The big names remain, but otherwise it’s all change at the Belgian squad, who will race their 37th campaign this season. Nine new faces are on board for 2021, with an average age of 22 and seven of them coming from the under-23 ranks.
It’s clear what John Lelangue and the Lotto Soudal management team had in mind this off-season as over-30s such as Adam Hansen, Jelle Wallays and Nikolas Maes have been allowed to leave, to be replaced by young talents such as Ronde de l’Isard champion Xandres Vervloesem and Il Piccolo Lombardia winner Harry Sweeny.
That’s not to say the team will be entirely relying on youth this year, though. The big, reliable results-getters remain in the form of Caleb Ewan, Tim Wellens, Philippe Gilbert, Thomas De Gendt, and John Degenkolb. Those riders will generate the wins and headlines while the youngsters learn and grow, or at least that’s the plan.
Manager: John Lelangue
Squad size: 27
Average age: 25.9
How did they fare in 2020?
WorldTour ranking: 16th
Despite 12 victories, including two wins apiece at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España thanks to Ewan and Wellens, Lotto Soudal ended 2020 close to the bottom of the WorldTour rankings.
Ewan was responsible for seven of them – no surprise given he’s one of the top sprinters in the current peloton. The Australian won two stages at the Tour Down Under, as well as one apiece at the UAE Tour and Tour de Wallonie. He finished his season with a win at Scheldeprijs, underlining his claim as the world’s best sprinter.
Wellens’ two Vuelta wins – from the breakaway in Sabiñanigo and Ourense – were the team’s other two big results of the season, while newcomer Matthew Holmes took a stage in the Tour Down Under, too. Sander Armée and Degenkolb taking stage wins in the Tour Poitou-Charentes and Tour de Luxembourg completed the win list.
The Classics leaders Degenkolb and Gilbert largely had campaigns to forget as the pair crashed out of the Tour de France early on, with the Belgian also missing October’s delayed Classics due to continuing knee pain. Degenkolb salvaged something with sixth at Gent-Wevelgem and fourth at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, but the pair will certainly hope for more in what will hopefully be a more normal 2021 campaign.
Elsewhere, there was little to shout about, with Harm Vanhoucke, Holmes and De Gendt racking up distant third places across three Giro d’Italia stages and Gerben Thijssen taking second in the sprint on stage 9 of the Vuelta.
The Australian, who has a solid claim at being the world’s best sprinter, will set out to prove that once again this year as he looks to take on all three Grand Tours and hopes to become the first man to win a stage at each in the same calendar year since Alessandro Petacchi in 2003.
It’s hard to judge his chances from this far out, but there are few sprinters in the peloton you’d back to pull it off – maybe just him and Sam Bennett. If he doesn’t manage it, then it’s certain that he’ll still bring in several big wins for Lotto Soudal. He has 13 WorldTour wins over the past two seasons and, at 26, he has plenty of time to add to his tally.
Thomas De Gendt
As one half of the team’s breakaway specialist duo, the Belgian can be relied upon to snag a big win yearly, bringing in eight WorldTour wins – including two Tour stages – since 2016. He was unlucky to come away from 2020 empty-handed, though his relentless attacks at the Giro did at least win him the combativity prize and plenty of sponsor airtime. He’ll be back.
Wellens is the second part of the breakaway boys, though his 2020 was more fruitful than De Gendt thanks to his double Vuelta success – his 10th and 11th wins on Spanish soil. The 29-year-old is an underrated spring racer and has several hilly stage races to his name, too – it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on the podium of a big Classic in 2021.
Like Gilbert, for Degenkolb an already tough 2020 was ruined by an early crash an abandon at the Tour. The German salvaged something with some strong Classics performances to round off the year, but he’ll be hoping for more this season.
The cobbled Classics, and the delayed debut of his partnership with Gilbert, lies just a few months away. It will be intriguing to see how the experienced pair match up against the star duo of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, the strength in depth of Deceuninck-QuickStep, and the new project at AG2R Citröen, as well as Peter Sagan and Trek-Segafredo.
The second half of the team’s Classics leadership, Gilbert is one of the most decorated riders in the peloton with four-fifths of a Monument sweep to his name as well as being one of just three riders to win an Ardennes ‘triple’ (alongside Davide Rebellin and Anna van der Breggen).
He’s a Milan-San Remo win away from following Van Looy, Merckx and De Vlaeminck into the Monument history books, so keep your eyes peeled on March 20. Otherwise, 2021 will hopefully be a luckier, injury-free repeat of 2020, with the cobbled Classics and Tour de France among his main goals.
Strengths and weaknesses
The team has the strength to take wins throughout the year, with Ewan a reliable winner who now has seven Grand Tour stages to his name. Gilbert and Degenkolb form one of the strongest one-two Classics punches in the peloton, with their experience and complementing styles fitting together well.
Then there’s Wellens and De Gendt, specialists in the lottery of the breakaway. With eight Grand Tour stage wins between them, they should be good for a couple of big wins, while the Classics men will also be deployed on stage hunting duties.
Strength in depth does look to be something of an issue – the big names can’t afford a down year with nobody else around to pick up the slack. A breakout season from one of the neo-pros and more progress from talented Vanhoucke would be welcome.
The cobbled Classics support squad isn’t the strongest – though Jasper De Buyst and Frederik Frison can be relied upon – while at 34 and 38, De Gendt and Gilbert have to strike while iron is still hot. Let’s hope the latter and Degenkolb get at least the spring of 2021 to show what they can do together.
A top-heavy Lotto Soudal squad for 2021, though the leaders are all reliable and proven performers at the top level. The stars will grab the headlines and the wins while the interesting group of youngsters have space and time to grow and learn.