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 didnâ€™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 Lefevereâ€™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.
Letâ€™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 Greipelâ€™s lead-out, adding Greg Henderson to boost Greipelâ€™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 Greipelâ€™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 Gilbertâ€™s classics win streak. Entering the Tour as Van den Broeckâ€™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 yearâ€™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 Tourâ€™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 DauphinÃ©, a result that included a better than expected time trial from a man known more for his climbing. That said, this yearâ€™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 yearâ€™s parcours.
Man of the Hour
Have your pick between Greipel and Van den Broeck. Greipelâ€™s certainly a better bet for stage wins, but heâ€™s a German riding for a Belgian team. Fans will certainly be more interested in Van den Broeckâ€™s chances to put a Belgian on the Tourâ€™s podium for first time since Lucien Van Impe finished second in 1981.
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.
I credit much of Greipelâ€™s success so far this season to the addition of Greg Henderson. The most important piece of Greipelâ€™s lead-out train, the Kiwi is finally riding the Tour de France.
Follow Whit on Twitter at @whityost