Herman Frison is a happy man. You can tell. He is barely able to stop smiling. A steady drizzle falls on Milan and the first of the season’s Monument Classics will start in less than half-an-hour, but he is not concerned by either. These are good times for Lotto Soudal.
The men in red have barely stopped winning this season. Pim Ligthart began matters with victory at La Marseillaise and won again on the opening stage of the Vuelta Andalucia. Kris Boeckmans claimed stage one of the Étoile de Bessèges and recently won Nokere Koerse. The team’s national champions – Germany’s André Greipel and Belgium’s Jens Debusschere – took stages of the Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, respectively. And, of course, Tony Gallopin’s ride into Nice on the sixth stage of this year’s race to the sun might be the performance of the year so far (he was another Lotto Soudal rider to win at Bessèges).
And then there is Thomas De Gendt, relentlessly aggressive, perpetually on the attack, racing like a rider reborn after finally putting behind him a contractual dispute with Vaconsoleil and the pressure of racing for the peloton’s most successful team, Etixx-Quick-Step. This feels like a fresh start too for Lotto, whose options in recent times have been confined to sprint victories for Greipel and the routinely gallant failure of GC rider Jurgen Van den Broeck.
Frison pinpoints the team’s decision this season not to attend Argentina’s Tour de San Luis, or the so-called desert races in Qatar and Oman, but to hold two further training camps. Indeed, the only flyaway race contested by Lotto Soudal has been the Tour Down Under, “and not with the normal team,” Frison points out. “Not with Greipel, not with Seeburg, not with Roelandts – but we make the riders wait a couple of weeks longer for the first race.” Indeed, much of the team started its European campaign at the Vuelta a Mallorca in late January.
The return to top form of Thomas De Gendt has mirrored Lotto Soudal’s recent success. Is there an internal culture that the Belgian has responded to? Frison says the team has intentionally not applied pressure to De Gendt, and given him the freedom to ride for himself and to attack whenever he feels able.
“We know him a little bit: he is a rider that you must tell, for the first two or three days, ‘Just follow the bunch, don’t work for the team, just follow. But for the harder stages’ – last week for example in Paris-Nice – ‘then just do what you want. If you have the legs, you can go. Wait a little bit, but after 100km, you can do it, no problem.’
“But – no pressure. And that’s a little bit different. I understand that if you are in the team of Quick-Step, then you must work. You have a lot of good riders. That is the big difference with us: now he can do what he wants. He must go in the attack? He can do that, he is very strong, he has the legs for that.”
De Gendt exercised his new liberty as early as the second stage of the Tour Down Under, and at Paris-Nice used the same freedom for almost daily attacks; enough to net him the king of the mountains jersey and to bring him to within 200m of victory on stage five. He will not ride the cobbled races of spring, but has been despatched instead to Catalunya, again with a roaming role, rather than to serve the team leader, Van den Broeck.
De Gendt’s greatest performance came with victory on the queen stage of the 2012 Giro d’Italia, where he won at the summit of the Stelvio. How will Lotto Soudal use him in the Grand Tours? “The Giro or The Tour, I don’t know,” Frison says. “That’s for discussion. He is a rider for the big tour: for a minimum of the Giro or the Tour of Spain, but we must wait a little bit. We have 12 or 13 candidates for the Tour. We will see after the Classics, and then we will make a decision.”
One rider certain for Tour de France selection is Gallopin; a stage winner and maillot jaune at last year’s Tour and a rider who has shown formidable form already this season. By remaining clear of a pursuing pack containing Thomas, Porte and Kwiatkowski on the sixth stage of Paris-Nice, Gallopin collected another yellow jersey, and sent the French press into raptures.
Frison identifies the media as the only possible source of pressure that might have contributed to a disappointing performance on the final stage, Col d’Eze time trial: one in which Gallopin lost 1.39 to Porte. “Normally, he is good in the time trial,” Frison shrugs. “I don’t know what happened. I think maybe he was…nervous. [There was no pressure] from the team, not from himself, but you know in this race: French people, 36s lead over Porte. It was not the normal Gallopin that we saw, but he knows that, and now that is finished.”
Gallopin has been a significant acquisition for Lotto Soudal, joining last year and, at the Tour, delivering the team’s biggest success in years. He is surely the strongest contender ultimately to replace the 32-year-old Van den Broeck as the team’s GC leader. Frison describes the Frenchman as a rider who can do everything – climb, sprint, and time trial – and admits that the team had wanted to sign him for several years.
Like De Gendt, Gallopin will miss the Northern Classics and follow instead a programme that will take him to the Tour of the Basque Country, Brabantse Pijl, the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Frison has another rider in mind for the cobbled races.
“For the Flemish Classics – for the Tour of Flanders and for Paris-Roubaix – it is Roelandts, 100 per cent. He is the man that we hope can do that. But also in very good condition are Debuscherre and Boekmans. For today [Milan-Sanremo] and for Gent-Wevelgem, then we have Greipel.”
The “other” Belgian team suddenly has a raft of options. A revised early season programme has surely had some impact, but there appears to be a more positive force at play at Lotto Soudal: an absence of pressure and a freedom to perform that is encouraging results across the team. It is in marked contrast to Etixx-Quick-Step: a formidable winning machine that produces the required result or implodes. Lotto are now regular winners: for supporters of the underdog, this is a welcome development.