Racing with "bravery" is how Lotto-Soudal are achieving impressive results so far this season, John Lelangue, their general manager says, as his team heads into a crucial year.
The Belgian team have won seven races with four different riders so far in 2022, meaning they have tasted victory in 23% of events they could have. It is not even the end of February and the team are just five away from their total last year, which was 12. Only serial winners, and Belgian rivals, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl have won more so far this season.
They are not alone in being a smaller team over-performing, with Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux achieving four wins (versus nine in 2021), the same as Cofidis (12 last year), and Arkéa-Samsic being on five (10 in 2021). This comfortably puts all four squads in the top-10 on the UCI rankings.
Lelangue explained that his squad's goal is to "take every opportunity to race with bravery, to race every race like it was the last one of the season".
This might be incredibly important, because at the end of the year new WorldTour licences are available, which means there might be some movement in the makeup of cycling's top teams. Lotto-Soudal are also set to lose Soudal as title sponsors from 2023, so this is also a factor in performing well this year.
Based on last year's UCI team rankings, Cofidis and Lotto-Soudal were in the 'drop zone', while Alpecin-Fenix and Arkéa-Samsic were two ProTeams which could be promoted.
Points are earned by a squad's 10 highest-scoring riders at all UCI races, so every event matters. For example, for his overall win at the Saudi Tour, Lotto-Soudal's Maxim van Gils won his team 125 points, while Caleb Ewan's two sprint victories so far this year have netted 14 points each.
However, Lelangue insists that his Lotto team are not fighting purely on a points basis, and that he rejects a "conservative" approach to racing in order to win UCI points.
"We aim to take a lot of pleasure and to enjoy it. We are not looking to begin to count on points and everything. Because then from time to time, we would be racing defensively. We want to race offensively and we want to race to try to go for the victory, even if from time to time, it's better to put three guys in the top 20, than to be second. This is not the mindset, the mindset is to win races.
"It is not that I am not thinking about the points, but we are not making our strategy against other teams all around the points. We are making a strategy because we want to win races and we want to be offensive and we want to race with bravery."
It is a similar story with Intermarché. One of their sports directors, Aike Visbeek, explains they are working towards a system where they get the points "automatically" through achieving results, rather than aiming directly for points.
The Walloon squad have achieved good results so far this season, with a victory for new signing Alexander Kristoff proof of their investment. Biniam Girmay Hailu, a 21-year-old sprinter, has also impressed, winning once. They also won the overall at the Tour of Oman through Jan Hirt, their first GC win since joining the WorldTour. For this they earned 200 UCI points.
"I would lie if I would say we don't look at it [the points]," Visbeek says. "I think looking at the points is the last 5% of the planning. 95% is making sure that the team is in the right composition, that you have the right team planning for the guys so they can make good periods in the top shape. Getting several races that suit their qualities.
"Then in the last 5% you can maybe make some smart choices, but to be honest, I was also internally discussing it. I would not do a hell of a lot different if I was not focused on the points. I mean, I would still have the leadout train for Kristoff with Pasqualon in it.
"He's one of our riders that scores a lot of points for us, but he is now in the leadout train because we want to do results with Alexander. If you would narrow it down to a pure 100% points approach, you would not have Pasqualon in that leadout train."
On why his team have won almost half as many races as they did all of last year, Visbeek explains that the riders are focused and operating in a good atmosphere.
"We did a lot of work, we had to sign I think 11 riders this year," he explains. "We put a lot of focus on having the right guys with the right mentality. I think Alexander Kristoff was the right guy with the right mentality, he's really down to earth, a hard worker. I think that he fitted really well with the team. From the first team meeting in the beginning of November, we started training already and we were really focused on the team having a good start.
"The riders that planned to be good, in the beginning of the season they were good, and that is always good for confidence. In all aspects it brings good confidence. I'm happy with how it's moving and it was also a reward for the hard work we did.
"For me, the big thing for the team was to start off in a good way this season," the Dutchman concludes. "By doing that, when you have guys doing the results, and the placings in the GC, what you create is that you take the points automatically, and then it is less of an issue. I mean, we have two good years behind our name. So we have to be careful we are not in stress, we are in a good situation."
The WorldTour has been around since 2009, but the UCI points system has had little scrutiny, possibly because there has not been much prospect of teams moving up or down from the WorldTour.
However, with new licences up for grabs from the end of the season, there is a fully-fledged battle for the points. ProTeams like Arkéa-Samsic and Uno-X have expressed an interest in joining the top table while others like Lotto-Soudal and Cofidis appear to be in danger of losing out.
The 18 WorldTour spots next year will be decided on ethical, financial, administrative and organisational criteria, but it is the sporting element which has attracted the most attention.
For Lelangue and his Lotto team, this might mean targeting top-20 placings in order to win points to guarantee survival.
"The system of points is not in our advantage," the Belgian argues. "When Caleb [Ewan] is winning a stage against the best sprinters of the world in Saudi, he is taking 14 points, which is nothing.
"In [the Clasica] Jaén Paraiso with three riders in the top ten I was taking 200 points [sic]. And in some 1.2 races at the beginning of the season, where the WorldTour teams are not allowed to participate, the second place in such a race is taking 30 points. This is the system but we have to agree with it like this."
Instead of aiming for points, Lelangue insists that Lotto-Soudal are aiming for victories, and it is a strategy that has paid off handsomely so far.
"The first thing is that we have to be victorious, and then it will come by itself," he says. "If we have to race around the points, we would have a strategy against some of the other teams and also to be more conservative to be sure that I have three or four guys ending in the top 20. But this is really not fun.
"So we'll do this. At the end, our first aim is to take pleasure, to enjoy racing. To race with bravery, and to win races. At the end of the season, we will see."
Asked if other teams are already racing defensively, he says: "Honestly, yes, it is like this. But if I'm doing this, I will not take pleasure in racing, and I would prefer to change jobs."
For now, Lotto-Soudal will focus on keeping up their form; now the first wins have been recorded, it might become easier to keep winning or challenging at bigger races, as the WorldTour rolls on.
"This is good when you feel this at the beginning of the season," Lelangue says. "You know that you're going for a big season. We need a bit of luck also we need to have luck about crashes, technical problems, the COVID situation. This is touching us like it's touching all the teams and we have to live with this for a few more months, and we will see, but we don't have to stress and we have to take pleasure and to enjoy riding the bike and going for the victory."
The Lotto manager concludes: "I told the guys I was in a situation 10 years ago in 2011 or 2010, where it was really hard. When I was with BMC and we had to wait for Flèche Wallonne, it was only in April when we won with Cadel Evans our first victory. When you are in this situation, there is always a lot more pressure and you are making mistakes.
"But at least now we are done and we are enjoying every race and there is a good motivation between all the riders to know who will be the next one winning. It is taking the whole team to another level."
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