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The rise of Jumbo-Visma to cycling's superteam

2 Oct 2020

When a ginger-haired, freckled Dutchman took over the pink jersey of race leader with a week of the 2016 Giro d’Italia to go, it seemed incongruous. In placing second to Esteban Chaves on Stage 14, Steven Kruijswijk inherited the jersey ahead of the former champion Vincenzo Nibali, Chaves and Alejandro Valverde – all established winners and stars.

But who was Steven Kruijswijk? He was easily identifiable by his sharp, clothes hanger-shaped shoulders (some in his homeland called him ‘de Kleerhanger’), but there was nothing flashy about him or his team, LottoNL-Jumbo.

They had risen from the ashes of Rabobank, which pulled out in 2012 after two decades of lavish spending. But ‘risen’ is the wrong word, for if the team had indeed risen, few had noticed.

A little like the uninspiring white and yellow kit they sported that year, their performances had been insipid and lacklustre. And for the previous three seasons, in the difficult post-Rabobank period, they looked to be in the doldrums.

In 2014 a Dutch TV crew followed the team’s progress at the Tour de France. They actually placed two riders in the top 10, with Laurens ten Dam ninth ahead of Bauke Mollema, but the resulting documentary series did not paint the team in a flattering light. Some said it made them a laughing stock in Holland.

Sponsors came and went. One season, 2013, they raced with no sponsor at all as ‘Team Blanco’. Then Belkin, which made encouraging noises about backing the team for the long term, arrived with fanfare on the eve of the Tour de France – and then disappeared just over 12 months later.

It seemed to confirm the impression of a team that was not a particularly attractive proposition, even if they did happen to be The Netherlands’ de facto ‘national’ team.

As if to confirm that status, they did eventually find a new sponsor in the Dutch lottery and Jumbo, a supermarket chain.

Finally, in 2016, as the Giro neared its conclusion, something appeared to be happening. The once-great Dutch team was stirring. They were on the brink of winning a Grand Tour – it would have been a first Dutch victory in such a race since 1980.

Kruijswijk, climbing better than Nibali, the former winner, tightened his hold on the pink jersey. Going into the penultimate mountain stage, he had three minutes on Chaves and 4:43 on Nibali. All he had to do was stay upright. The race was his to lose.

That, unfortunately, is exactly what he did, slamming into an ice wall as Nibali applied the pressure on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello.

Despite his painful injuries, Kruijswijk held on to finish fourth overall. He had lost the Giro, and yet something had been gained by his team – and perhaps by him too.

He admits now that his near miss was the catalyst to set them on a journey: a journey that has culminated in the team now known as Jumbo-Visma becoming arguably the best in the world.

The man at the helm throughout this time has been Richard Plugge, a former journalist and publisher who came to work in the team’s communications department when they were still Rabobank. Not long after he started, Rabobank pulled out and the team asked Plugge to take over. 

Plugge and play

The first thing he did was draw up a five-year plan – a rolling set of objectives that he says he renews every year. The main priority, however, was the hunt for sponsors and he seemed to strike gold within six months when Belkin came in on the eve of the Tour.

‘Everyone dismisses Belkin now, and says that they came in when we were desperate, but that was not the case,’ says Plugge. ‘They actually paid a lot of money and, most importantly, they were responsible for us continuing. Without Belkin our team would have probably folded at the end of that year [2013].’

When Belkin did pull out, however, it seemed ominous, although Plugge argued at the time that they had been victims of their own success: the US company, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of consumer electronics, got so much publicity in the first 12 months, they saw only diminishing returns in carrying on. But it was also a fact that the team was going through a painful transition.

The culture had to change in the new, post-Rabobank era, and it had to change in two significant ways. Plugge could hardly ignore the reasons for the Dutch bank’s withdrawal – the team were implicated in the US Anti-Doping Agency’s reasoned decision into Lance Armstrong and the culture of doping in professional cycling. The second necessary change was financial.

‘Rabobank was one of the biggest teams, budget-wise,’ Plugge says. ‘A lot of riders were used to a certain way of living and a certain wage. We couldn’t afford to pay those wages any more and some riders, like Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk, really understood that.’ The implication here is that some riders did not, and left.

Gesink, like Kruijswijk, seems to have the ‘DNA’ that Plugge repeatedly mentions as being essential to his team. Gesink is a Jumbo-Visma ‘lifer’. Now 33, he’s been with the team since 2006. And he has never considered moving.

‘Not really,’ he says, ‘because it’s my team. I had my good years at the right moment; 2015 was the most difficult year for the team but it was my best year: I was sixth at the Tour de France. I’ve always felt like it was my family besides my own family, so I never really felt like leaving.’

The big change for Gesink in recent years has been to shelve his personal ambitions. ‘I’m a guy who can do top 10 in a Grand Tour,’ he says. ‘I can do it still, I think, but I don’t really want to any more.

‘Now I can be really important for the team in the mountains. If you have someone like that – Michal Kwiatkowski can do it too – then you can help someone like Primož Roglič or Steven win a Grand Tour.’

Steps in time

How significant has Richard Plugge been in that evolution? Has Gesink felt inspired by his boss’s five-year plans, and keen to be involved?

‘Actually Merijn Zeeman is the guy who has made a big difference for me,’ says Gesink, referring to the team’s coach. ‘He’s the guy I and some of the other riders work with day to day.’

Zeeman joined the team from Giant-Shimano (now Sunweb) for the 2013 season but initially struggled, mainly, he admits with disarming frankness, because of the roster: ‘2015 was a very bad season,’ he says. ‘There was not so much talent in the group and so we had to start from scratch to build a team.’

It’s clear, talking to Zeeman and Plugge, that the 2016 Giro was a major turning point. It certainly did not represent the fruition of Plugge’s five-year plans, nor of Zeeman’s efforts to build a successful team.

In fact, Kruijswijk’s performance at the Giro underlined his own strength but also highlighted the team’s weaknesses.

‘We really needed to strengthen our second line because we could see that riders like Steven could win a Grand Tour, or be close to winning, but we knew his helpers were not really strong enough back then,’ says Plugge. ‘We saw that at the Giro – our team was not prepared.

‘In that last week we were super-excited about maybe winning. The whole organisation was in a state of disbelief. People started to do things that were not part of what we normally do – even myself.

‘Everyone was in a state of shock that we could win a Grand Tour but it was going too fast. I believe a company, an organisation, has to grow at a certain rate and each step is important – you cannot jump over three or four. Of course we’d have been really happy if we’d won the Giro but, looking back, that was a real learning experience for us.’

Strength in numbers

Studying the Jumbo-Visma lineup now, that resolve to strengthen the ‘second line’ is apparent in the depth of the squad. Apart from the three leaders in Kruijswijk, Roglič and Tom Dumoulin – who joined for the 2020 season – there are climbers such as Sepp Kuss (who joined in 2018), George Bennett (with the team since 2015), Antwan Tolhoek (2017) and Laurens De Plus (joined in 2019).

And there are riders for the flat stages like former World Time-Trial Champion Tony Martin (joined in 2019) and Wout van Aert (also 2019). For 2021 they will add one of Holland’s top young climbers and stage racers, Sam Oomen.

In Van Aert, of course, they have one of the best riders in the world, who can apparently do everything apart from win a Grand Tour – although even there it might just be a case of watch this space.

And they have a world-class sprinter, Dylan Groenewegen, who, even before he was at the centre of the controversial crash at the Tour of Poland that saw Fabio Jakobsen suffer terrible injuries, was left out of the Tour de France team as they focussed all their efforts on winning the yellow jersey.

There was another reason why the 2016 Giro d’Italia was important, although it wasn’t quite as obvious as Kruijswijk’s near miss. It was also the first Grand Tour appearance for a certain Slovenian – a former ski jumper, who’d joined the team at the start of the year.

Roglič was second to Dumoulin in the prologue in Apeldoorn, then won the Stage 9 time-trial, both extraordinary results that, with hindsight, flagged him as a serious talent.

Yet even though Roglič has gone on to become one of the best stage racers in the world, it is Kruijswijk who remains an even more key figure within the team. For such a reserved and self-contained character, his influence is significant, and it is mainly down to his professionalism.

Zeeman calls Kruijswijk ‘the Swiss watch’ – ‘It sounds better in Dutch,’ Zeeman says – for his precision and meticulous attention to detail, yet it all started quite inauspiciously.

In 2010, his first year as a pro, Kruijswijk was put on standby for the Giro when the Rabobank team leader, Óscar Freire, suffered an injury.

‘They told me to pack my bags for the Giro,’ remembers Kruijswijk. ‘The Giro started in Amsterdam, so it was easy for me to get there, but they told me they’d make a decision on the Wednesday. Then they said they’d decide on Thursday. In the end they only told me on the Friday, the day before it started. All week I was just waiting for the call.

‘Maybe it was good. I didn’t have time to get nervous.’

He was third on Stage 17, having seemed to get stronger as the race entered its third week, and in the end finished 23rd overall. Not bad for a 22-year-old in his first year as a pro. But it was six years later, thanks to Kruijswijk’s performance at the 2016 Giro, that the journey really started – or was kick-started.

Moving on up

He picked himself up from the disappointment of crashing out of the pink jersey and rode well at the 2018 Tour. He attacked alone on the stage to Alpe d’Huez, giving Team Sky a real fright, and then the following year at the 2019 Tour he finished on the podium behind Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.

It gave Plugge and Zeeman huge satisfaction. Roglič went on to win the 2019 Vuelta, but Kruijswijk’s podium finish at the Tour was every bit as meaningful, perhaps because the Dutchman – who missed the 2020 Tour after breaking his collarbone in a crash – has been such a talisman in their ‘project’, and because rider and team have developed in tandem.

‘If you see where we came from, and where we were in these difficult years in 2013, 14, 15, it’s quite a journey,’ says Kruijswijk. ‘I do really feel that I’m part of the reason for us growing to the level we’re at now. The team has grown in parallel with my own career.

‘I had some setbacks and the team also had setbacks and had to start again. I kept confidence in the people inside the team and I’m grateful to them because they kept confidence in me. Now I do really feel that I’m part of what we’ve created. I’m very proud of that.’

Money isn’t everything

According to Jumbo-Visma, their success isn’t built on wealth – unlike certain other teams

Steven Kruijswijk says that one of the satisfying things about Jumbo-Visma’s recent success is that it isn’t simply down to finance.

‘It’s nice to see that success doesn’t always just come from a sponsor putting in a lot of money,’ says the Dutchman, who was third at the 2019 Tour de France. ‘You need the right people with the right vision and the right plans.’

Apart from Ineos Grenadiers, with their reported £40 million annual budget, it seems every team pleads poverty – or relative poverty. Yet team finances remain as murky and opaque as ever.

In 2019 Jumbo-Visma claimed to be operating with the second-lowest budget in the WorldTour. For 2020, having signed Tom Dumoulin, they were reportedly the eighth best-funded team in the world, their budget rising from £15m to £20m.

In Jumbo and Visma they have sponsors who are committed, with a third sponsor, Hema, the department store with shops throughout northern Europe, also apparently keen to step up.

In the precarious world of professional cycling, Jumbo-Visma currently seem as secure as any, which is surely a big reason for their success on the road.

Illustration: Angus Greig