IN DEPTH: TEAM JUMBO "VISMA
Behind the scenes with the team who came closest to toppling Team Sky at the Tour last year, who have even bigger hopes for 2019
In 2018, Jumbo-Visma won 33 races, including three Tour stages. This year, Primož Roglic is a viable Giro contender. Yet five years ago, the team won just six races. Procycling looks at how the team with the second smallest budget in the WorldTour turned around its fortunes
The headquarters of the Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo are located in the small industrialised town of Veghel. The town sits at the heart of a web of trunk roads in south central Holland. Heading towards town from the motorway, the plumb-straight feeder road divides the docks of a broad canal and a succession of vast silos, lorry parks, warehouses and distribution centres. It is a functional and utilitarian vista; work gets done in this little pocket of Holland.
On a grim windswept December day, the sky, water, road and buildings blend into a cubist canvas of gables and tarmac. Out of the grey looms bright yellow branding. JUMBO is emblazoned on the sides of the metal sheds and onto the stream of trucks departing to all corners of the nation. If logistics and forward planning are cornerstones of the supermarket business, then Veghel is a strategic place to be.
It was also where the JumboVisma cycling and ice skating teams were presented to the media five days before Christmas. Primo Roglic, Robert Gesink and Dylan Groenewegen smiled out at the crowd of guests and journalists and attached their hopes to the plans that had been made for the season at an earlier training camp.
Jumbo-Visma is the best current embodiment of how a plan and a strategy can transform a team. In budgetary terms, “the UCI sends you a ranking of where you are as a team,” the squad’s general manager Richard Plugge, told Procycling and “last year , we were number 17.” It’s an astounding revelation. Visma, a Norwegian business software firm, has swelled the coffers in 2019, but the truth still stands: euro for euro, the team was the best performing squad in the WorldTour last year.
It won four grand tour stages among 33 races and placed two riders in the top five at the Tour. They finished with riders in the top 10 at both the Giro and the Vuelta. Among Roglic’s assorted wins, he took titles at the Basque Country and Tour de Romandie. At the Tour, the team was one of the few who were able to make Sky sweat.
Over this winter, Jumbo-Visma attracted high-calibre riders such as Tony Martin, Wout Van Aert and Laurens De Plus, whose presence spoke volumes. “Three years ago when we talked to a rider like Tony Martin, he never wanted to come here,” said Nico Verhoeven, the team’s long-serving directeur sportif. “But what we’ve made in the last two years and how we’ve performed means riders are talking about us. Everyone in cycling is talking about how we are performing, and that’s made our team interesting.”
Ah yes, three years ago. In 2015, LottoNL-Jumbo threatened to own one of the most inauspicious statistics in cycling: the longest period a top-flight team had taken to win their first race of the season. In 2005, Saunier-Duval lurched off the mark on 19 May. A decade on, as May 2015 began, LottoNL-Jumbo bore down on that dismal mark. Finally Moreno Hofland won stage 2 at the Tour de Yorkshire in early May and, as he said afterwards, removed the “hateful zero” in the team’s win tally. But it was a full six-week wait for the second victory, and the team finished the year with a paltry total of six – five below the next least prolific team, Cannondale-Garmin. At least LottoNL had Steven Kruijswijk. He finished seventh at the Giro and helped lift the team off the floor of the WorldTour rankings.
“2015 was a very bad year in all aspects,” confirmed Merijn Zeeman, one the team’s senior coaching staff and a key figure in the team’s recent turnaround.
“Performance wise, the whole organisation was not moving in the right direction. It was very difficult because the budget was going down every year. That didn’t give a positive vibe to the team and because every year it was getting more difficult, the best riders were leaving.”
Yet at least by this point it was only the team’s darkest hour on the road. For the seven years before that, when it had first been Rabobank, then Blanco and Belkin, the team that had once been the pride of Dutch cycling had been eaten away. First by doping cases and mismanagement, and towards the end, by flighty sponsors. History, Zeeman said, contributed to the team’s culture of disarray.
In September 1995, Holland’s greatest Classics rider turned directeur sportif, Jan Raas, secured a last-minute reprieve for his Novell squad when he put his signature to a five-year deal with Herman Rijffels, the chairman of the board at Rabobank. Raas’s squad had a modern history going back to Kwantum’s sponsorship in 1984 and an ancient history as the Carlos and Boule d’Or team that stretched back into the 1970s and over the border into Belgium. Raas rode for the first 18 months of Kwantum’s existence before getting in the team car. When he took the team’s reins in 1986, the sponsor began to change regularly. Kwantum morphed into Superconfex, which dominated the sprints in the 1988 Tour with Jean-Paul van Poppel. Then for three years, it was Buckler, for whom Edwig Van Hooydonck won his second Tour of Flanders and Frans Maassen won Amstel Gold Race. In 1993, WordPerfect took over and then the company that bought WordPerfect: Novell. Raas, for all his charisma, struggled to keep hold of sponsors - at least that was the portrayal in the Dutch media. Yet the last-minute Rabobank deal, thought to be about seven million guilders a year, brought immediate stability and a longterm future. It had clear objectives of winning classics and, through its Wieler-2000 project, a plan to develop the strong Dutch identity that manifested itself in the orange and blue of Rabobank for the next 16 years.
“Novell was not really a Dutch team,” Léon van Bon, the twotime Tour stage winner, told Procycling. “Novell had lots of Belgian riders. Rabobank had the idea to be more Dutch, so at the point we switched, all the staff members had to be Dutch. They were smart enough to have the Dutch feeling but knew they would not win Flanders with a Dutch rider and so they needed some foreigners.” In 1997, Denmark’s Rolf Sørensen obliged by winning the Tour of Flanders, the team’s third monument win.
In the early years, Van Bon noted his irascible boss’s oldfashioned disdain for sponsors’ involvement in the squad. Once, when Raas heard riders had gone out partying with sponsors after a winter awards evening, Raas blew his top. “They’re the enemy!” Raas shouted at riders who had taken up the sponsors’ invitation.
“Then, we’d be chasing down a break as fast as we could and Raas would drive up beside us at the front of the peloton, like you could in those days, and start slamming the car door, screaming at us to ride faster. He was not good at losing,” Van Bon said.
As the sponsorship headed towards its second decade and the promising Dutchmen the team had capitalised upon – Erik Dekker, Michael Boogerd and Van
Bon – matured, the team gathered a reputation as one of the best funded and richest squads on the circuit. That brought its own problems. In a 2012 column for
De Telegraaf, Boogerd, who retired in 2007, said: “I know certain Rabo cyclists had been in contact with other pro teams. When other teams heard about the salaries these riders were asking for, they were declared crazy.
“Rabobank were paying salaries well above the market value of these riders. Although you can’t blame the riders for this, you can question the management behind it. Rabobank was prepared to pay all of their Dutch top-tier and second-tier riders above market value salaries in order to keep them on the team.”
Last year, Raymond Kerckhoffs, De Telegraaf’s chief cycling journalist, estimated Rabobank funnelled an extraordinary
350m into cycling in its 19-year involvement through men’s and women’s elite sport, cyclo-cross, its amateur squad and a long and sustained grassroots programme.
Rabobank’s long and valuable partnership cohabited in cycling with the deepest and darkest EPO years. By the late 2000s, under the management of Theo de Rooij, who had supplanted Raas in 2003 when the former was fired by the board, it was clear the team was a part of cycling’s dark heart. From 2007 onwards, Rabobank stood grimly by the squad as the truth about its riders and alumni trickled out: Michael Rasmussen’s defenestration at the 2007 Tour while in yellow jersey for lying about his whereabouts in training; allegations that six riders were
“There was a wild "ire in cycling and that’s when I thought this is the moment to really start over”
involved with the HumanPlasma blood-doping scandal; the retrospective 2009 test that revealed Thomas Dekker used EPO while at Rabobank; Levi Leipheimer’s confession to the American anti-doping agency that he also used EPO while at Rabobank. In May 2012, De Rooij who left the team in light of the Rasmussen affair admitted that doping – euphemised as “medical care” and overseen, he said, by team doctors like Geert Leinders and Jean-Paul van Mantgem in order to protect riders from selfharm – was “tolerated” at the team under his watch.
After Rabobank’s abrupt exit in October 2012, which was blamed largely on the devastating USADA report that focused primarily on Lance Armstrong, Rabobank’s laundry list kept mushrooming: Grischa Niermann, Marc Lotz, Erik Dekker, Boogerd, and its Vuelta and Giro winner Denis Menchov admitted or were found guilty of anti-doping rule violations.
Disarray, then, barely began to cover Rabobank and the sport in general, when the bank’s patience finally ran out in mid-October 2012. In December that year, Plugge, a former journalist turned press officer, was tasked with the salvage operation. As general manager, he was handed the reins to a battered and bruised team of riders who had a strong sense of privilege, and a stay of execution in the form of one more year of the bank’s funding. To onlookers, Plugge’s task with the new-look Blanco team looked like an exercise in palliative care, but Plugge insisted he never felt the squad would expire.
“There was a wildfire in cycling and that’s when I thought this is the moment to really start over. In cycling, everybody knew if we were to survive we had to change. I thought, here’s a chance to build it up. We were really at the bottom, the only way was up.” His first job was to hammer home a few truths. “All practices and costs – the hotels, the way of thinking – was that we were a big budget team. I had to change that… We did not know what our budget would be and it took quite some time to change that way of thinking,” he said. “I rather tell [the team] what they should do instead of how they should do it. Some people like it, others don’t, so we had to say goodbye to a lot of people.”
If Plugge had something of the outsider about him, he could rely on established staff who wanted things to change, too. One of his sidekicks was Zeeman, who had joined from ArgosShimano two weeks before Rabobank’s withdrawal. At Argos he had set Marcel Kittel on the path to success and attracted riders like John Degenkolb and Warren Barguil to the ProConti level team. Zeeman found Raboabank in a mess. “It would take a whole day” to discuss the
team’s deficiencies, he told Procycling. “Because the team had existed for so long the culture was… well, it wasn’t a performance team any more. Everyone was very secure in their job, people were very well-paid and they weren’t thinking about innovation, progression and motivation. It was just very conservative,” he said.
There was an appetite for change, however, and Plugge remembers the receptiveness he felt from certain quarters.
“I had some people like Jos van Emden and Robert Gesink who were willing to change. They were the frontrunners in the Rabobank team but were in the minority… When I came, they saw somebody and said, ‘Hey, they’re working the way we want to work.’”
Plugge went looking for a sponsor. By the time he had secured American electronics company Belkin in the lead up to the 2013 Tour, he had spoken to more than 60 firms. Belkin hung around for two Tours before ending its sponsorship a year early and in spite of some notable performances. In 2013, the team won 38 times and Bauke Mollema finished sixth at the Tour. A year later, Lars Boom won stage 5 of the Tour over the wet and muddy Roubaix cobbles and they finished with two riders in the top 10 overall. Plugge described Belkin’s announcement, blamed on a new global marketing strategy, as a “big blow”, but “halfway through 2014 there were a lot of positive vibes in Holland around our team. When Belkin stopped, I was less worried than earlier when Rabobank stopped,” he said.
t the start of 2015, the team introduced its ‘yellow’ sponsors: Jumbo, BrandLoyalty and the Dutch Lottery. And though the team had an appalling year, the team had an understanding that it wouldn’t be left in the lurch – not least because it was under the same umbrella as the speed skating team. At a coaching level, they began to share knowledge and expertise.
The following year, 2016, was year of the turnaround. That first came on the road. Roglic, a former world-class ski jumper was unearthed and proved to be an extraordinary find by winning a Giro TT; sprinter Groenewegen, who had a couple of wins in 2015, was contracted before other teams really took notice. As he found his line and length, he contributed 11 wins to the team’s final tally of 19.
‘Bespreekbaarheid’ is the Dutch term for full and frank discussion in order to find a common way forward. During the winter of 2016, Zeeman orchestrated the meetings that put the team on its current footing. “We had a lot of intense conversations within the team,” he said. “Everyone, all 80 people in the same room, but also little meetings as well. We created the Blanco Code, a document of the 10 core values of the team, and from then we started to put a lot of emphasis on performance.
“We started from scratch,” Zeeman continued. “If we wanted to attract sponsors and top riders,
we needed to improve. We needed to be more professional, more innovative. We don’t talk about results, we focus on the process at the core: better training, better nutrition, better communication.”
Four years on from its dismal 2015, Jumbo-Visma is almost unrecognisable. That’s partly down to the faces - just 10 of this season’s 27 riders were on the roster in 2015 – but it’s also because the team has refound its war footing. The fripperies, such as fancy hotels, are gone, but the team does get the performance support it needs. At the team presentation, the team made a big deal of a new nutrition app which personalised their food needs to their training load.
In Veghel, Laurens de Plus, the 23-year-old who came over from Quick-Step Floors, outlined his first impressions. “I think it’s a really innovative team,” he said. “It was a big surprise for me that in December my new team-mates were already so focused. It’s only in the last year or so that riders started talking well about the team. Now it’s good riders who want to come.”
While Roglic has proved a wild success, the squad has focused on drawing young talent from traditional sources: Sepp Kuss, Pascal Eenkhoorn, Jonas Vingegaard, Antwan Tolhoek and De Plus make up a group that holds great promise for the future – maybe even more than the early Rabobank cohort of the mid-90s. With Wout Van Aert, who joins on 1 March, the team is a potential factor in the classics almost a decade after Óscar Freire won the team’s last monument at Milan-San Remo in 2010. From the dark days of 2015 and the even darker, dissolute days of lateterm Rabobank, a leaner and more dynamic team has emerged that can now contend on all fronts. Rolf Sørensen, one of the first Rabobank riders, said: “It was a house of cards and it had to fall and be rebuilt. It’s taken a big effort to rebuild it and hats off the people that remade the team with some of the same people, but also with new people. Now they’re doing something special with half the budget of the big teams.” It is amazing how far a strategy can take a team.
“We don’t talk about results, we focus on the process at the core”