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The people’s team: Lotto-Soudal at Dwars door Vlaanderen

15 Oct 2019

Is it too early to think about the 2020 Spring Classics already? Probably not. To help pass the time between now and cycling's best couple of months coming round again, here's a look at when Cyclist jumped in the car with Lotto-Soudal at the 2019 Dwars door Vlaanderen. They may not have the financial muscle of their nearest rivals, but arguably they have the biggest heart. This article was originally published in issue 89 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Sean Hardy

As the riders line up for the start of the 74th edition of Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday 3rd April 2019, one Belgian team can bask in the satisfaction of knowing they already have 20 wins under their belt. Sadly for Lotto-Soudal, they are not that team.

Lotto-Soudal are the ‘other’ Belgian team. They have a respectable six wins of their own at this early stage in the season, but they are completely overshadowed by the giants of Deceuninck-QuickStep.

‘They are Manchester City and we are Fulham,’ says Arne Houtekier, Lotto-Soudal’s head of communications. ‘The Belgian media try to compare us but it’s a false comparison.

‘Their budget is 50% greater than ours, which can all go on rider salaries. They’re aiming to be the best team in the world. We’re aiming to be – how do you say – on the left side of the table. But that doesn’t mean we’re not ambitious.’

As Cyclist discovers on a typically overcast spring day in Flanders, that ambition is nurtured by the people…


Help me, Ronde

When Cyclist was making arrangements to join Lotto-Soudal at a major race, we got a bit excited on hearing the word Vlaanderen, conjuring images of being at the heart of that epic Monument, the Tour of Flanders.

This, however, is the Dwars door, not the Ronde van, Vlaanderen. Still, this 182.6km outing has WorldTour status and counts as one of the season’s Cobbled Classics.

It also has a rich history, this being the 74th edition, and its stock is arguably the highest it has ever been, having last year moved from its midweek slot after Milan-San Remo to the middle of the Flemish ‘Holy Week’ of racing, sandwiched between Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

The one concession it had to make in taking up its new slot so soon before the Ronde was a slightly shorter race route (down from 200km) that no longer includes the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs.

Not that today will be an easy ride. With 11 climbs still on the menu and several stretches of pavé, it should provide not only a physical test but also give the winner a psychological boost ahead of the Ronde. Lotto-Soudal are hoping that man will be Belgian rider Tiesj Benoot.

‘Our hopes are with him, yes,’ says Lotto-Soudal directeur sportif Frederik Willems. ‘The guys need to protect him early on as not only will it be fast but there will be crosswinds, too.’

As for the cobbles, ‘They won’t be decisive today, but the “hellings” will, especially the Kluisberg [111km in, 1km long and peaking at 16%] and the Trieu [118km, 1.1km long and a maximum 11.8%]. If we’re up front at this point, we’ll be in good shape.’


Middle-aged medley

The start is in Roeselare, a historic city in west Flanders with a population touching 70,000. By the looks of today’s sample of the local populace, it seems most of them are middle-aged men in blue puffer jackets, chinos and swept-back silver hair kept in place by compulsory sunglasses.

The incessant ringing of the bell from the town hall competes with the cheers from the crowd, most of which are reserved for the team in red and white.

The appearance of Benoot and his six-man Lotto-Soudal army – Belgians Stan Dewulf, Jens Keukeleire, Frederik Frison and Lawrence Naesen, Dutchman Brian Van Goethem and Brit Adam Blythe (signed on a one-year contract after the Aqua-Blue Sport debacle) – warms the 8°C environs, although gilets, armwarmers and gloves remain obligatory.

This love-in stems from Lotto-Soudal being funded by the people, albeit via a lottery ticket. It’s been this way since 1984 when Lotto started co-sponsoring the Tonissteiner team before becoming main sponsor a year later.

It’s a similar model to the National Lottery’s partnership with British Cycling, where UK Sport acts as intermediary to dish out funding based on Olympic performance.

Lotto-Soudal’s budget is said to be around £14 million a year, which is supplied by the lottery and secondary sponsor Soudal, a Belgian company that manufactures adhesives, sealants and PU foams.

Despite the proliferation of middle-aged, middle-class devotees on show at Dwars, Soudal sees cycling as a sport for the common man. And because it makes products for the common man, it was happy to commit to an almost unheard-of six-year contract, which reaches its conclusion in 2020.

Soudal’s secondary status means it’s mainly Lotto pulling the strings. And as the people’s team, it stipulates that at least two-thirds of the 27-strong squad must be Belgian.

‘It also means we have development and women’s teams,’ says team manager Marc Sergeant prior to us setting off in the team car. ‘It’s good for us and good for the lottery, as the team is their main marketing tool to remind Belgians to fill in their forms.’

That focus on youth appeals to budding professionals, who know their promotion to the WorldTour is less likely to be blocked by a well-paid, experienced professional.

It’s a pathway ridden by current stars Benoot, who won the team’s last Classic – Strade Bianche in 2018 – and Tim Wellens, the 27-year-old with two Giro d’Italia stage wins to his name.

‘Two more development riders graduate to the senior team on 1st July,’ Sergeant adds. ‘Brent Van Moer – he won silver at last year’s under-23 men’s Worlds time-trial – and Gerben Thijssen, who’s a strong track rider.

‘We don’t place too much pressure on them, giving them two seasons to find their way. That third year we develop their specific roles, be it GC, domestique… The development team is our DNA.’

It’s complemented by a few strands of international chromosome. Once the spring season passes, the team will look to Australian Caleb Ewan to take centre stage at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

The 24-year-old sprinter signed from Mitchelton-Scott in the off-season as a ready-made replacement for 36-year-old André Greipel, who moved to French ProContinental side Arkéa-Samsic.

Greipel won 11 Tour stages in his seven seasons at Lotto, but the last came in 2016. So far in 2019, Ewan has won two stages of the Giro d’Italia plus two stages of the Tour of Turkey.


Local knowledge

Back at Dwars, the race is underway. We’re in the car with Houtekier, shifting between the parcours and off-piste, dissecting farmers’ fields via dusty tributaries. Houtekier lives nearby and is a walking, talking GPS, finding the shortest path whether its resistance is least or not. It’s great for photography and to chart events, less good for a Cyclist stomach still settling after a breakfast off the glycaemic index scale. Homemade, delicious, but a diabetic’s nightmare.

Lotto-Soudal’s service course is nearby – ‘everywhere in Belgium is nearby,’ Houtekier adds – as is Deceuninck-QuickStep’s, plus a host of non-Belgian teams including Ineos, Trek-Segafredo, Katusha-Alpecin… Belgium is cycling country. Which has ensured a healthy – well, moderate – line of roadside spectators.

There’s little action to entertain, however, until the final 80km, when the riders come to a stop as the women’s race ahead is delayed by a crash. The men restart, only to be halted again due to a break catching the women’s peloton.

Once the riders are untangled, the race continues. We stop the car at the peak of the Taaienberg around 132km in, and when the riders pass Benoot is in the mix.

‘We’re in a good position,’ Houtekier says. ‘Now we drive to the finish.’


An hour of headlines

Benoot’s team keep him in contention and it looks like the 25-year-old could write the day’s headlines. If not, well, there’s guaranteed global coverage for both Lotto and Soudal with Victor Campenaerts’s attempt at the Hour Record.

‘It will take place in Mexico in April,’ Houtekier says. ‘We have a 48-hour window as air pressure can differ from one day to the next. It’s an incredible pressure [mental not climatic] as the spotlight’s on you. And it’s not a stage race so there are no second chances.

‘But stress is an advantage for Victor. It focuses his mind. He said he’d win last year’s European Championships time-trial and he did. He said he’d podium at last year’s World Championships and he did, finishing third.’

Reaching the Mexican start line is a feat in itself, with the UCI’s Hour regulations of doorstop proportions. The team also has to organise hotels for the UCI, anti-doping officials and journalists, and rent a house for Campenaerts and his support staff, all of which is made logistically more challenging because of the location – the Aguascalientes velodrome is about an hour’s flight from Mexico City.

‘It’s worth it, though, as it’s a very fast track,’ adds Houtekier. ‘It’s used for the UCI Track World Cup series and, apparently, the wood makes it really fast. That and the banking. That banking is something Victor’s had to acclimatise to as he’s not a trackie. He’ll need the perfect line with 220 laps needed to break the record.’

The rarefied air of Aguascalientes, located over 1,800m above sea level, also appeals, and that altitude adaptation has been key during the build-up. Campenaerts spent much of the winter training in Namibia, recommended to him by one of his former triathlon colleagues.

‘Much of Namibia is also around 1,800m but on a plateau,’ Houtekier says. ‘It means you can train on the flat without having to climb or descend, which is what Victor wanted.’

Campenaerts actually topped up that 1,800m to 3,000m by sleeping in an altitude tent, and it clearly had the desired effect on red-blood cell count. Come 16th April, the 27-year-old Belgian bettered Sir Bradley Wiggins’ 2015 record by 563 metres for a new world best of 55.089km.

Goals reached, headlines made, sponsors happy.


So close…

Back at Dwars, Benoot is nestled in the leading quintet, until with 1km remaining he kicks for victory. Sadly he’s soon reeled in by QuickStep’s Bob Jungels, before Direct Energie’s Anthony Turgos takes over. He looks set for victory until Mathieu van der Poel storms past to claim the biggest win of his fledgling road career.

‘I have mixed feelings,’ Benoot tell us before being sucked up by the team bus. ‘I wanted a podium but it shows I’m in good shape for Sunday. And the fact that the Tour of Flanders is longer at 267km is to my advantage. I’m looking forward to it.’

As it transpires, Benoot never really challenges for ultimate victory on Monument Sunday, finishing ninth in Flanders.

Dwars over, Houtekier drives us back to the hotel in Deerlijk. We reflect on the great riders of Lotto-Soudal’s past, including Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen; our surprising mutual love of snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan, and balancing family life with work. Houtekier has two young children, aged seven and two, and I ask whether he’d ever encourage them to become cyclists.

‘And get a call from a doctor saying you must rush to the hospital? No thank you!’

An emotional Houtekier then recalls the events of 28th May 2016 when Lotto rider Stig Broeckx, who came through the development system, suffered severe injuries at the Tour of Belgium after a crash caused by a motorbike and involving 19 riders. It left Broeckx in a coma for four months. He nearly died five times.

‘I was at that race but went home for a family gathering on the Saturday. I said I’d come back on Sunday if we were in GC or would challenge for the stage. Marc [Sergeant] called to say there’d been a crash and what should we do. I said, “We head straight to the hospital.” It was devastating, just horrible. There were tubes everywhere. Just devastating…’

Six weeks later came Belgium’s National Championships, where the team doctor revealed that Broeckx had no chance of a normal life. He would remain in a vegetative state.

‘Everyone was crying. In the sport of cycling where you have to a be a man, to be strong, blah, blah, blah… I pray that never happens again.’

Incredibly, in what the doctors called a ‘miracle’, Broeckx began to recover. ‘He’ll never be the same again but he’s walking. He also made his first public speech yesterday. It was emotional, but amazing. Broeckx will forever remain part of the Lotto-Soudal family.’

In fact, Broeckx has now ridden a mountain bike, his recovery is being followed on television and he dreams of riding a road bike. Broeckx: the everyman miracle of the people’s team. It’s something victories simply cannot buy.

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