Tour de France 2012 Team Preview: Lotto-Belisol

Photo courtesy of Lotto-Belisol / © Photo News *

For a major Belgian team like Lotto-Belisol, the season has two main points of interest: the classics and the Tour de France. In the classics, the team came up empty. Andre Greipel and Jelle Vanendert did their best to snag wins on the cobbles and in the Ardennes, but in the end they just didn’t have enough to find their way to the top step of the podium.

Even worse, Belgian rivals Omega Pharma-Quick Step enjoyed a legendary run through the cobbled classics, adding further insult to injury Lotto-Belisol considering that Patrick Lefevere’s new co-sponsor was once their own.

Luckily, Lotto has a terrific chance to reverse its fortunes at the Tour de France with Greipel, Vanendert, and 2010 fifth-place finisher Jurgen Van den Broeck leading a team that might outperform its Flemish counterpart.

Let’s start with Greipel, the German gorilla who won his first Tour stage last year and already has 13 wins under his belt this season. Winning Stage 10 in Carmaux last year seems to have eased some of the pressure on the German sprinter after years of trying to escape the shadow of former HTC teammate Mark Cavendish. Even better, Lotto has bolstered Greipel’s lead-out, adding Greg Henderson to boost Greipel’s firepower. Lastly, Greipel might also come to the Tour with a bit of extra motivation, as he and compatriot John Degenkolb (not riding the Tour) are battling for leadership of the German Olympic team. The Tour is Greipel’s best chance to prove that he warrants the undisputed support of his national federation in London.

As for Jelle Vanendert, he first hit the radar last year after a terrific Ardennes campaign in which he played a major role in Philippe Gilbert’s classics win streak. Entering the Tour as Van den Broeck’s mountain lieutenant, the Belgian shined after his captain crashed-out, winning a stage in the Pyrenees and wearing the polka dot jersey for a day on his way to top-20 finish in Paris. With Van den Broeck healthy and ready for another GC challenge, Vanendert will likely find himself back in his original role from last year’s race, but perhaps with a bit more freedom to try for another mountain stage win.

And what about Van den Broeck? After his crash and subsequent abandon during the Tour’s first week, he shifted his focus to the Vuelta, where an eighth-place finish boosted his confidence heading into the off-season. Van den Broeck comes to the Tour fresh on the heels of his fifth-place finish at the Dauphiné, a result that included a better than expected time trial from a man known more for his climbing. That said, this year’s Tour de France is just too flat for the Belgian to find himself on the podium; and there are too many riders who are equally as talented at going uphill, but more so when it comes to racing against the clock. Another top-5 finish is a realistic goal, but a place on the podium might be a bit much too hope for given this year’s parcours.

Man of the Hour

Have your pick between Greipel and Van den Broeck. Greipel’s certainly a better bet for stage wins, but he’s a German riding for a Belgian team. Fans will certainly be more interested in Van den Broeck’s chances to put a Belgian on the Tour’s podium for first time since Lucien Van Impe finished second in 1981.

Up-and-Comer

Riding in only his second Tour de France, Vanendert will attempt to show that his impressive performance last year was no fluke.

On the Hot Seat

The entire team knows that it needs an impressive Tour to remind fans and sponsors that there are in fact two World Tour teams in Belgium.

Unsung Hero

I credit much of Greipel’s success so far this season to the addition of Greg Henderson. The most important piece of Greipel’s lead-out train, the Kiwi is finally riding the Tour de France.

Follow Whit on Twitter at @whityost

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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