Just before the Tour de France team presentation in Brussels, the Belgian Lotto-Soudal team had good news to announce at their press conference. Both sponsors, the Belgian national lottery and Soudal, have extended their contracts with the team for three more years. In addition, Soudal will increased its support to the level of Lotto.
In Belgian races, the team will line up as Lotto-Soudal, while in non-Belgium races, they riders will wear Soudal-Lotto jerseys.
The team is solely focused on stage wins in this edition of the Tour de France. Caleb Ewan is their top rider for the bunch sprints while Tim Wellens, Thomas De Gendt, Tiesj Benoot and Maxime Monfort aim for stage wins through the breakaway.
The team's sports manager, Marc Sergeant, was delighted that the sponsors extended their support for three more years. "It's a boost for the confidence to hear this news just ahead of the Tour," Sergeant said.
"Our main objective will be to win some stages, and I'm talking plural here. The start in Brussels makes this edition special for us as a Belgian team. Having the Tour pay tribute to Eddy Merckx with this start makes it even more special.
"We've got full trust in Caleb Ewan that he can go for the victory. We have built part of the team around him, with Jasper De Buyst, Roger Kluge and Jens Keukeleire," he said.
"The second part of the team will chase victory through breakaway moves. We have some aggressive riders with Wellens, De Gendt, Benoot and Monfort. If necessary, they can do some work to help Ewan. Saturday is a big appointment. The yellow jersey would be great news for us," Sergeant said.
He continued to say that Ewan quickly integrated within the team. "Getting the first win in Australia was a bit of a struggle, but now we see he's very good after winning two stages in Giro. He wants at least one victory in the Tour," Sergeant said.
He explained that the other leaders would also prove their value. It's no secret that De Gendt can ride aggressively in the breakaway. Sergeant said he should've been tributed as the most aggressive rider in the Tour de France at least twice.
He added that "Benoot showed good shape in the Tour de Suisse and Monfort will be important to do some work for those guys and why not, be in the breakaway himself."
Ewan was asked if racing the Tour de France was a childhood dream. "Yep," Ewan said. "Any young cyclist dreams about the Tour. It was the only race that was on TV. I grew up watching that. I thought it was the only race in the season," Ewan said.
"It's the race that I always dreamt of doing. The race that I always wanted to do. It's a bit later than I wanted to, but now I'm here. This edition is special because not every Tour sprinter has the opportunity to get the yellow jersey with a win in the first stages. Luckily there's that opportunity this year. With us being a Belgian team and starting in Belgium, this one has that bonus at the end of it."
Ewan recently became a father, and he was asked about parenthood during the team's press conference in Brussels Expo on Thursday afternoon. "It's been quite an eventful time between the Giro and now. It wasn't ideal that my wife gave birth in between. I managed it quite well. I'm pretty much in top shape although I haven't rested as much as I wanted to. I have to adjust to it. It's not going to affect my racing too much."
Wellens emphasized the camaraderie in the Lotto-Soudal / Soudal-Lotto team. "Everybody has full confidence in Caleb. I will play my role," Wellens said.
At the Belgian Championships, Wellens crashed late in the race, but he didn't sustain any significant injuries. He was beaming with confidence and believes that a good performance at the 2019 Tour de France is possible. He has already shown that, on a good day, he's tough to beat.
Wellens surprisingly won the individual time trial at the Baloise Belgium Tour. At the beginning of the season, he also won the Trofeo Tramuntana and shortly after the opening stage and the time trial at the Ruta Ciclista Del Sol.
"The time trial is certainly a goal for me. I didn't do a recon, but Kevin De Weert will do that for us and guide us through the footage," Wellens said. He already won two stages in the Giro d'Italia in 2016 and 2018, but in the Tour de France, he wasn't as successful so far.
Part of the problem, he said, was his struggle with the heat. He ended up not being able to deliver the performances he expected. "My first Tours weren't great. Maybe the heat was the problem. Together with the sponsors, we worked on clothing, nutrition, ointments... The problem should no longer be a problem. The first test was in the Belgian Championships where it was not a problem. I'm more fresh too. It should help me. Also, I wasn't racing very efficient. I checked the race's road book carefully and saw some opportunities for stage 5 in Colmar, and also stage 8, 9, 12 and 17. In fact, every stage that doesn't finish in a bunch sprint is a chance for me. The medium mountain stages suit me well, in contrast to the stages with mountains over 2000 metres."
When talking with the media during the team's press conference in Brussels, Wellens was pleased about the team's approach going into this year's Tour de France.
"In other teams, I can imagine that when a teammate joins a breakaway, they have doubts about his chances to clinch the victory. If Thomas joins a breakaway, it's obvious that he can finish the job."
Wellens' approach to the Tour de France didn't include the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. "In modern cycling, it's about training and peaking towards a race. I don't need the Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse for that," Wellens said.