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Barring some form of divine intervention, Lotto-Soudal will be relegated from the WorldTour come the end of the season.
The current landscape for the Belgian team looks bleak. They are leaderless following John Lelangue’s departure, and with no major signings brought in for 2023, and the threat of major stars able to break their contracts once relegation is confirmed, the task of returning the squad to the WorldTour in three years looks incredibly difficult.
In order to get the ship back on course, they need a strong character to fill the void created by Lelangue’s departure. They need an individual with the necessary skills in leadership, recruitment, and development.
One name promoted across Belgium as the ideal person for the job is Axel Merckx.
The son of the legendary Eddy Merckx, Axel is a former pro and current manager at the Hagens Berman Axeon development team.
And while there’s no better person for the job than Merckx, the real question is whether he is keen on such a monumental challenge.
We recently asked two of Lotto’s recent managers if Merckx was the right man for the job. Marc Sergeant, who ran the squad for well over a decade, instantly replied with a ringing endorsement.
“Absolutely, with the right support. I mean let him do the sports department and they will achieve great goals,” he told VeloNews.
Sadly, Lelangue didn’t reply.
The problems at Lotto-Soudal are deep and ingrained into the team’s culture and identity.
For a start, the board of directors has made a series of bold and ultimately poor decisions when it came to leadership. The first blunder was to slowly usher Sergeant out the door and replace him with Paul De Geyter, a former rider agent with no team management experience.
His major accomplishment during his short tenure was to alienate one of the best sprinters in the world in Andre Griepel before being jettisoned less than a year into the role.
Step forward John Lelangue, who was supposed to stabilize the team and give the squad a major overhaul with new talent and a competitive footing across several fronts. Lelangue talked a good game and managed to convince his employers that he had the required spark but his recruitment was questionable at best, with Gilbert and John Degenkolb handed multiple-year contracts and little time spent on the complex but vital need for UCI points and relegation.
There were moments of success, such as the rapid development of Arnaud De Lie, Caleb Ewan being one of the best sprinters in the world until this year’s hurdles, Tim Wellens chipping in with a volley of wins, and Thomas de Gendt being Thomas de Gendt.
However, take De Lie out of the picture and the team has stagnated. Even Wellens, a rider who has spent his entire career at Lotto, has had enough and has decided to cash in on a move to UAE Team Emirates.
It’s fair to add that the team doesn’t have the biggest budget, so they cannot compete with the likes of UAE Team Emirates, Ineos Grenadiers, or Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl but that only makes elements around strong leadership and management more important.
Anyone who steps into the vacant position will have to do more with less when it comes to budget and the development of talent.
The good thing is that whoever does move into the hot seat will have an incredible opportunity to build from the ground up. Over half of next year’s roster is 25 or younger, while De Lie and Ewan have the potential to rack up UCI points all over the place if they’re given the proper schedules and support trains to match.
Relegation could also free up the team to pick and choose its calendar with more efficiency, just like Arkéa-Samsic did this year, while the development team will always be a source of fresh talent to promote.
Add into the mix the experience of riders like De Gendt, Jasper De Buyst, and new leadout rider Jacopo Guarnieri, and there’s a strong core within the team.
However, it’s the aspect of rider development that makes Merckx such an appealing prospect. For more than a decade he’s nurtured and managed some of the most talented U23 riders in the world with a list of names including João Almeida, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Taylor Phinney, Neilson Powless, and Jasper Philipsen among who’s who of Axeon alumni.
Those riders have ultimately succeeded at the top of the sport but they came through under Merckx’s tutelage and guidance, so if he can get the best out of riders at U23 level there’s a strong chance he can do it at the next level too.
From a Lotto-Soudal perspective, Merckx also brings with him the biggest name in Belgian cycling.
That would provide a huge amount of goodwill and patience from the national and international media. It would help when it came to recruitment too, and there’s the fact he raced for the team, so he knows the background, the setup, and the staff.
He would need experienced heads around him, perhaps on the business side of running the team, but from a sporting perspective, as Sergeant suggests, he is the perfect fit. He’s far more qualified than Philippe Gilbert, who recently took himself out of the running.
So the real question is whether Merckx needs Lotto-Soudal.
From what VeloNews understands there have been discussions between the two parties, so they have sounded each other out with early discussions via a recruitment process that’s well underway. However, Merckx would be sacrificing a lot and taking a massive gamble if he were to step into Lelangue’s shoes, even if he is infinitely more qualified than the former manager.
Joining Lotto could raise questions over the short and long-term future of his development team. That’s not just a job for Merckx, it’s his creation and passion.
The timing is also far from ideal. If he moves to Lotto it could leave staff and a gaggle of young riders out of jobs for next year if the team folds. One can imagine that these factors are massive burdens on Merckx.
Most of the riders on the transfer market have already been snapped up, so Merckx wouldn’t have much wiggle room going into the winter and there’s the whole political side to the job that would be new to Merckx.
Because national funds are involved and state money effectively helps run the team, Merckx would have to spend much of his time building consensus as well as carrying out the sporting duties his role required. The vacancy is a huge challenge as well as an exciting prospect.
Right now though, it feels as though Lotto-Soudal needs Merckx a lot more than he needs them.