Each year, Pavé previews the upcoming road season with a countdown of the top-20 teams in the sport. Here’s #7.
#7 Omega Pharma-Lotto
It’s funny that a team with wins in the Amstel Gold Race and the Tour of Lombardy, a fifth-place finish in the Tour de France, and two stage wins at the Vuelta felt it was necessary to overhaul its roster this past offseason. But that’s just what Omega Pharma-Lotto did, adding 15 new faces and jettisoning 15 others for 2011. Then again, the team did win only 11 races in 2010—and had to wait until Philippe Gilbert’s win in Amstel on April 18th for its first trip to the top step of the podium.
The signing of Andre Greipel should remedy that; the German comes from HTC hoping to be his team’s undisputed sprint captain. Tired of playing second and sometimes third fiddle at HTC, Omega Pharma-Lotto was the perfect destination for the talented speedster. Ironically, Greipel’s already suffered from a bit a of déjà vu, as Gilbert attacked inside the last kilometer of yesterday’s first stage at the Volta ao Algarve to take the win (but that was supposedly the plan).
But while Lotto’s management and sponsors have to be pleased they won’t have to wait another two months for the team’s first victory, one has to wonder if Greipel’s in for another round of “you get to win when one of our more popular riders doesn’t want to”. That said, with Gilbert headed for the classics and Greipel likely to contest short stage races and maybe a few of the flatter semi-classics (which Gilbert will likely skip), it’s hard to see yesterday’s result as the early sign of a trend.
At the Classics, Leif Hoste’s departure leaves Lotto as a team built primarily for Flanders, Amstel, and Liege—as well as the traditional warm-up races. Gilbert is targeting Flanders and Liege—the two most important Monuments for any Belgian sponsor or rider—but he’s capable of winning anything from Milan-San Remo through the Ardennes. He also seems to be right on track for a third victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—if his performance yesterday is any indication. At Roubaix, Jurgen Roelandts might be the team’s captain, but he’ll need some more time to develop if he’s to become a contender one day.
At the Giro, Lotto might look to Greipel for stage wins on flatter days and Matthew Lloyd in the mountains—and possibly GC. The young, Belgian Jan Bakelants also performed well in last year’s Italian Grand Tour, finishing 10th on the rainy, muddy stage to Montalcino and 36th overall. He then finished 18th in the Vuelta, confirming his Grand Tour potential.
Things could get dicey at the Tour de France however, as Greipel—while giving the team an immediate stage-win contender—also brings the added burden of controlling the race in the first week, something that could negatively affect the rest of the team’s ability to arrive at the mountains fresh, relaxed, and ready to support 2010 fifth-place finisher Jurgen Van den Broeck. Add Philippe Gilbert’s stage win motivations to the mix, and you have a three-headed monster that Lotto’s nine-man Tour roster might struggle to satisfy. The last time a team won both the green and yellow jersey was 1996 and 1997 when Telekom did it with Erik Zabel, Bjarne Riis, and Jan Ullrich—and Omega Pharma-Lotto is no Telekom.
Post-Tour, the focus turns back to Gilbert and the Fall Classics. Greipel’s a contender for a World Title in Copenhagen and will probably use the Vuelta to fine-tune his form along with his Belgian colleague.
But by the time it’s all said and done, Omega Pharma-Lotto should have little trouble surpassing last year’s win total. And even if they don’t, if Gilbert gets his Spring Monument, Greipel gets his stages, and VDBeke gets another top-5 in the Tour—that’s a pretty good season anyway.
Man of the Hour: Philippe Gilbert loses races almost as excitingly as he wins them. That said, he has yet to score a Spring Classic on par with his late-season wins in Paris-Tours or the Tour of Lombardy. He needs to win one soon, lest rumors begin circulating that he can’t get the job done when the competition is at its best.
On the Hot Seat: The worst thing about Jurgen Van den Broeck’s fifth-place finish in last year’s Tour is that it puts pressure on the young Belgian to repeat the feat. Unfortunately, his team seems more intent on winning stages than adding riders capable of helping the young Belgian improve upon last year’s result.
Up-and-Comer: 21-year-old Adam Blythe won the last race of the year in Belgium, capping what turned out to be a terrific autumn for the Brit. He’s rumored to be a bit of a party animal though—something he’ll need to get over at some point in order to join the ranks of the world’s best. Then again, he’s a sprinter—who cares?
Best Pick-Up: Lotto hopes Greipel will help the squad surpass its 11-win tally from 2010. The German’s off to a slow start, but should rebound soon. And if he doesn’t—well, let’s hope for the best.
Biggest Loss: Daniel Moreno was Van den Broeck’s best mountain domestique during last year’s Tour de France. He’s since departed for Katusha, something that does little to soften the blow that Greipel and his lead-out train’s arrival could be to VDBeke’s Tour chances.
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