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2022 Team Preview: Lotto Soudal men

Belgian Philippe Gilbert of Lotto Soudal pictured in action during a training session ahead of the 118th edition of the ParisRoubaix one day cycling race from Compiegne near Paris to Roubaix Thursday 30 September 2021 Due to the ongoing corona virus pandemic the 2020 edition was cancelled and the 2021 edition was postponed from spring to autumn For the first time there will be a womens race ParisRoubaix as well BELGA PHOTO DAVID STOCKMAN Photo by DAVID STOCKMANBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Who?

  • Manager: John Lelangue
  • Squad size: 27
  • Average age: 26.2

One of the three Belgian WorldTour teams, Lotto Soudal were formed in the 1980s and boast the longest-running sponsorship deal in professional cycling thanks to the Belgian national lottery. However, that consistency belies the fact that this is the most unstable period in the team’s history. 

Management shifts in recent years have altered the structure of the squad, with long-standing boss Marc Sergeant squeezed out and John Lelangue handed the reins. Their roster has undergone a rebuild, which is still in progress, with more than half their squad aged 24 or under. 

That might bear fruit in the future, but they need to be worried about the here and now. Not only are they languishing near the bottom of the UCI rankings in a year where WorldTour status is at stake, but they’re also losing title sponsor Soudal to arch-rivals QuickStep at the end of the season.

How did they fare in 2021?

  • Wins: 12
  • World Ranking: 18

With 12 victories, eight of which came at WorldTour level, it wasn’t a completely fallow year but it was still a disappointing one. Lotto Soudal finished 18th in the World Ranking, ahead of three WorldTour teams but below two second-division WorldTour hopefuls. 

Sprinting talisman Caleb Ewan was, predictably, the chief breadwinner, with two wins at the Giro d’Italia and Belgium Tour, and one apiece at UAE Tour and Benelux Tour. His and Lotto’s season perhaps hinged on that fateful third stage of the Tour de France, where he crashed in the finishing straight and broke his collarbone. The winner of five stages in the previous two Tours, the Australian could only watch on in frustration as Mark Cavendish swept to four stage wins he will have felt could have been his.

Beyond Ewan, Andreas Kron was a bright point, with breakthrough stage wins for the young Dane at Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Suisse. With no GC or time trial specialists, it was a question of breakaways when the team wasn’t leading out Ewan, and Thomas De Gendt and Brent Van Moer chipped in with a big one each at Catalunya and the Dauphiné, respectively. The other wins came from Tim Wellens, who claimed a stage and the overall at Etoile de Besseges at the start of the year but fizzled out slightly after that.

Aside from those riders, the only real bankers in the team were the experienced duo of Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb, but that Classics partnership never bore fruit, with Gilbert having to stall his campaign due to fatigue and Degenkolb now leaving for DSM with only one win to show from his two years. Instead, it was left to others to salvage the Classics campaign, with Ewan bagging second at Milan-San Remo, although that would have been another frustration after he won the bunch kick behind solo winner Jasper Stuyven. And then, at a last-gasp Paris-Roubaix, Florian Vermeersch stepped in and announced himself to the world with a massive ride through the mud to take second place behind Sonny Colbrelli and ahead of Mathieu van der Poel.

That cast Lotto’s season in a semi-decent light and, in fairness, it could have been wholly decent but for Ewan’s misfortune at the Tour. In a way, though, the reliance on Ewan only highlighted a lack of depth in the squad.

Key riders

BILZEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 03 Caleb Ewan of Australia and Team Lotto Soudal celebrates winning ahead of Sonny Colbrelli of Italy and Team Bahrain Victorious during the 17th Benelux Tour 2021 Stage 5 a 188km stage from Riemst to Bilzen BeneluxTour on September 03 2021 in Bilzen Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Caleb Ewan: The Australian sprinter is, in a way, the standard-bearer for the new regime at Lotto Soudal. After some internal managerial tussling, long-serving sprinter Andre Greipel was rather unceremoniously shown the door in order to make way for his younger counterpart. It seemed like a cold move, but one that could be justified by results, and Ewan has duly stepped up to become the team’s leading light and one of the very top sprinters in the peloton. He has already won 23 times for Lotto Soudal, with five wins at the Tour and four at the Giro. 

He seemed on course for a vintage season until he came crashing down at the Tour, but his status remains undiminished. Mind-bogglingly aerodynamic and able to thread through the eye of a needle, he’s one of the two or three fastest finishers and has a strong lead-out train to go with it. As mentioned above, Lotto Soudal don't have a stage race leader or a top-level time triallist, and their long-suffering Classics department is a work in progress, which makes Ewan by far the most important figure on the squad.

Florian Vermeersch: The young Belgian has been touted as a top talent for a while and he wasted no time in making his mark in what was his first full season as a professional. He didn’t do much in the main cobbled Classics period, and if Paris-Roubaix had taken place in its normal slot, his name might not be so familiar. As it was, he gained form and fitness through his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España and stunned the world with his ride in a wet October Roubaix, where he was on the move early on and then hung with Colbrelli and Van der Poel in a thrilling three-carriage express train that barrelled along to the velodrome. Despite his age and the work he’d already done, he didn’t shirk a turn and he even had the strength to outkick Van der Poel at the line, even if Colbrelli took the spoils. It was a landmark moment for a rider who instantly earned himself huge attention and expectation in Belgium for future springs.

Tim Wellens: The Belgian puncheur had a taxing year but he remains one of the few genuinely world-class riders in Lotto Soudal’s roster. A force in the hilly Classics, on the cobbles, in week-long stage races, and Grand Tour breakaways, he can bring home results most places he looks, which will be vital as UCI points become an increasing priority.

Team Lotto rider Belgiums Tim Wellens celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the 14th stage of the 2020 La Vuelta cycling tour of Spain a 2047km race from Lugo to Ourense on November 4 2020 Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA AFP Photo by MIGUEL RIOPAAFP via Getty Images

Tim Wellens (Image credit: Getty Images)

Philippe Gilbert: The former world champion’s best years are behind him but he remains an influential presence and a big-race rider on his day. His 2020 return to Lotto - where he enjoyed some of his best years including his all-conquering 2011 Ardennes campaign - came with much hype but hasn’t really born fruit so far. He was fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad but was already struggling and efforts to recover from an injury led to mental and physical burnout, forcing him to race below his best at the early Classics and then miss the Tour of Flanders. Soon after, he decided that the 2022 season would be his last. He still craves the Milan-San Remo title to complete the Monument set, but Ewan is surely the more likely winner there. Still, Gilbert loves the big occasion and it would be an extraordinary farewell to such a glittering career.

Victor Campenaerts: The Belgian returns to the team after two years at Qhubeka NetxHash. He claimed the UCI Hour Record - which still stands - during his last stint with the team but has since reinvented himself as a Classics rider, so will bolster the spring department following the departures of Degenkolb and Tosh Van der Sande.

Harm Vanhoucke: The Belgian had an eye-catching first couple of weeks at the 2020 Giro d’Italia and could yet emerge as the squad’s next Grand Tour GC rider

Brent Van Moer: Another Belgian, Van Moer won big at the Dauphiné, nearly won bigger at the Tour, and appears to be the heir to the team’s celebrated breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt.

Strengths

The team’s main strength is the speed of Ewan, and his ability to win at short notice wherever he goes. On top of that, they don’t have a lead-out train of QuickStep proportions but it’s still second or third best, with Jasper De Buyst, Roger Kluge, and new signing Rudiger Selig all devoted to teeing up the Australian. As a Belgian team, the Classics are where Lotto Soudal get the most attention and, although they have fallen way short of QuickStep in recent springs, they have huge cause for optimism in Vermeersch and an exciting prospect in Campenaerts.

Weaknesses

The squad is very inexperienced, with 39-year-old Gilbert skewing what is otherwise the lowest average age in the WorldTour. Investment in youth is no bad thing, and this may well turn out to be a future strength, but at a time when they have 12 months to fight for their WorldTour future, it could well be a hindrance.

Verdict

Lotto Soudal face a pivotal year. From 2023, WorldTour status is set to be awarded to the top 18 teams in a three-year ranking from 2020-2022, and Lotto Soudal currently sit 20th. They are in the drop zone and will need to outperform the likes of Cofidis and Arkea-Samsic in order to hang on. As ever, much depends on Ewan. If he stays out of trouble and performs as he can, they will be just fine. If not, stress will be high among the new-look management team.

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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.