During the 1990s and much of the 2000s the Lotto team had an image as a rather unfashionable outfit. They were seen as an old school operation, lacking in both flair and style, but under Marc Sergeant the team have flourished in recent years.
This season, with Andre Greipel winning sprints galore, Tony Gallopin and Jens Debusschere lighting up races, Adam Hansen constantly circling the globe, and a flurry of young talents signed up for the future, Lotto Soudal have cemented their place as one of the most successful and cosmopolitan teams in the world.
"I think we have a good team," Sergeant serves up in his typical modest fashion.
"We had a good team this year and we have one for next year that’s probably a little bit better."
It’s the morning of the 2016 Tour de France presentation in Paris and Sergeant has arrived for coffee with Cyclingnews at the Palais des Congrès wearing a snappy dark suit. He is in a relaxed mood - and why shouldn’t he be? Along with the 40 wins his team have secured in 2015 is the knowledge that his squad has only needed finessing and tweaking - rather than wholesale changes - for next season.
While Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish are both changing teams and having to almost start from scratch with their lead-outs, Sergeant’s primary sprinter, Greipel, can go into the winter with a more serene mentality after wining four stages of this year's Tour.
"For me Andre doesn’t have to improve, we just need to keep him where he is. I don’t know what Cavendish’s team will be like next year, and for sure Kittel will have a strong team but a lot will depend on him," Sergeant says.
"With Andre the watts he’s pushing are still going up and he’s still where he needs to be. I think he can hold that for at least the next two years, and let's not forget that with his train we’ve helped develop other sprinters like [Kris] Boeckmans, and Debusschere, and they’ve turned into winners now."
As Sergeant says, the team’s tally of wins this year has not come solely from one source. Unlike in 2011 when Philippe Gilbert claimed over half the team’s successes, the 2015 squad have drawn on almost ten winners from their ranks with wins in every month from February right through to October. Greipel’s four wins at the Tour sit front and centre on the team’s mantle piece but wins in GP de Montréal, GP de Wallonie, Vattenfall Cyclassics – Hamburg and the Eneco Tour nestle closely by. Even the departing Jurgen Van den Broeck chipped in with a win.
"The year with Gilbert, we won so many Classics I almost lost count, but that was so special. That year we won the WorldTour teams’ and individual classifications. Was this year better? We had forty wins, which is the most in our team’s thirty-year history, and there was some real quality.
"At the start of the year we changed the goal posts for the riders. Normally we’d say let’s aim for 30 wins but this year we targeted 25 but we said let's make sure that there’s quality. The riders came back and won forty races, and there was quality in there. That’s really amazing."
The road ahead
The next steps for Lotto Soudal are to keep Greipel ahead of the chasing sprint pack, to figure out where Tony Gallopin’s talents truly lie for next season, to bring on the fledging young talents, and to set about finding more success in week-long stage races. It’s a plethora of tasks and tallying those demands will be no small feat, "but we’re ambitious and we’ve talked about goals already," Sergeant says as he gives a nod to one of his former riders Greg Van Avermaet, who has just wandered past and into the Tour presentation auditorium.
"I can feel that the riders are on the same page as me and we’re confident we can have another successful year. I’m not going to say we’ll win 40 races; 30 will be fine with me, if we have Flanders, Roubaix or Liege in there. And if we can, I hope that we can win again in the Tour like we did in the last few years, because those are the important things."
The team's structure and development in the GC at stage races is probably the most difficult challenge at Sergeant’s door for next season. Jurgen Van den Broeck has not been a competitive force in Grand Tours for some time and has been released, while you have to go back to Cadel Evans in 2008 to find the team’s last genuine Grand Tour contender. Your Froomes, Contadors and Nibalis of this world are few and far between, with the only guarantee that they come with huge salary demands to match their palmarès.
Sergeant has been realistic in the transfer market and, unable to compete for the crème de la crème, has plumbed for the underrated and somewhat underappreciated. Rafa Valls has joined from Lampre-Merida, while Gallopin and Bart de Clerq will be expected to step up.
"We don’t have that GC guy but Valls is a good rider and he was always someone who spent a lot of time working for others such as Rui Costa. Now he has the chance to ride more for himself, maybe not in the Tour but he can aim high in some of the week-long races."
What to do with Gallopin
Gallopin is the team’s main stage race and one-day hope and at 27 he has time to develop his skillset in any direction he wishes. A crack at GC in this year’s Tour lasted all of two weeks until the wheels fell off before Paris, while the Frenchman still remains a threat in week-long races and the majority of the Classics.
Being a ‘complete rider’ doesn’t necessarily garner a string of wins and Sergeant admits that the former maillot jaune wearer must decide on his programme in the coming weeks. Should Gallopin decide on another Tour de France GC challenge he will find Sergeant in accommodating mood but the Belgian suggested that in order to focus on the Tour Gallopin would have to alter the structure to his season. Sacrifices must be made if you’re going to target the biggest stage race on the planet.
"Looking at GC next year for the Tour is a hard discussion we have to face," Sergeant says as he builds the foundations of his case.
"It’s a discussion that I need to have with Tony but it’s not one that I wanted to have with him right now, just after Paris-Tours. At the end of the day it’s his choice and if he wants to go for GC at the Tour then his preparation has to be totally different. This year he hung in there until the last week but then he cracked, so there’s a discussion whether we miss GC and ride like we did in 2014 and try to grab yellow and win stage wins.
"I think he can go for GC but like I said the approach has to be different – and that's the choice he has to make. With GC you have to be there every day and there are no easy days. There’s risk too because he’s a very good one-day rider but he’s French, he’s willing, and he gets stimulation from those around him. But that talk will happen after his holiday. Once he’s back on the bike I’ll invite to have a chat with me."
Sergeant knows all too well about the pitfalls of a Tour GC bid. Although Cadel Evans made the podium twice under Sergeant’s wing, Lotto allocated huge resources, time and effort and ultimately came up short. It’s fickle and brutal - especially as a runner-up spot in the Tour is nothing to be sniffed at - but there’s only one yellow jersey.
"GC is not my first objective, I have to say. They only talk about the winner. If you look at what we did with Cadel, he was second but they said it was still a defeat. Second in the Tour is still very good and I was glad for him when he won, even though he’d left the team. It’s hard work for seventh or fifth, which isn’t bad but if you compare that to our Tour this year, when we won four stages, the excitement is much better than if you’re just hanging in there until Paris for a top ten. And you know, if you crash the second last day it’s all over."
Whether or not Gallopin targets the Tour or Greipel dominates in the sprints next season, Lotto Soudal are in a position of strength as the curtain draws on the 2015 campaign. Their impressive recruitment policy and drive to reinforce their squad with young talents like Tiesj Benoot, Jens Debusschere, Tosh Van der Sande, and Sean De Bie offers up hope for the future, both short and long term.