The arrival of Philippe Gilbert at Lotto-Soudal has given the entire team a spring in their step and galvanized the team's leaders ahead of the 2020 campaign. Tim Wellens, who will share leadership with Gilbert in a number of the Spring Classics, believes the 37-year-old's return to the team he raced for until 2011 will take the pressure off his shoulders in a number of important races.
"There are better riders coming in. Just look at Philippe Gilbert and his palmarès. John Degenkolb, too. There’s a new wind blowing in the team with those riders. I’m looking forward to racing with them," Wellens told Cyclingnews at Lotto Soudal’s recent training camp in Spain.
"Philippe has real leadership qualities within him, and you can feel that when he talks. He has the palmarès to back that up and the more riders we have in the finale of races, the better.
“[Team manager] John Lelangue asked me about Phil coming last year and I said it was a good idea. In a lot of races, I’m the leader, but I don’t really have the leadership in me like Philippe Gilbert has. He has won four Monuments and other races and that’s going to be the key for success. We both have a similar style of racing and we’re both attacking and want to be at the front. We’ve raced together on the national team and I think we have a good dynamic. He’s a good guy to work with and he’s open. With his experience, we can make the difference."
Wellens will be hoping that some of Gilbert’s magic will rub off on him after a mixed year in 2019. The Belgian won several races but failed to land a major result in the Ardennes Classics.
"2019 was an average year for me," he said. "It wasn’t good, it wasn't bad. I had a good Tour de France and wore the polka dot jersey for 15 days. That was a good experience in the biggest race of the year and we had four stage wins. At the Tour, I improved in the warm conditions and did well in the time trials but I’m really looking for a result in the Ardennes Classics. I want to be better there. Every year I have ambitions for those races and in 2019 I did just two Flemish races and then had the focus on the Ardennes. I’m still chasing that top result.
"I think that in 2019 I was just a bit behind where I was in 2018. The legs weren’t where they needed to be but sometimes it’s difficult to be at 200 per cent because 100 per cent just isn’t enough."
To peak at the Classics this spring Wellens has altered his racing programme. He will start later than usual, at the Volta ao Algarve in February before racing through the Classics and then embarking on both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. He hopes to impress in week-long stage races but his Giro focus will be on hunting stage wins, while at the Tour he will combine his ambitions with those of the team.
"I’m beginning the season later than normal, so my first race will be in Algarve because in the last few years I’ve been super good in the first few races and then had a bit less after the first period. So the plan is to start later and then try and keep that form going for a bit longer," he said.
"I really have good memories from the Giro with my two stage wins. I like to ride the Giro and I’ll be there again to chase stage wins. Then I’ll be at the Tour again. It’s the biggest race of the year, the most important too, but it’s my choice to be there. I still think that I can progress in stage races but that’s still the week-long races, such as Pologne, and Paris-Nice, if the parcours isn’t too hard."