The holiday is over and it is time for the professional riders to start their serious training for the 2017 season. After the team building activities at the first team meetings in November, the month of December is traditionally the time for the first real training camps where the first drafts of the season schedules are made and just a few weeks later, the cycling season is in full swing at the Tour Down Under. During the next few weeks, CyclingQuotes prepares you for the coming season in a series of analyses where we take a detailed look at each of the 18 WorldTour teams and what to expect during the next 12 months.
Below we take a look at Lotto Soudal.
Sander Armee, Lars Bak, Tiesj Benoot, Kris Boeckmans, Sean De Bie, Thomas De Gendt, Bart De Clercq, Jasper De Buyst, Jens Debusschere, Frederik Frison, Tony Gallopin, André Greipel, Adam Hansen, Nikolas Maes, Tomasz Marczynski, Maxime Monfort, Jurgen Roelandts, Marcel Sieberg, Rafael Valls, Tosh van der Sande, Jelle Vandendert, Louis Vervaeke, Jelle Wallays, Tim Wellens
Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo), Nikolas Maes (Etixx-QuickStep), Remy Mertz (Colorcode), James Shaw (neo-pro), Enzo Wouters (neo-pro)
Riders leaving the team
Stig Broeckx (still suffering from his heavy crash at the Belgium Tour), Gert Dockx (retires), Gregory Henderson (Unitedhealthcare), Pim Ligthart (Roompot)
Lotto Soudal have had a mostly unchanged roster for a couple of years and even though they failed to live up to their very successful 2015 season, they have preferred to stick to the formula that has worked in the past. They have retained their captains and made very little changes to the team, hoping that they will again be able to reach the lofty heights they reached last year.
The emphasis during the transfer campaign has been on two aspects. Knowing that most of their successes have come in sprinting, the only signings of established professionals have had the purpose of strengthening the lead-out train. Secondly, the team has always been devoted to development of young talents, especially the most promising Belgians, and so they have allowed three riders to turn professional in their team, two of which come from their own U23 development team.
The biggest signing is clearly Moreno Hofland but it is a bit unclear which role the Dutchman will play and why he has opted to leave LottoNL-Jumbo. He may have been overshadowed by Dylan Groenewegen in his former team but he was still the second sprinter in the hierarchy and had a program where he was usually the leader. In Lotto Soudal, there is no scarcity of sprinters and it will be much harder to carve out space for himself in a team where André Greipel is the dominant figure and Jens Debusschere also plays a key role as a sprinter.
However, Hofland is a very talented sprinter and after his progress seemed to have stalled a bit, he made solid strides in 2016. He failed to win a single race but he was sprinting much more consistently than he had done in the past and seemed to have become faster in the pure bunch sprints. It remains to be seen whether he will play a role in Greipel’s lead-out train or whether he will mostly get his own chances but in any case, he will be a solid reinforcement. With the loss of Greg Henderson, he could be a valuable substitution in the train and if he gets his own chance as a leader, he should flourish in a team which is much more used to supporting a sprinter and setting up a lead-out.
Nikolas Maes arrives from Etixx-QuickStep and the Belgian has clearly been signed with the clear purpose of strengthening the train. He has played that role for the likes of Marcel Kittel, Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish and Fernando Gaviria in the past and his addition can only make an already very strong train better.
Nonetheless, it is hard to look past Greg Henderson’s departure. It’s still a huge mystery why the team opted not to extend the Kiwi’s contract. For several years, the train Sieberg-Roelandts-Henderson-Greipel has been the best in the business and it has only become stronger since Debusschere started to regularly play a role too. Henderson has proved to be exceptional as Greipel’s final lead-out man and the pair have worked together for so many years that it will take a long time to build a similar relationship with a new rider in that crucial final position. Things may not have gone that smoothly for the pair in 2016 but even with the additions of Hofland and Maes, it is hard not to regard it as a weaker Lotto Soudal train in 2017.
The team have also signed three neo-pros and they are all long-term projects. None of them have had exceptional results at the U23 level and it will take time for them to adapt to the highest level. Enzo Wouters is a solid sprinter and he should benefit from the big sprinting expertise in the team. James Shaw is a classics rider who has done well in both hilly and cobbled races while Remy Mertz is suited to hillier classics and stage races. However, they will mostly have to work for the team in their first year.
Apart from Henderson, the team has waved goodbye to Gert Dockx and Pim Ligthart and none of them are major losses. The former was a loyal domestique and the latter never managed to live up to the potential he showed by winning the Dutch Championships early in his career. It is a far bigger concern to have lost Stig Broeckx who showed a solid promise in the Flemish classics. We can only hope that there will be a positive end to what is currently another tragic story in the cycling history.
What to expect in the classics?
As a Belgian team, Lotto Soudal is always under pressure to perform on the cobbles and so it was a huge disappointment that they left the spring season almost empty-handed in 2016. There will be a lot of pressure for them to step up in 2017 and on paper they have the means to do so even though the roster has barely changed.
Surprisingly, the team had their biggest success in Milan-Sanremo when Jurgen Roelandts sprinted to an unexpected third place but in 2017, it will again be up to André Greipel to come away with the goods in the first classic. It is a bit of a mystery why the big German has never got things right in the Italian classic. On paper, he is a much stronger rider and a better climber than a rider like Mark Cavendish but for some reason he always struggles at the end of the Italian classic. However, Greipel only seems to become stronger with age and there is still no reason why he can’t win La Primavera. The team have solid back-up options with Jens Debusschere, Moreno Hofland and Jurgen Roelandts for the sprint and Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens to cover attacks but if they want to win in Sanremo, it will be up to Greipel to have a super day.
On the cobbles, the team had a very bad 2016 season, mostly due to bad luck for Tiesj Benoot. After his exceptional fifth place in Flanders as a neo-pro, the expectations were enormous but bad luck marred the entire season for the youngster. However, he is still the biggest Belgian talent for the cobbled classics and with his fast sprint, punch on short climbs and ability to handle long races at such a young age, he has all the skills to win races like Flanders, E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. His star may have waned in 2016 but there is no reason that he can’t be on the podium in the biggest classics in 2017. Surprisingly, he will skip Paris-Roubaix, but he should be there in all the hard Flemish races.
Jurgen Roelandts will be the co-captain but it is now evident that the Belgian is unlikely to win a big classic. However, he has been on the podium in Flanders and knows how to use team tactics to beat the stronger riders. Jens Debusschere is also getting stronger and stronger and it won’t take long before he can play a role in the finale of the harder races too. With his aggressive riding style, Greipel has also come far in Flanders and so the team have cards to play.
Surprisingly, Tony Gallopin will return to his roots in 2017. He has usually focused on the Ardennes but this year his big goal will be the Flemish races. The Frenchman has shown that he can do well in those races but it may take some time to get accustomed to the terrain after several years with a different focus. However, he can handle the distance and together with Roelandts and Benoot, he will be a solid podium contender in the hard races like the Tour of Flanders, E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
With most of their riders for the cobbled races having a fast sprint, they have lots of options and we can expect Lotto Soudal to play a much more prominent role on the cobbles in 2017. Greipel, Debusschere and maybe Moreno Hofland will lead in the easier races like Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen while Benoot, Gallopin and Roelandts will be the best cards in the hardest Flemish races. Paris-Roubaix will probably be the most difficult race for the team as both Gallopin and Benoot will skip that race.
The team will also be out for revenge in the Ardennes but they are less likely to win one of the hilly classics. Tony Gallopin could kick things off with a good result in Brabantse Pijl where he is on the podium every year but when it comes to the biggest races, they will probably come up short. Gallopin, Tim Wellens and Jelle Vanendert will again be the leaders and they all have to ride aggressively if they want to win.
It seems that Vanendert is beyond his best and he is probably best used as a domestique for his younger teammates. Gallopin has all the skills to do really well in the Ardennes and his second place in San Sebastian in 2016 proves how far he can get in the big classics. For some reason, he never manages to peak for the Ardennes but with his fast sprint, he is definitely capable of top 5 finishes in both Amstel and Liege. He has always regarded Fleche Wallonne as too hard for him but his impressive performance on the Mur in the 2015 Tour de France showed that he can be in the top 10 if he finally manages to hit peak condition. However, his decision to focus on the Flemish races means that he is unlikely to be at 100% in the Ardennes and this year he will even skip Liege.
As his rides in the Eneco Tour and Tour de Pologne show, Tim Wellens has the engine to do very well in these races but he is inconsistent and needs to improve his tactics. Of course he needs to get rid of the faster riders but in the last few years he has attacked too much, leaving him with no energy when the decisive moves are made. Both Wellens and his team have made it clear that they want to see what he can do if he rides a bit more defensively and it will be one of the most interesting questions for the 2017 Ardennes season.
On paper, Benoot has the skills to feature in the pointy end of the Ardennes classics but for the moment, he seems to focus on the cobbles. Like he did in 2016, he will back up the Northern campaign with a bid for a result in Amstel which suits him really well. The Belgian could be a joker for the team in the Dutch classic where a top 10 finish is within his reach
In the second half of the year, Greipel will again go for victory in Hamburg and it would be a good idea to give him at shot at Plouay too as he can definitely win the French classic. Gallopin, Benoot and Wellens have all done well in the Canadian races and if things go right, they can all win one of them like Wellens did in Montreal in 2015. Finally, Gallopin and Wellens have both featured in the final of Il Lombardia and even though that race is probably a bit too hard to aim for the win, a top 5 is definitely within reach for the pair.
What to expect in the grand tours?
Lotto Soudal is one of the few teams that have no real GC ambitions in the grand tours and they will approach the three-week races with an eye on stage wins. André Greipel will again be the main rider and as he has won stages in every grand tour he has done since 2009, he is almost a guarantee for success. He hasn’t revealed his season schedules yet but in the last two years, the Giro-Tour double has suited him really well. We expect him to have a similar program in 2017 and if that’s the case, a big part of the strategy for the first two grand tours will revolve around the fast German.
In the Giro, the team has traditionally had less support for Greipel as most of his train has been saved for the Tour. That’s likely to be the case in 2017 too and so there will be more room for other goals in the Italian grand tour. In 2016, Tim Wellens won a mountain stage but this year he will go to the Tour where he has bad memories from his debut in 2015. That makes it less likely that the team will win a stage in hilly terrain.
The GC has usually had less of a focus but Maxime Monfort has often been targeting a top 15 in the Giro. That will be the case in 2017 too. Bart De Clercq could also be given a short at the overall standings. The Belgian is still looking for a breakthrough result as a GC rider but with his diesel engine, he is capable of a top 10 if everything goes his way. The team may also be tempted to give Louis Vervaeke a first shot at the GC in a three-week race. The Belgian is a bit inconsistent but no one can deny that he is a huge talent. The Giro is an option but at the moment, the Vuelta is a more likely grand tour. It remains to be seen if he will ride for the overall standings.
In the Tour de France, a big part of the team will be devoted to Greipel who will try to take a win in the biggest race for the seventh year in a row. Tony Gallopin will also be a protected rider and he wants to erase the bad memories from 2016. He has played with the thought of going for GC in the future after his great climbing performance in 2015 but for now he seems to focus on stage wins. Thomas De Gendt returned to his best in 2016 and if he can reach similar heights next year, the Belgian is always capable of a win from a breakaway. The same goes for Wellens but you never know what you get from the inconsistent Belgian. The team is unlikely to focus on the GC but it can’t be ruled out that De Clercq will be given a shot.
Greipel is unlikely to do the Vuelta and this should open the door for either Debusschere, Hofland or Tosh van der Sande to go for a maiden grand tour stage win. De Gendt is also likely to be present as he is still without a stage win in the Spanish grand tour. De Clercq and Monfort are likely GC candidates as is Vervaeke. However, the team will probably have their best chance if they give Rafael Valls a chance. The Spaniard has mainly been signed as a leader in one-week stage races but as there aren’t many of those in the autumn, there should be space for him to ride his home grand tour. He has never really tested himself in the three-week races but if he can reach the form he had in 2015 and keep it up for three weeks, there is no reason that he can’t finish in the top 10.
What to expect elsewhere?
Due to the points system, Lotto Soudal have to do better in one-week stage races if they want to score more in the team rankings. That's why they signed Rafael Valls for the 2016 season but an injury ruined the year for the Spaniard. However, Valls showed his talent in 2015 when he won the Tour of Oman and climbed with the best in races like Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and the Criterium du Dauphiné. His poor TT skills will be a problem in many of the WorldTour races but there is no doubt that the Spaniard is capable of top 10 results in some of the one-week races.
Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens have done well in Paris-Nice in the past and depending on the route, Gallopin should be able to do so again in 2017. In general, Gallopin can make it into the top 10 in many of the WorldTour stage races but with his focus on the Flemish races, he will have to skip most of them. Wellens will do Tirreno-Adriatico and probably Pais Vasco but he is also mostly focused on the classics. That could open the door for Vervaeke in some of the one-week races. Last year he was good in Pais Vasco and outstanding in Romandie until illness took him out of contention. With a first grand tour in his legs, he can surprise in one of the spring stage races.
Wellens will be keen to repeat his wins in the Tour de Pologne and the Eneco Tour and even though one always tends to think that his TT skills will make it hard for him to win, he always manages to surprise. Benoot is also suited to these races but his very poor time trialling will be a big problem. The latter could also target races like Belgium Tour and Tour de Wallonie which suit him well.
Greipel will be expected to win whenever he is present and he should start to score already in February and then pick up wins in races like Paris-Nice, Tour de Luxembourg, Ster ZLM Toer and the Tour of Britain in addition to the grand tours. The team will also give Debusschere and Hofland opportunities in some stage races even though they will also be busy in the classics and in Greipel's train. Tosh van der Sande will be the sprinter in some of the hillier races but he is unlikely to be fast enough to win at the WorldTour level.
The team will also be active in many of the smaller Belgian one-day races and this could open the chance for riders like Sean De Bie, van der Sande, Debusschere, Hofland and Roelandts to add to their tally. Finally, we can only hope that Kris Boeckmans will continue his recovery and continue to get closer to the form that made him a winning machine in 2015.
Who’s ready to surprise?
We have already pointed to Louis Vervaeke several times. The Belgian stands out as one of the biggest Belgian stage race talents. Several health issues gave him a troubled start to his pro career but in the spring of 2016 he finally showed what he can do. Now he has a grand tour in his legs and this should only make him stronger. He needs to improve in the time trial but his good climbing skills mean that he will be able to surprise in one of the WorldTour stage races.
Can a rider who has been fifth in the Tour of Flanders be a surprise? Tiesj Benoot is already an established classics contender but after his failed 2016 season, he has slipped away from the radar. Another fifth place in a monument won’t be enough to regard him as a surprise but his talent makes him capable of so much more. If things go his way, it won’t be impossible for him to win one of the major classics and if that happens, the Belgian will again create big headlines as the revelation of the spring.
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