There were doubts over Andre Greipel's finishing speeds, doubts over his Lotto Soudal lead-out, and doubts over whether time had finally caught up with him and his veteran sprint train. On stage 1 of the Santos Tour Down Under, however, any suspicions were put to bed with the perfect response from the German and his sprint posse.
At the finish, as Greipel collected the winner's bouquet and the first leader's jersey of the race, his tried-and-trusted teammates doused themselves with water and celebrated in the humble surroundings of the team van parked just beyond the finish.
This group of Adam Hansen (36), Lars Bak (38), Marcel Sieberg (35) have been racing together on the same teams since the mid 2000s – with the exception of Bak, who came on board in 2010 - and have grown together as a unit. For Hansen, who first raced with Greipel back in 2007, the German is the team linchpin, and has been since day one.
"Normally he has a lot of wins throughout the year," Hansen said. "He has saved the team so many times, so for the team, Andre is really important. He gets success throughout the whole season, like you said he has success here, he gets something at the Giro. I think last year was the first year he didn't win a stage at the Tour de France. He's very consistent, so yeah a lot of the time he does save the team."
While a number of established but younger lead-out teams struggled on Tuesday's opening stage, Lotto Soudal timed their run to the line perfectly, while their main rivals – Caleb Ewan and Mitchelton-Scott – came undone in the frantic traffic in the final few hundred metres.
"Normally Andre goes and gets bottles on a sprint day and you know he’s up for it," Hansen said
"It used to be his lucky thing, you know like his superstitious thing. He didn't do it today because everyone can do it much faster but you see sometimes he has doubts or something and says they should do some work or why doesn't this team do something, but today he was quiet and we had full trust in him that he'd do something."
Trust between a sprinter and his lead-out men is perhaps the most important element of all when you're touching breakneck speeds. Even when there were doubts about Greipel, and he had his well-documented 2017 season, Hansen and the rest of the Lotto squad stood firm.
When asked about the difficult 2017 season, Hansen replied: "Well that just reinforces what I mean, you say he had a bad season last year but he won a stage at the Giro, wore the pink jersey but that's regarded as not a wonderful season for him, and still he saved our team in a sense. But for sure it's important that he gets a win here, and it's for him for his whole season, it just relieves a lot of pressure off of us and off of him.
"You know we should never say we're getting old, but we're maturing over time. The most important thing about today's win is that it's the first race of the season, it's what counts and it was our goal to get a result here and for the team starting our season and for Andre starting his season, it's a good way to start."
As for the short term, there are plenty of sprint opportunities in this year's race, but the long-term picture is slightly more difficult to predict. Greipel, Bak, Hansen and Sieberg are all out of contract at the end of the season, and Lotto will surely consider rebuilding a future around younger riders. That said, if this sprint train keeps winning in 2018, what team would genuinely consider applying the brakes.
"Andre wants to do another four years, or five, or six. I wouldn't mind doing another four, I'm sure Sieberg will follow and Lars, I don't think he ever wants to quit."
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