There were already whispers of Paul De Geyter’s imminent departure from Lotto Soudal at the team’s 2019 pre-season get-together at the start of October. The autumn event, held at Soudal’s factory in Turnhout, Belgium, was a chance for next year’s roster to mingle, for sponsors to introduce themselves, and for staff and riders who have not seen each other since the start of the year to reacquaint themselves with one another. Everyone from the Lotto Soudal set-up was present but for one person: the team’s general manager, Paul De Geyter.
By the time the day had concluded, and the likes of Caleb Ewan and Adam Blythe had met their new squad, there was still no sign of De Geyter. Members of the staff’s management and several sponsors had taken to the floor to speak but the riders were completely in the dark with regards to their team boss.
Nothing was said, but something was certainly up.
Then, on the evening of October 8, the news was released that De Geyter would be leaving with immediate effect. The press release used the term ‘mutual agreement’ but, reading between the lines, it was clear that De Geyter had been relieved of his duties.
Less than 24 hours later and another Lotto Soudal press release landed, this time informing the media that John Leglangue would be returning from the wilderness to fill De Geyter’s still-warm chair.
The fact that both press releases came within hours of Quick-Step announcing their new partnership with Deceuninck was certainly not a coincidence. This was an orchestrated move carried out by Lotto Soudal’s board, who had grown weary of one man’s running of the team and were willing to consciously uncouple themselves from a multi-year contract in order to amend for their mistake in appointing De Geyter in the first place.
It was the board – comprised of members from Lotto, Soudal and Ridley – that appointed De Geyter at the tail end of 2017, having rejected a number of other candidates, including Lelangue. The search for a general manager had in fact begun at the start of 2017, with Lelangue among the first to apply, but it took until the winter for the team to eventually choose De Geyter. He was given extended powers to sign riders, a say in team selection, and was tasked with generating additional sponsorship. The consensus among the board was that De Geyter, who had run a highly successful rider agency, had the necessary contacts and influence to take Lotto Soudal to the next level.
However, there were already rumblings of discontent during the spring. The team’s leader and most successful rider over the past decade, Andre Greipel, openly criticised De Geyter, calling his then boss a ‘liar’ in relation to their public contract dispute. Another rider expressed his dismay relating to De Geyter’s management style during a phone call to senior sports director Marc Sergeant, telling him: “Marc you have to watch out because the family is falling apart. Paul is looking at this as a business but it isn't a business.”
Every team has its own identity and Lotto Soudal is no different. There is a Belgian spine to the squad but they do not have the brightest stars, while their budget is modest in comparison to some of the other WorldTour outfits. Instead, they rely on shrewd signings, the odd transfer gamble, and fostering a family ethos. The slightest change or imbalance to that can be detrimental to the overall success, and it seems De Geyter’s style grated with too many people, including some of the riders.
Lotto’s handling of Greipel’s contract negotiations was a PR disaster but De Geyter – who declined to be interviewed for this article – had further problems. He was brought in and tasked with finding additional sponsors for the team, but by the time he left he had failed to land a single fish – big or small.
Cyclingnews has learned that the board were hugely disappointed with the sponsor search and by August their patience had reached breaking point when they found out that Wout van Aert, a rider they had agreed to sanction a transfer move for, had not been sent a contract offer by the team’s management. According to a source close to the negotiations, the board spoke to Van Aert’s agent three times over a three-day period to check if a contract had been sent. On each occasion they were told ‘no’, and by the time a contract had arrived it was too late. Van Aert would eventually sign for LottoNL Jumbo for 2020.
Missing out on Van Aert on its own was not the issue; eighteen other WorldTour teams would have loved to have signed the talented all-rounder, and only LottoNL were able to succeed. However, at Lotto the board control the purse strings and, after sanctioning the budget increase to accommodate Van Aert, they were dismayed that a contract was not produced in a timely fashion.
“One of the main reasons was down to sponsorship,” a source told us. “He was there for a year and didn’t find a single new one. Then you also had the situation with Van Aert. That was probably the final straw. That made it clear to the board that they had the wrong man.”
The Van Aert episode took place around the Tour de France, by which point it was clear that Greipel would not be staying. In August – although the deal was agreed much earlier – it was announced that Caleb Ewan would be joining the team and, with that, Greipel departed for Fortuneo-Samsic. Several other riders jumped ship, too, although Tim Wellens re-signed and a new lead-out train for Ewan was successfully recruited.
“The situation with Andre was also part of the problem,” our source within the team said. “Andre never felt accepted by Paul. That made things difficult and put a weight on the team at the Tour. He should have been getting sponsors instead of being at the race.”
July quickly rolled into August and by then it was too late. Wheels were set in motion and the board went back to their list of initial candidates and began to contact Lelangue to see if he would be interested in the role of general manager. Lelangue had remained in contact with Lotto, De Geyter, and several other members of the management throughout 2018 but even he couldn’t envisage that the turnaround would be so swift. On October 6 he traveled to Brussels to meet the board, and just over 48 hours later De Geyter was gone.
“Paul tried to do his best but he tried to do too much on his own. He created a nervousness among the staff,” our source said with a hint of empathy.
Lotto Soudal were bold to appoint De Geyter but they were braver to realise their mistake, and act swiftly at the right point in the season. Only time will tell if Lelangue will be a success. He has been out of team management for five years but he has already made all the right moves in pacifying any uncertainty surrounding his arrival by reaffirming to the rest of the management that he will not encroach on their hard work, and that driving sponsorship will be his primary target.
Perhaps that’s all De Geyter needed to do from the start, but cycling can be an uncompromising sport.