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Lotto – Soudal seeks to end early classics drought

The Belgium squad has gone 15 seasons without a victory in the opening weekend of the spring classics.

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Belgium’s long-running Lotto – Soudal team has gone too long — 15 years — without a win in the “opening weekend” of the classics, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. It is working on ending that drought February 25 and 26.

You have to flip back through cycling’s almanac or click pages on statistic websites, until you reach 2002. That year, Belgian Peter Van Petegem won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which at the time was still called Omloop Het Volk.

Andrei Tchmil gave the team a Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne win 17 years ago, in 2000. He won the big one, the Tour of Flanders, later that spring.

For Marc Sergeant — manager of one of Belgium’s two top teams (the other being Quick-Step – Floors) — it has been too long. He sent his troops out to prepare for the races last weekend.

“Some guys already know the area very well of course, but others much less,” Lotto sport director Herman Frison said.

“And it’s useful to see the hills and cobbles again, also for me. It has been 10 months since we raced on these roads and during such training you see things that could be important in the race.”

Last weekend, the team in retro red kits trained on the parcours of the two opening classics and E3 Harelbeke, which runs later, March 24, around Harelbeke. Tchmil again was the last Lotto cyclist to win E3 Harelbeke 16 years ago, in 2001.

Lotto’s Tiesj Benoot, Frederik Frison, Moreno Hofland, Nikolas Maes, and Jürgen Roelandts rode about 140 kilometers on the Omloop’s parcours Saturday and 200km on the routes of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and E3 Harelbeke Sunday.

Most of the spring classics run in the small Flanders region in northern Belgium. Their routes share many of the same roads in the small, wind-swept patch of cobbled sectors and climbs.

Belgians like Benoot, Frison, and Roelandts know the roads better than the royal family. A refresher never hurts, especially for foreigners like Moreno Hofland. The Dutch sprinter joined the team over the winter from LottoNL – Jumbo.

“We have chosen to do the recon this weekend because there’s a risk that the weather will be bad a few days before the Omloop and then you can’t move the date anymore,” added Frison, a relative of Frederik Frison.

“Now we were able to do these recons without stress and without much rain. Such rides are also perfect to test the tubes and tire pressure.”

For years, Lotto spent its budget on the grand tours. It tried to win the Tour de France with Cadel Evans and with Jurgen Van den Broeck, and successfully built a sprint train around André Greipel. As a result, the team lagged behind in the classics.

Recon for the “opening weekend” will be important to change the tide.

The pressure could fall on the shoulders of 22-year-old Tiesj Benoot to pick up where Van Petegem left off. From Gent, where the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad starts and finishes, he knows the roads well. Last year, he finished third behind winner Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing and Peter Sagan, who now rides for Bora – Hansgrohe.

Benoot told VeloNews last spring, “I have more expectations, but I’m more self-confident.”

Over the winter, Benoot extended his contract for two more years.

The team’s German sprint star Greipel has a program of stage races that will take him to the bigger classics. This year, “The Gorilla” is aiming at being one of the team’s leaders.

“It’s important for every rider to focus on other goals now and then,” explained Sergeant.

“[Greipel is] 34 years old and wants to try to start the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Scheldeprijs, and Paris-Roubaix in the best possible shape.”

Instead, 25-year-old sprinter Hofland could lead the team in the 200.7km Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He will be up against last year’s winner Jasper Stuyven (Trek – Segafredo), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL – Jumbo), and Arnaud Démare (FDJ).

The formula and fitness will change over the month until E3 Harelbeke on March 24. Last year, Benoot continued his rapid rise with a seventh-place finish behind winner Michal Kwiatkowski of Sky.

The effort spent reconnoitering over the last weekend with the team’s improving riders could bring a much needed end to Lotto – Soudal’s classics drought.