This is a story about broken promises, power struggles, fabrications, how business acumen was put ahead of loyalty, and, at the end of it all, the sudden dismantling of one of cycling's most successful sprinting dynasties. This is the story of how and why André Greipel left Lotto Soudal.
It's May, and on the outskirts of Liège, in a hotel near the airport, Lotto Soudal's management are meeting with Greipel. It is the first sit-down conversation over a proposed contract and just a few days earlier, Greipel had helped himself to two stage wins and the points jersey at the Tour of Belgium. At that point, the German's win tally for the year stood at six, while another sprinter, Caleb Ewan of Mitchelton-Scott, was stuck on two.
Unbeknownst to Greipel, Ewan had already agreed to terms and would move to Lotto Soudal at the start of 2019. Greipel's wins would count for nought.
In truth, Lotto Soudal had been looking at bringing Ewan on board for some time. They had scouted him in previous seasons, but Greipel was still on his A-game and Mitchelton-Scott secured Ewan for a further two seasons at the start of 2016. Interest appeared to wane when Mitchelton-Scott announced that Ewan would make their Tour de France team, but the Australian team's ploy turned out to be a pointless gesture.
The real catalyst for change came at the start of 2018, however, when Lotto Soudal reshuffled their management structure.
Paul De Geyter was one of the most prominent and successful rider agents in Europe. He worked with a flurry of high-profile stars and would typically sign neo-professionals without taking a commission on the basis that he would only take a cut if and when they signed their second deals. He was regarded as one of the best in the business.
De Geyter was brought in as Lotto Soudal's CEO in January. The move saw Marc Sergeant slip into a purely sporting role and put De Geyter at the centre of the entire operation. For Greipel, this was effectively the beginning of the end. However, when contacted by Cyclingnews, De Geyter denied that Ewan had agreed to terms before this summer.
"Think about it. If André was offered a contract to stay in the WorldTour but chose for a Pro Continental team, then it must have ended badly," one source told Cyclingnews. "If the Lotto team were grateful of what he did, then give him another two years so he could retire in their team."
However, once De Geyter was in the door, the team started to change. The riders felt that Sergeant, who had been like a father figure to many of them, was now powerless and that their new and challenging CEO was calling too many shots.
"Riders are questioning what Marc Sergeant's job is now," the source said. "When you look at teams you might have a CEO but these people don't decide your riders unless it has relationships with the sponsors. The sporting side is usually down to the sporting director, but Marc isn't calling all the shots anymore. A lot of riders in Lotto Soudal are asking the question, what does Marc do now?"
The consensus within Lotto's ranks was that, from the moment De Geyter came in, the atmosphere changed. Instead of a gentle evolution in terms of roster, sweeping changes were being discussed. Sergeant, who had run a team on empathy, and as if it was an extension of his own family, could do little. Lars Bak (38), Adam Hansen (37) and Marcel Sieberg (36), all of whom who had moved across with Greipel from HTC-HighRoad under Sergeant's guidance, were all out of contract and all suddenly under review.
"It isn't just about putting a bunch of guys together and having them race," says our source. "Every team has a core structure, and that works and you can modify around the core structure as long as you have that base of riders. It's about having direction. It seemed like Lotto Soudal were like this at the Tour this year, that their team was just a mix of riders."
By the time the Tour had come around, the relationship between De Geyter and Greipel had almost completely broken down. In June, at the Tour de Suisse, the German had openly called his boss a liar in an interview with Cyclingnews, noting that a contract offer had been made from Lotto after the manager had denied such an offer a few days earlier.
"He said he didn't give an offer?" Greipel said at the time. "Then he was lying… I hope he will come on Friday. It was a two-year [offer] but if he says there's no offer then probably there's no offer. I'm surprised that he said this. I got an offer, and that's all I can say."
De Geyter and Greipel never met at the Tour de Suisse. Cyclingnews understands that the initial offer – two years in length – was less than half of Greipel's current salary.
"André had no problem with another sprinter coming to his team," our source told us. "He wanted to finish his career leading out and sharing advice. Basically, André got an offer and he wasn't happy with the terms. The team said he would be the number two sprinter and he wouldn't be going to the major races. For André, that was a bit of a punch of the stomach."
While Greipel had no problem with another fast man joining the team, he was apparently frustrated that his leadership role would go to a rider who had failed to impress throughout most of 2018.
"He felt that if he was going to be the number two, that's fine, but the sprinter they're taking in has only won two races this year and the last race he won was in February. André broke his collarbone, was out for six weeks and he's still won more than that. It's hard to tell a guy that he's losing his number one spot. The team also made out that André had a bad season in 2017; although he missed out on a Tour stage win, he did win a stage of the Giro, wore the pink jersey and took multiple wins."
Cyclingnews understands that after the Tour de Suisse a second offer was proposed but this time on even less money [although De Geyter denies this – ed.], and when Greipel's agent called for a meeting and drove five hours to Belgium, he was forced to turn around after Lotto cancelled the event with just thirty minutes' notice. When a third offer was finally presented, again for less money, Greipel, according to our sources, felt enough was enough.
Cyclingnews spoke to a close friend of Greipel who rides in the bunch but for a rival team: "They offer a shit contract thinking you're not going to stay. This was their way of saying they wanted him to leave the team. That's just Paul De Geyter. He's a ****** ****. He's the biggest **** ever. That's just the way it is. As you get older you just get swapped out. There's no friendship, it's just business. You can forget about that even though he's a good rider. He's a star, but he also works for the team."
What we have also heard from one source, although De Geyter has denied this, is that along with lowering their offer, he was also informing other teams of what they had proposed to Greipel – a move which massively weakened the German's bargaining position. Cyclingnews has been informed by one rival team boss that De Geyter told them that if Ewan came to the team, Greipel would not be retained.
"I've not spoken to other teams or agents about André," De Geyter told Cyclingnews. "We hoped André would stay, of course. If we didn't want him to stay then we wouldn't have made him an offer."
Cyclingnews put it to De Geyter that the first offer put before Greipel was half of his current salary.
"That's possible," he replied when Cyclingnews pointed out that several sources had made this claim. "But I'm not going to comment on the figures in a contract.
"During negotiations, you get closer to each other. That's logical but for the amount to go down, that's not logical and that's not what happened."
Two days after abandoning the Tour on stage 12, Greipel called Sergeant and informed him of his decision to leave. It was a tough call for both parties, who had experienced so much success together. Sergeant had picked Greipel up from HTC, it must be remembered, during a time when the German played second fiddle to Mark Cavendish. Sergeant nurtured Greipel's talent, built one of the best lead-out trains in the world around him, and supported his rider through difficult personal moments, most notably in 2017 when Greipel was often travelling home to see his ailing mother.
"Emotionally, we were very close," Sergeant told Cyclingnews just after the Tour de France. "We didn't need a lot of words but we understood each other very well. I was always loyal to his family. When his mother was sick I understood what he was dealing with. When the results were not so good he would tell me about the long drives he needed to make to visit her. I told him he needed to do this, and I think that was something that he appreciated."
After informing Sergeant of his decision, Greipel then began calling those close to him, among them several of the Lotto riders who had been with him for a number of years. A message from the sprinter was then posted in the team's WhatsApp group, informing the rest of the team of his decision. On August 2, Fortuneo-Samsic announced that they had signed Greipel to a two-year contract.
"It came as a shock to the team, as they thought he was going to stay, even under those terrible conditions," says a source. "What they offered him was really disrespectful and you could argue that they offered him a such a low deal just so they could stand there and say that they offered him something. I don't think you can write anything nice in this piece."
Sergeant would not go into details on the situation regarding the management and would not discuss whether riders had called him during the season to warm him about the signs of disharmony they had seen during the season. What's clear is that Sergeant tried harder than others at Lotto to keep Greipel in the team and that he did it with a genuine sense of respect for the rider.
According to a second source, one rider had called Sergeant and expressly told 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."
"Empathy.. the feelings that riders have… sometimes you need to fire them up, sometimes you need to slow them down, but those emotions are important for team spirit," was all Sergeant would say on this matter. "I specifically told André that there were several Grand Tours and that there was a programme to split with Tirreno and Paris-Nice. There's Suisse and Dauphine. Like how Quick-Step do with Viviani and Gaviria, but we couldn't guarantee that Andre would be in the Tour. That for him was quite important."
One point that Sergeant and our sources are in agreement over is that Greipel carried Lotto Soudal throughout his time on the team. Over 100 wins, 11 of them at the Tour de France and countless other performances spanning his tenure on the squad.
"He put our team on the map," Sergeant admits. "On the world map, whether it was in Australia, Asia or Europe. He always won. He won more than 100 races for us and that means a lot. There was a lot of quality in those wins too, some big important races."
It wasn't just the wins that counted or the victories that made the difference and ensured that Greipel was more than just a winner but a talisman and leader. It was his attitude and selflessness that made him stand out.
"He would come to races like Flanders to pay something back to the riders," Sergeant says. "He would fight for his teammates and I think that's partly why everyone on the team had such huge respect for him. He was a guide for the young riders. I'd never forget that when we had the team meetings in the winter he would say, 'Guys, you're new and if you have a question just ask me because I didn't have that chance when I was a neo and I had to find my own way. That cost me some years, and I want to share with you everything that I can from the very start.'"
This winter when Lotto Soudal look around for that sort of leadership they may find themselves lacking. Ewan, and with no offence or disrespect to him, has some huge boots to fill.
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