Thomas De Gendt is sporting a new kit this season, riding in the red of Lotto Soudal after signing a two-year agreement with the squad at the end of his one-year deal with Omega Pharma-Quick Step last season. Joining a new organization two years in a row (De Gendt started with OPQS after Vacansoleil folded following the 2013 season) is never easy, but De Gendt knew that Lotto Soudal might be a place where he could be able to get comfortable with a new environment quickly. Finding his comfort zone will likely help De Gendt in his mission to return to winning ways after two years with fewer big results than he would have liked, and signing with a team based in and mostly staffed with riders from Belgium, a team that shares his own style, was one way for De Gendt to ensure that he’d be riding in his element this coming season.
“For a Belgian guy, it’s important to have a team where you can feel at home,” De Gendt told VeloHuman by phone while taking a day off from early-season training. “So for me, it’s nice to be in a team where they speak my own language. It’s not a problem to be in a foreign team, but in a Belgian team it’s nice. It feels more like home. And the team tactics of Lotto Soudal suit me more than the tactics that we had at Quick Step. It’s more of an attacking style that they have, which fits me more than other tactics.”
An offseason with the team seems to have given De Gendt a chance to settle in and enjoy the atmosphere.
“A lot of the teammates I have now, we already rode together in other teams in the younger categories, so a lot of guys I knew already from before. So, because we are a young group and we all speak the same language, it’s nice to be together and it feels a little bit like when I went to school, joking around; we are still serious about our job but besides the job we are joking around and sending messages to each other, so we are not only colleagues, we are also friends, and that’s important in a team,” De Gendt said.
The positive environment should prove beneficial to De Gendt’s continued development, especially as he has begun to recalibrate his own expectations and personal goals for this season and beyond. A talented all-rounder throughout his early years as a pro, in 2012 (at age 25), De Gendt stormed to 3rd overall in the Giro d’Italia, staying within range of the podium through the first two weeks and then nabbing a breakaway stage victory and a Top 5 ITT performance in the final two days of the race to clinch the deal. Such a strong result in one of the sport’s biggest events set him up for a world of GC expectations in the seasons to come, but De Gendt has not been able to replicate that success in the past two years. While he has put in a few nice performances in breakaways and time trials in major races since then, the General Classification results have not materialized. Now 28, De Gendt is adjusting his focus as a rider, tailoring his objectives to the skills in which he feels most confident, and planning accordingly for the future.
“I’m not going to try to do the GCs anymore for the moment, but it all depends on how you feel in the races. If you start the Giro and you have really good legs in the first week, then it’s stupid to throw it away with a long breakaway, but I know it’s very difficult to even be in the Top 10 after two weeks. It’s not so that I am one of the biggest climbers in the peloton, so maybe it’s better for me to not focus on the GC, but more on the stage wins,” De Gendt explained. “If I have a really good legs in one of the Grand Tours, then maybe I can do the GC again but it’s not in my goals for the moment.”
Instead, De Gendt has his sights set on finding opportunities to put his formidable solo engine on display.
“Breakaways, stage wins—if it’s possible to win a mountain stage, I will do my best to try to do it—but breakaways and the time trials are for me the most important thing at this moment. I can’t say what it will be in half a year, so I will try to do my best in training, and then I will see in half a year or next year how I’ve developed again,” he said.
With stage victories now at the forefront of his list of objectives, De Gendt aimed to improve a variety of skills during the offseason with his new squad and new teammates.
“We focused on my climbing skills, for as far as we can do it in Belgium. We tried to do the trainings on the climbs—not the same as you can do on the high altitude, but still, we tried. And we also tried to be more explosive. But now we do a lot more hours than the year before, and I think that’s the main thing we focused on, to do more hours,” he said.
De Gendt’s first race in Lotto Soudal kit was January’s Tour Down Under, where he spent a long day in a breakaway and notched a respectable performance on Willunga Hill as well. He did not land any major results in Australia, but De Gendt was able to find positives coming back from the offseason: “I’ve had worse years than this year in the Tour Down Under. It’s not that I have the super form at this moment but for January it’s okay. I’d hoped it would be a little bit better, but then the stage to Willunga Hill, I was still 19th, so for me that’s a good result generally.”
De Gendt’s racing calendar for 2015 is still up-in-the-air, with further clarity likely to come as springtime racing gets underway.
“I think I’ll do Paris-Nice, but then after that it’s difficult to say because we don’t have a big program. They took out some races so I think they’ll wait until Paris-Nice so they can see from the other riders on the team who is the best, and then they’ll send the best riders to the WorldTour races and the other riders to the smaller races,” De Gendt said. “I hope I can do a Grand Tour. For me, I don’t have a favorite, so for me it’s the same, whichever one I can go to.”
With Lotto Soudal making startlist decisions based on how their riders are performing compared to expectations, De Gendt clarified that for him, the hope is that he can a return to a level of performance and a style of riding that he exhibited earlier in his career.
“I think they want me to be the same rider as I was in 2011, the more aggressive rider that attacked a lot and took the stage wins in this way. So that’s I think the way they see me riding again, and I hope to do like they expect me to do. Attacking and being aggressive in the races, I think that is the way to race again,” De Gendt said.
On a new squad and making changes to his approach as a rider, De Gendt is hesitant to set any concrete personal goals for 2015 this early in the season, but picking up a result or two to build his confidence appears to top his list.
“I will be very happy if I can win a race again. But if I have twenty 2nd places and no victories then I will also be happy after this year. So it’s still difficult to say but I hope I can get a victory, a big victory, and then it’s a good step on the way to being the rider again that I was before,” De Gendt said.
De Gendt’s chances of finding those results at Paris-Nice, where he is likely to ride next, seem as good as they’ll be at any event all season: he has won two stages there in the past, and this year’s edition will feature a pair of days racing against the clock and multiple stages with the sorts of bumpy profiles friendly to the breakaway specialists. Given his skillset and particular focus on just those types of challenges, Paris-Nice should present a prime opportunity for Thomas De Gendt to get on track for 2015 with his new team.
Photo by Photo News/Lotto Soudal.