish in Australia and Oman respectively.
Heading back to Europe in February, Roelandts and Mikael Delage hit the podium in two stages in the Volta ao Algarve, while Van den Broeck took second overall at the Ruta del Sol after a second-place ride on the queen stage to la Guardia de Jaen. However, most of these results went unnoticed as the majority of Lotto’s fans were watching in eager anticipation as Phillipe Gilbert continued his preparation for the cobbled and Ardennes classics.
The cobbled season opened in Belgium on the final Saturday in February with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race Gilbert has won twice. But despite the presence of both Gilbert and Roelandts in the final breakaway, Lotto was unable to keep the win in-house—Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha out-muscled the Belgians on the way to his first major cobbled win. Roelandts’ performance was a good sign however, as he would prove to be Gilbert’s biggest ally heading into April.
After riding Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo (where he finished ninth), Gilbert opened his cobbled assault at Ghent-Wevelgem, forgoing a start in the E3 Prijs the day before. It was a savvy move, offering the team a better chance for victory over a field that was expected to be missing several major contenders. It also prevented Gilbert’s competition from testing themselves against the Belgian—they would have to wait for Flanders to see how their form compared (but so would Gilbert).
In the race, Gilbert and Roelandts once again made the leading breakaway, but they again failed to take the win. Gilbert finished third. At Flanders a week later, he would repeat the feat after failing to follow Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara when they broke away to contest the win. Two races, two thirds—impressive for many, but one could sense a hollow ring for Gilbert and Lotto.
Wisely, Gilbert skipped the following weekend’s Paris-Roubaix to rest for Amstel and the Ardennes. He returned to take fifth at the Brabantsepijl in its new place on the calendar the Wednesday before Amstel. At Amstel four-days later—with some help from an impressive VDBeke—he finally emerged victorious, taking the win atop Valkenberg’s Cauberg and simultaneously announcing himself as one of the top favorites for the Ardennes classics to follow.
In Fleche Wallonne, Gilbert rode conservatively, as if not to tip his hand for Sunday’s monument—but he still finished fifth on the Mur de Huy. Unfortunately, on Sunday he was the most heavily-marked rider in the race—a fact that worked against him when it came time to chase down Alexandre Vinokourov. He came across the line in—you guessed it—third-place.
Overall, Gilbert finished inside the top-10 in Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders, the Brabantsepijl, Amstel, Fleche, and Liege—finishing inside the top-3 three times and winning once. Too bad for him that Fabian Cancellara decided to win Flanders and Roubaix, otherwise Gilbert’s impressive run might have received more of the credit it deserves.
As for Jurgen Van den Broeck, after riding well in the Ruta del Sol and helping Gilbert take the win in Amstel, he set his sights firmly upon improving his top-15 placing in the 2009 Tour de France. He rode a fairly conservative series of spring races: starting in Spain before tackling Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco, and the Ardennes classics. His next race—the Criterium du Dauphiné—would be his final form-builder for July and his performance there was the first indicator that he was bound for big things. Glued to the wheels of Alberto Contador and the other main contenders, he finished fourth overall.
At the Tour de France weeks later, VDBeke was arguably the revelation of the race. His fifth-place finish was the highest for a Belgian in quite some time. Van den Broeck rode with consistency and panache, and wasn’t afraid to talk a little trash when the situation presented itself. Here’s hoping he can repeat or improve upon the performance next year. For a nation long-starved for a Tour contender, he was a sight for sore eyes.
In August, Lotto went back to working for Gilbert and his subsequent build-up for Worlds and the fall classics. Gilbert once again used the Vuelta to build fitness, winning two stages before heading to Australia, where—despite his best efforts—the race came back together in time for Thor Hushovd to take the win. Luckily, Gilbert rebounded, repeating last year’s wins in the Giro del Piemonte and more impressively, the Tour of Lombardy.
So all in all, while there wasn’t a large quantity of wins for Omega Pharma-Lotto, the team’s Belgian stars provided more than enough quality results to make their supporters proud.
Most Valuable Rider: It’s safe to say that Philippe Gilbert passed Tom Boonen as the most popular rider in Belgium this season—an impressive feat considering he’s not Flemish. If Gilbert manages to win Flanders or Liege this year, Boonen will need to do a lot more than win another Roubaix to usurp his compatriot.
Biggest Surprise: Shame on you if you thought VDBeke was a surprise! If you’ve been reading long enough, you were certainly not shocked by his impressive Tour de France. A better pick might be Jurgen Roelandts, a rider who proved to be more than capable of handling himself in a cobbled classic. He’s only 25, look for continued progress in 2011.
Biggest Disappointment: Call me crazy, but I think the signing of sprinter Andre Grepiel was a bad decision. Greipel had a healthy line-up surrounding him at HTC, perhaps the biggest reason why he won so many races over the last few years. He might find Lotto lacks the firepower to get him the wins he so craves. Worse, VDBeke might find his team’s support lacking when he truly needs it in next year’s Tour de France—it takes a rare group to support both a field sprinter and a GC rider in July.
That’s it for #8. Share your comments below!