On the face of it Jumbo-Visma – or LottoNL-Jumbo as they were known in 2018 – had a hugely successful Tour de France last season with three stage wins and fourth and fifth overall in Paris. However, behind the scenes the team faced a number of challenges as they attempted to keep the squad working in unison. Sacrificing personal ambitions – one of the most difficult tasks in professional sport – was a constant battle.
Twelve months on and the team are set to embark on an equally challenging Tour de France as they aim for sprint stage wins through Dylan Groenewegen, while at the same time supporting Steven Kruijswijk's podium ambitions. The plan in 2018 was relatively similar, although few expected Primoz Roglic to be as strong as he was, and this time around the squad have far more defined roles than in the past.
That's partly why the squad of eight was announced so early this year. George Bennett somewhat personifies the team's mentality going into this Tour. A rider who has cracked the top 10 in Grand Tours twice in his career to date, he arrives in Brussels with no personal ambitions whatsoever, with his entire remit to protect and serve the team's two main leaders.
"We've got a lot of objectives and I'm going to be busy, with mainly Dylan for the sprints and Steven for the GC. For everyone else it's just all hands on deck and working," he told Cyclingnews on the eve of the Tour.
"The first day I might even chasing some breakaway and working. Then I'll be looking after Steven. I'm basically moving spare parts. Wheels, bikes, whatever. I might have to chuck over and help Dylan chase breakaways if things get out of control. It's not really a case of me half riding a GC. It's really about me just doing my part."
Unlike last year, when Kruijswijk and Roglic were allowed to ride for themselves in the mountains, Bennett was asked to park his personal Tour ambitions at the door as far back as December of last year. Instead, he would be asked to sacrifice his legs over the three weeks without even thinking of stage-hunting or of his own GC chances. Although that was a tough pill to swallow for a rider of Bennett's calibre, it has at the very least created clarity within the ranks. And for Bennett, the chance of returning to the Tour after a hiatus was too much to pass up on.
"That was straight away made clear in December when we made the plan," said Bennett. "That's what I have to do. It's still good to be back at the Tour. I missed it a lot last year. I was sitting there on the couch and thinking, 'Shit – I never want to miss this race again.' It's why I ride the bike and it's my big goal. This year I'm here in a working capacity, but I hope to change that for the coming year."
On a very rudimentary level, Jumbo-Visma have split their squad in half. Mike Teunissen, Wout van Aert and Amund Jansen – the recent winner of the Norwegian championships – will work for Groenewegen, while Bennett and Laurens de Plus will shepherd Kruijswijk through the Pyrenees and Alps. That said, the squad will come together during the stage 2 team time trial and could be protecting Groenewegen's lead if he wins stage 1, as well as riding for Kruijswijk's overall ambitions. Van Aert's position will be interesting to track in the first week, too, given that his race time with Groenwegen this year has been limited to just a few one-day races in the Classics.
However, there will be several stages when all but Groenewegen will be called upon to assist Kruijswijk in the mountains and intermediate stages.
"We have four guys specifically for Dylan: Tony [Martin], Mike, Armund and Wout. Then there's me and Laurens for Steven in the mountains, but there will be guys that can cross over for Steven in the mountains, too – like Wout van Aert. He can get over a lot of the climbs," explained Bennett.
"I'll be last man for Steven, and I'll just follow him around. I'll hope that he doesn't crash or get dropped. In an ideal race, you don't see much of me, and I'm just there to shadow him the entire way. That would be nice to be there and shadow him, but if things go tits up and I have to go early and bring things back, I will."
That said, anything and everything than can happen in a Grand Tour usually does, and Bennett is adamant that if the support riders on the squad can leave their personal ambitions to one side then Jumbo-Visma can once again find the winning formulae at this year's Tour.
"Last year it worked really well results-wise, but maybe it wasn't super harmonious at times," he said. "I think that it was the first year that they ran the best sprinter in the world with two of the best GC guys in the world. I think they ran into a few issues, and they've addressed that with me by telling me to leave my ambitions at home. That made it a lot clearer from the outset. I also think that the team were surprised last year with how Roglic and Steven were so competitive. They were kind of doing their own GC races. They didn't ride against each other, but there wasn't one guy killing himself for the other. I think that if you want to be competitive and you really want to push a guy onto the podium, then you do need that."
Kruijswijk's fifth place last year was his best result at the Tour after spending several years targeting the Giro d'Italia. The Dutchman has had a consistent build up to this year's Tour, cracking the top 10 in several week-long stage races before a final 'DNF' at the Criterium du Dauphine last month. But Bennett believes that his teammate can rise up the overall standings once again at the Tour – especially with a tough final week in the Alps set to define the GC.
"I think that he can be really good," said the New Zealander. "The main reason I think that is because he's a last-week specialist and I've seen the last week. I've done the last three mountain stages and they are so hard. They look hard on the profile, and then you ride them and they're way harder. I think that's his main thing. I think he can be behind going into the last week, and he's just a guy who doesn't die."