After Philippe Gilbert’s impressive win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège the atmosphere in the Omega Pharma-Lotto team was one of celebration but it seems the long-term future of the Belgian team is in doubt, with the sponsors reportedly on brink of splitting up at the end of the season. Gilbert is also on the wish list of a number of rival managers.
Omega Pharma and the Lotto have been in negotiations about the future of the team since the start of the season but still haven’t reached an agreement. L'Equipe has reported that Lotto may join forces with Francaise des Jeux in 2012, while Omega Pharma would prefer a more globally attractive team. With Gilbert near the end of his contract, the future seems uncertain just as the teams enjoys its best ever spring.
When asked about the team's future at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Omega Pharma CEO Marc Coucke tried to deflect the question, preferring to celebrate Gilbert's trio of wins in the Ardennes.
“The biggest news is that is that we've won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Let us enjoy this for a few days and then it (the team's future) will be back on the agenda,” he told Cyclingnews.
“Liège is a Monument. It's the big one we've been dreaming about for so many years. For Gilbert it was the race he dreamed about since he was a kid. It's the icing on the cake. This win will make him much bigger.
"He wasn't under pressure to get results but now his career is a success and we're all so happy for him. Last year we were already surprised of what he pulled off and now he's even stronger. You must be realistic: if a rider wins one Classic a year you should be happy. Last year he won two classics and this year four."
Whether the team will be able to hang onto its leader for 2012 remains to be seen. Coucke wants to keep him and knows that the team would tumble down the UCI rankings without him.
“We were talking with some people," he admitted. "The threesome we have this year of Greipel, Van Den Broeck and Gilbert, combined with the young talented riders means we have a great team. That's what we've been working on for the past six years. It's very naïve to think that you can rebuild a team from scratch. There were twenty other teams at Liège-Bastogne-Liège who all have that same dream, who all have the resources, money, and more or maybe less experience.
“Now we have to be respectful to Philippe, especially financially. That's how it is because Philippe is a smart man. It's up to him to enjoy the fruits of his work. It's up to us to respect him in that and that's what we will do. We have to do whatever we can to keep the team together and if possibly target the Flemish spring races."
The strength of the Omega Pharma-Lotto team in 2012 will be an important factor during the negotiations with Gilbert. He has often been critical about the support from he was given during the Spring Classics. Gilbert said his team had been weak during the cobbled-classics after even after his victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he wasn't shy of criticising his teammates.
“The team really didn't ride well today but luckily I was very strong,” Gilbert said during initial post-race interviews at the finish in Ans.
Gilbert was angered by the absence of his teammates on the Côte de la Haute-Levée climb, 85km from the finish.
“I panicked a little because I was completely isolated. I was mad at my teammates and shouted through the radio that I needed help but nobody came. By the time they came it was too late and about ten riders had attacked. It was a very bad situation for us. At that moment I was really mad at my team because last week during the briefings we said that we had to be in the breakaway there and nobody was there, so that's sad,” Gilbert said.
Omega Pharma and Lotto could thrash out their future as early as this week because they know they will have to move quickly if they want to hang on to Gilbert.
Alexandre Vinokourov is already courting Gilbert and is keen to sign him, with BMC also rumoured to have shown interest.
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