Lotto Soudal head into the ‘opening weekend’ of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne with the team brimming with confidence after a strong start to the 2018 season. The Belgian team lead with Tiesj Benoot, Jens Keukeleire, and Tim Wellens, with the latter on form after a winning performance at the Ruta del Sol earlier in February.
“The Belgian opening weekend is the real start of the new season. We can’t complain about our preparation. Many of our riders have shown a great shape and we have already won a few races, with different riders. I was often told that it has been a while since our team raced a good opening weekend. Of course we hope we can set a great performance this year,” team boss Marc Sergeant said in a press release.
The team won two stages at the Tour Down Under in January, courtesy of Andre Greipel, but Wellens’ recent performances saw him take a well-deserved stage and the overall in Spain. Though he is not a cobbled Classics regular, his form cannot be ignored.
“Benoot, Keukeleire and Wellens are the big names in our line-up, but with riders like De Buyst and Wallays we have a strong team in general. I expect that we can show ourselves. Tim was strong at Ruta del Sol and Tiesj Benoot has just returned from a training camp at Sierra Nevada.”
Keukeleire joined Sergeant’s team over the winter from Orica-Scott, while Benoot was third in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2016. The latter, still just 23, is raring to go after starting his season at the Vuelta a San Juan in January.
Juan Jose Lobato has been given the chance to rescue his cycling career after signing an agreement with Italian squad Nippo Vini Fantini. The Spaniard was fired from LottoNL-Jumbo in December after taking sleep medication at a training camp without the team’s knowledge. Two other riders Antwan Tolhoek and Pascal Eenkhoorn, who also took the Noctamid and Stilnox, were suspended by the team but kept on.
Lobato, described by his new team as the ‘perfect alter-ego of the leader Marco Canola’ joins for the remainder of the season with the option of a second year also on the table.
In a press release issued by Nippo-Vini Fantini, general manager Francesco Pelosi outlined why the team had taken Lobato on-board. He also explained some of the reasons why Lobato had taken the medication.
“I’m very proud and happy that another winning rider, with WorldTour experience decides to join our important project,” Pelosi said. “Juan Jose will have [a] very important role supporting our leader in the Monuments races and in the stage races. I know very well the reason why he consensually rescinded his contract with his previous team, and after I received reassurance from his previous team about the rider’s behavior during 2017, which was the hardest year of his career, Juan has been very professional during the whole season, [so] we decided to offer to him a second chance.
“We have verified the reason behind the rider’s motivation to be back in competitions, after a very difficult year from a personal point of view (in 2017 he separated from his wife just after his son was born, and in the same year a close relative, and mentor in cycling, died). We have decided to accept this challenge as a team, in line with the #OrangeBlue moral and ethic code.
“We don’t want to exclude a rider in good faith and we want to give a second chance to those whom deserve it. Juan Jose now fully understands how it works inside a team that has fundamental ethical rules and he will not repeat similar mistakes. Now, he just needs a brand new opportunity and with this jersey he just wants to be back in his great career.”
When it comes to Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) targeting Grand Tours and stage races the question appears to have always been a matter of ‘when rather than if’ but the Team Sky all-rounder remains firmly focused on achieving his one-day ambitions for the time being.
The Polish rider has forged a career as one of the most multi-talented riders in the current peloton, with an eclectic skill set enabling him to win across a number of formats. There are few riders who can go toe-to-toe with Peter Sagan one week, and then ride at the head of affairs in the mountains the next.
The all-rounder won both summit finish stages at the Volta ao Algarve, and carried away the overall crown after a daring raid on the final stage. Heading into the spring classics, he once more looks like a force to reckoned with.
“Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a big target but I’m thinking that I’m in good shape now to try and fight for Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo,” he told Cyclingnews on the morning of the final stage in Algarve.
In terms of this season’s Grand Tours, Kwiatkowski will race the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. Having never competed in two three-week races in the same season he is entering new territory. However, his role in both races is still somewhat uncertain. Chris Froome’s fate in relation to his salbutamol case has not yet been reached, and although Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels and Sergio Henao could all claim to be legitimate ‘plan Bs’ the same case could be put forward for Kwiatkowski. That said, the former world champion is shying away from any pressure in major stage races. At the Volta ao Algarve, however, he let his legs do the talking.