2014 was probably the most successful year for the team all-around. Louis Vervaeke won the big stage races in Pays de Savoie and l'Isard, Benoot was an animal with results all over the board, Jef Van Meirhaeghe won the Belgian U23 RR while Dan McLay came into his own as a sprinter with stage wins in Tour de Normandie, Paris-Arras and the Tour de l'Avenir.
They are graduating a record number of riders to the pro ranks with Vervaeke and Benoot heading to the Lotto-Soudal pro team, Van Meirhaeghe and Amaury Capiot heading to Topsport Vlaanderen, McLay heading to Bretagne-Seche Environment and a host of other riders heading to continental teams including Xandro Meurisse (An Post-Chain Reaction), Rob Leemans (SEG Racing) and Dimitri Peyskens (Team 3M). Other riders they are losing include former Belgian U23 RR Champ Jorne Carolus, who is retiring to focus on school, and Thomas Vanbesien, who leaves to BCV Works-Soenens.
While a large chunk of riders are leaving, let's see what is left for Van de Wouwer to work with. Riders (all Belgian unless indicated) returning for 2015 include Maarten Craeghs, Laurens De Plus, Kevin Deltombe, Frederik Frison, Alexander Geuens, Hayden McCormick (New Zealand), Ruben Pols, Brecht Ruyters, Dries Van Gestel, Mathias Van Gompel, Kenneth Van Rooy, Massimo Vanderaerden and Dieter Verwilst.
The glazed-over eyes are probably setting in now so I'll just give you the riders you need to know. Craeghs and Frison are the only two non-U23 riders on the roster. Craeghs won a stage in the Ronde van Oost-Vlaanderen and does pretty good on classics-style courses. Frison is a TT specialist that was 9th in the World U23 TT and can time trial among the best in Belgian. He struggled outside of time trials in 2014 and hopefully he can get back to his 2013 form, which saw him get into breakaways and climb relatively well. Deltombe is a young classics-style rider with a nose for bunch sprints; he had multiple top 10s last year in UCI races included 8th in the Dorpenomloop, 3rd in the GP Criquielion and two 6th places in the Circuit des Ardennes. De Plus got through his first year as a U23 pretty well and showed some talent as a climber by getting through the Giro della Valle d'Aosta pretty well, especially in the climbing time trials. McCormick was a standout junior and had some good results this year including 15th in the Carpathian Couriers Tour, 3rd in the Tour of Southland as well as some top 25 performances across the continent. He is an all-around talent that I don't think has been used to his potential. Pols is another time trial rider that can ride a flat to rolling stage race well (using the TT to gain time) and does decently in the one-day races but lacks some pop. Without having to shepherd Louis Vervaeke, Ruyters could burst through for a nice result in 2015. He was incredibly valuable to Vervaeke as a mountains domestique and if he was able to protect himself more, he could certainly get into the top 10 overall multiple times. Van Gestel was 5th in the U23 Peace Race and 9th in the Okolo Jiznich Cech; it does show he can ride in the Czech Republic but if he is on form in a medium mountains race, then he could produce similar results. Van Rooy could take the mantle as a leader on the team after his Worlds selection and consistent results in the one-day races. He has shown he can make selections and get close in a bunch sprint. 2015 will be the year to show he can do more than that.
That was a wall of text. Tedious but important. This preview is a lot more intensive than others I have done because Lotto-Soudal U23 is an amateur team, which means they don't have to pay riders. Since they don't pay riders, they can spend get more riders on the roster and spend more on getting them to races. The roster is pro-sized with 25 riders and while they ride a lot in the Belgian amateur scene, they also have a fairly strong calendar that takes them around Western and Central Europe.
For 2015, Lotto-Soudal U23 is bringing in a strong group that includes: Jean-Albert Carnevali, Steff Cras, Michael Goolaerts, Steff Hermans, Mathias Krigbaum (Denmark), Senne Leysen, Milan Menten, Emiel Planckaert, James Shaw (Great Britain), George Tansley (Australia), Joachim Van Reyten and Enzo Wouters.
Carnevali is an interesting pick-up from Verandas Willems. He showed himself very well in the stage races with 7th in the Carpathian Couriers Tour & Fleche du Sud along with 12th in the Ronde de l'Isard. Throw in his 16th in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23 and he looks like a pretty good prospect for the hills. Cras is one of the first year U23s joining the team and looks like another rider that can potentially do well in the hills. He won a stage of the Tour de Valromey and had multiple top 10s in one day racing. You just need to watch juniors that are touted as climbers because some of them climb well as juniors but when they begin to specialize in the senior ranks, some tend to lose that ability. Goolaerts is another coming from Verandas Willems that can make a strong breakaway and even sprint but his consistency is lacking. Krigbaum is one of the more surprising transfers of the season. He was a stunning talent as a junior, especially in the time trial, but when he joined Riwal for his first U23 season, it was quite a rough transition. He was splitting time between the track, where he was being put in the Danish team pursuit squad for the Rio Olympics, and the road and wasn't getting anywhere with his form in either. He ended his contract with Riwal after June and rode on the Danish amateur circuit before signing on with Lotto. He intends to go full bore on the road, having broke off from the Danish National Team, and seems to be excited about the change of scenery.
@Jakeymagee @gplama @PelotonCafe @n_sumo23 @N_Bens pic.twitter.com/4UIAA3huy4
Australian Tansley is a bit of an unknown entity as he really just emerged in Belgium this year with 6 wins riding for the Illi-Bikes team. Also, look at that beard? Damn right they gave him a contract. He seems to be able to do a bit of everything so, with a better schedule, I'm interested in seeing what he does.
— George Tansley (@tansley148) November 13, 2014
Joachim Vanreyten wint de sprint in Hooglede voor ploegmakkers Farazijn Maxime en Van Lerberghe Bert ! pic.twitter.com/Vo8oH8u3WN
Coming over from EFC-OPQS is the Limburger Vanreyten. He is a typical Belgian in that he does well in the Belgian one-day races, seems to be his best on a flat to rolling course and can mix it up in a bunch sprint sometimes. He hasn't had a signature result as a U23 yet but after some promising results in the Fleche Ardennaise and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad U23, look out for him in similar races next year.
— Pol Demeyere Pomer (@Pomerr) October 5, 2014
Hermans, Leysen, Menten, Planckaert, Shaw and Wouters are all coming from the junior ranks. Hermans seems to climb pretty well. Leysen is the son of ex-pro Bart Leysen, who is a director with Lotto-Belisol, and is a strong time trial rider but isn't one-dimensional as he can climb fairly well and has a good kick on him if he needs to sprint. Leysen was good friends with the late Igor DeCraene and would love to keep making his friend proud. Menten is a good sprinter with a stage win in the Trofeo Karlsberg to his name and multiple top 10s across a slew of stages and one-day races. Planckaert is the younger brother of Roubaix-Lille Metropole rider Baptiste Planckaert and he has been incredibly consistent with 12 top ten rides in UCI races and winner of the Rund um Düren. He can make the front groups, he can follow breakaways and can even sprint a bit. He isn't built for the mountains but will be looking for the flat and rolling terrain to make an impact. Brit Shaw won the junior versions of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, both in solo runs to the line. Shaw can roll a good time trial and loves to go solo on a classics style course. Perhaps he can emulate Dan McLay at Lotto U23 and get a pro ride in a couple years time. Saving the best for last, Wouters is the rider that is probably the most celebrated in the Belgian junior class. Enzo Wouters had 15 wins in 2014 including the Belgian junior RR and 5 other UCI wins, nearly all in sprints, as well as 3rd in Paris-Roubaix Juniors.
If any of you are still with me here then I congratulate you. Another new addition to the team is DS Walt De Winter, who retired after this season with Verandas Willems. It certainly helps to get a recent pro on the director team as they can tend to be a bit more sympathetic to the riders.
That was a bit exhaustive but I'm pretty sure you know every damn rider on their roster in some form or fashion. I think I might avoid this in future previews because I'm even becoming bored. In any case, Lotto-Soudal U23 seems primed for 2015 but I'm not so certain that they will be able to meet their 2014 marks. A young team and some riders that are a bit green will hold them back in some areas.
Prediction: 6 UCI wins (27 overall wins)