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WorldTour relegation watch - Lotto Soudal's win-based philosophy

VISEGRAD HUNGARY MAY 06 Caleb Ewan of Australia and Team Lotto Soudal R competes during the 105th Giro dItalia 2022 Stage 1 a 195km stage from Budapest to Visegrd 337m Giro WorldTour on May 06 2022 in Visegrad Hungary Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
Lotto Soudal working for sprinter Caleb Ewan on stage 1 of the Giro d'Italia 2022 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

In 2023, the UCI's promotion/relegation system will come into effect for the first time, limiting the number of WorldTour teams to the 18 highest-ranking teams in the combined 2020-2022 World Rankings for teams. At least 22 teams are aiming for those 18 positions and, other than the top five teams, no team is truly safe. In this series, Cyclingnews examines the teams in the bottom half of the rankings and their prospects for 2023.

Cyclingnews spoke with Lotto Soudal manager John Lelangue about how the team found itself in the 'relegation zone' – in 20th place and facing possible exclusion from the WorldTour in 2023. (For a little context on what that relegation zone means, read our explainer on how the WorldTour points system works). Far from being fearful of relegation, Lelangue was optimistic that the team's strategy of aiming for victories will succeed.

Lotto Soudal have been in the pro peloton in some form since 1985 and have been a part of the sport's top tier since the genesis of the ProTour in 2005 when they were Davitamon-Lotto. The Belgian outfit have hardly ever focussed on Grand Tour overall classifications, with the exception of a few years in the early 2000s when Cadel Evans and Jurgen Van den Broeck claimed the team's only Grand Tour podiums.

Remaining true to that history, Lotto Soudal have packed their squad with sprinters, Classics riders and opportunists, with Caleb Ewan and Tim Wellens their top scorers. Compared with other WorldTeams, Lotto Soudal were ranked 17th in 2020, above Movistar, Cofidis and Israel Start-Up Nation, and 18th in 2021 ahead of BikeExchange and Team DSM.

In the three-year rankings they're in 20th as of the May 3rd ranking this year and while that might seem like the worst possible position, Lelangue was unperturbed.

"I've been following the same discourse since the beginning of the season and last winter," Lelangue told Cyclingnews after the Giro d'Italia opening stage where Ewan was en route to a top placing only to crash in the final meters.

"We're not chasing the points because if we are chasing the points you have to ride totally differently. We are chasing the victories and I'm more proud of my group to be in the top five [in team victories] with 14."

Rather than race conservatively and try to get as many riders into the points-scoring range in races, Lotto Soudal are sacrificing riders to race to win. Lelangue pointed to stage 1 of the Giro d'Italia as an example.

"If you saw the stage on TV, we were riding for the last 30 kilometre with the whole team to protect Caleb and to bring him to the first position in the last curve at five to go to attack the climb in the first position, like it was in the plan," he said.

"Sure, when you are doing this, you are sacrificing a lot of riders one by one in the climb. And this is not the best way to take points. Because in the end, you see that we are coming out of this stage with no points because it's only the three first ones who were taking points.

"But even in one-day races, at the beginning of the season we were with Caleb in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and we know that we can win there. Finally we got second, but we were making the race and the whole leadout in the last lap in Kuurne to bring him in the best position. We know the guys who have been working during the whole day and in the last 10km will not be in the top 20. It's a strategy but I think the essence of cycling is to win races.

"I know that some other teams had three sprinters at [Kuurne] and they put them in the top 15 and in the end, it's more points [Arkéa-Samsic had three riders in the top 15 – ed.]. But that's not what we are looking for. We are racing for victories – in the stage races, in the sprints, in the one-day races. This will remain. Then we'll see. So many things can change before the end of the season that nobody will know as of today who will be in the top 18."

The strategy is paying off so far this season, with Lotto Soudal ranked 15th in the 2022 standings, and gaining points at a faster rate than teams such as Astana, EF Education-EasyPost, Team DSM, and Israel-Premier Tech.

With a victory in the 2.1-ranked Saudi Tour (125 points), second at Kuurne (150), and Victor Campenaerts top-five finishes at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (175 and 120 respectively), Lotto Soudal have upped their 2020-2022 point tally at a faster rate than some of their rivals.

"At the beginning of the season everybody was saying it's between Lotto and Cofidis. Now you see that Israel is already in the relegation zone. If you look at the beginning of the season, some teams were maybe more than 3,000 points in front of us, and they're still there in front of us, but only with 1,400 points.

"So many things can happen until the end of the season and it can change so fast. Of course, yeah, when we are missing victories, we are disappointed. We were more disappointed to miss the victory today and the pink jersey than to be missing points, to be honest," Lelangue said of stage 1 of the Giro d'Italia.

VISEGRAD HUNGARY MAY 06 Caleb Ewan of Australia and Team Lotto Soudal crosses the finish line injured after being involved in a crash during the 105th Giro dItalia 2022 Stage 1 a 195km stage from Budapest to Visegrd 337m Giro WorldTour on May 06 2022 in Visegrad Hungary Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Ewan finishes stage 1 of the Giro d'Italia after crashing while in prime position in the final metres on the uphill finish (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Teams fear WorldTour relegation not because it means they will miss important races – the UCI rules require Grand Tours to invite the top two ProTeams and the top three to other major one-day races. But riders can opt to leave teams if they will not remain in the WorldTour, and some teams fear sponsors would follow.

But Lelangue is due to welcome a new sponsor in 2023 to the team, with cloud computing company Dstny replacing Soudal.

"I'm happy to have loyal sponsors, they know the vision that we have. Is it looking for stage wins, for victories, trying to promote young riders. This is one of our models for the past three years,

"I'm pretty happy that I have National Lottery but also our new sponsor for the future, Dstny, who will totally know this. I'm still convinced that we will be in the WorldTour next season," Lelangue says, but if the team do face relegation there is still a chance to move back up in the future.

"The most important thing is to be at the WorldTour races, to be at the Grand Tours. Once you're in those races, with the system of wildcards that Alpecin have been using for three years, the start line and the finish line are the same for everybody. And this is the most important in the end, it's not the logo to be a WorldTour or not. At the end, the most important thing is to win the biggest races on the calendar."

When asked if Ewan, contracted through 2025, would remain with the team if they are relegated, Lelangue says he thinks the situation will remain unchanged because of the rules for inviting the top ProTeams.

"It will not change a lot at the end. Caleb is here because we have a project with him. It's the second time I've renewed his contract for a long period. He knows we have a train around him and have reinforced that train. He knows also we're a team without a GC leader and we can build a programme around stage races and big tours around him.

"We're totally focused on him for stages. It doesn't mean we don't have breakaway guys like [Thomas] De Gendt, [Harm] Vanhoucke, [Matthew] Holmes, [Sylvain] Moniquet that will be there in the mountain stages. But even now, they're working for Caleb because they know we're going for the sprint."

We know we're competing with one of the lowest budgets of the WorldTour but it's the same in other sports - you have big clubs and little clubs, but the finish line is the same. There is no handicap," Lelangue says, pointing to the 2019 Tour de France where the team won four stages – three with Ewan and one with Thomas De Gendt.

He also says the sponsors are on board with the team's philosophy.

"The sponsors are totally dedicated, they know the situation. For them, it's not the label of the team that is most important. For them, the most important is to be participating in those races and to have the possibility to win those races."

Overcoming bad luck

MONTSAINTELOI FRANCE MAY 05 Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Team Lotto Soudal celebrates winning during the 66th 4 Jours De Dunkerque Grand Prix Des Hauts De France 2022 Stage 3 a 1701km stage from Pronne to MontSaintloi 4JDD on May 05 2022 in MontSaintEloi France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Philippe Gilbert took victory on stage 3 of 4 Jours de Dunkerque before going on to win overall (Image credit: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

As in the case of Israel-Premier Tech, who had so many riders fall ill in the early part of the season they have tumbled down the rankings, Lotto Soudal have had their share of bad luck. Ewan crashed out of the Tour de France in 2021 with a broken collarbone on stage 3. This year he was sick and missed Milan-San Remo, Classic Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem.

Tim Wellens opened his season with wins in Mallorca and Haut Var but crashed during training before Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and missed the race. The team's young sprinter Arnaud De Lie crashed during 4 Jours de Dunkerque.

"With him we were almost sure to be on the podium in all those sprints, but the team is still there – they proved it with Philippe Gilbert."

Gilbert came to Lotto Soudal off the heels of winning Paris-Roubaix in 2019 with QuickStep, and would have been an important part of the points tally but after the pandemic forced the season to be squeezed into a few months in the late summer, Gilbert crashed on his bad knee during the Tour de France and has struggled ever since.

"From that moment, it was a really difficult moment, but he was not done, you see it, he's still there. Sure, it's only Dunkerque, but the way he won proved that he will be finishing his career with the ambition to win."

With that stage win and the overall victory at 4 Jours de Dunkerque, Gilbert grabbed a hefty 220 points which will likely bump the team up another notch when the May 10 rankings come out.

For Lelangue, this proves his philosophy.

"I'm totally ambitious and optimistic and all the guys are like this. We are not dramatic, we're realistic and we will not change our vision because that would be the biggest mistake with the guys and the style of racing that we have.

"If we are going for the victory, the points will come. If we are going for points, the victories will never come."

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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.