A year ago Richard Plugge was handed the task of rescuing Holland’s biggest professional cycling team from complete collapse.
Rabobank, the Dutch bank that had bank rolled a team since the mid 1990s had suddenly announced that they would be walking away from the sport. The USADA report – coupled with Carlos Barredo's biological passport problems - had been the final straw. With fresh allegations set to be revealed in a court case involving former rider Michael Rasmussen, the bank called time on their 17 year investment in professional men's cycling.
Twelve months on and Plugge has led the team through two metamorphoses: a fresh start under the Blanco banner and then a relaunch thanks to the arrival of Belkin as a new title sponsor. With Vacansoleil-DCM, Euskaltel-Euskadi and so many other teams sinking this season, Plugge has steadied the ship and saved Dutch cycling.
“So far it has been really good. We’ve had 28 victories. The signing of Bellkin as our sponsor was one of our biggest victories though,” he told Cyclingnews during the Tour of Beijing.
“If we look back at this point over the reason we have to be happy, what with Bauke Mollema finishing in sixth in the Tour de France, and the win at the WorldTour race in Canada.”
The news of Rabobank’s sudden departure was of course a stressful time for the team’s new management. The hierarchy of the team had already gone through a set of changes even before Plugge, a former journalist, took the reigns. Rabobank riders who looked as though they’d have a job for life were suddenly being asked about their futures.
“It was a busy period. What we did with the management was to approach the year just like it was any other. We worked towards a five year plan and that really helped us a lot when we were presenting to potential sponsors. I have to say that the entire team really picked up their game after Rabobank pulled out. We started working with a long term plan and then when the riders saw that everyone started to work together.”
Rabobank, meanwhile, stumped up enough cash to see the team through its financial commitments, paying salaries and keeping the team afloat even with their brand removed from the team’s jerseys.
“I understand why they pulled out,” Plugge told Cyclingnews.
“They were like a boxer who had been in the ring for 14, 15 rounds and then they took one knock out blow. I can understand it and I have to say they were great in giving us the opportunity to carry on. They met their obligations.”
Searching for a sponsor
And so, under the black, white and blue of Blanco, Plugge and his staff scoured the globe for a new financial backer. Vacansoliel-DCM were in a similar position with confirmation that both the primary and secondary backers of the squad would be walking away.
“There were people you couldn’t take seriously,” Plugge said when asked how many approaches he received.
“But you couldn’t blame them either. Some of them didn’t know sport but we had people approach us. At the same time we reached out via sports marketing agencies. Then it was a case of ‘you should talk to this guy, and then this guy’. Off the top of my head there were more than 60 companies that we had more than just email contact with. There were a lot of companies. There were all sorts, from consumer products to insurance companies.”
After several months of negotiations Belkin signed on the dotted line, providing Plugge with a two and a half year deal that would begin at the start of the Tour de France. An American backer for a team that had Dutch roots stemming back to the days of Jan Raas but Plugge has been under no pressure to ‘Americanize’ the squad.
“They want us to show ourselves internationally. For them Europe, Asia and Australia are really important because for them America is already a location where the brand is well known. We have a lot of Dutchies, that’s correct but we have Australians, Germans, a French guy, so Belkin are happy but they mainly want us to compete at a good level.”
A new brand, a different jersey and new Bianchi bikes for 2014 but Plugge is aware that such aesthetical modifications will count for little if the team ever have to travel down the road of allegations and doping headlines that Rabobank invited.
“The team changed a lot in 2008 and the medical staff have done lot in the last five years. You can never assure everyone and a 100 per cent clean sport or world is impossible. It’s about what you can do to prevent it [doping] and this was a big topic. We told Belkin what we do and how we run a team and they were happy,” he said.
Like Rabobank, how many rounds can Belkin go?
“I hope it never happens but every case is different and it can also depend on how you react to the situation because you need to be up front. It’s not mentioned with Belkin but they would assess what we did, if it was a one man show or if we didn’t do enough to prevent it. Then we might have a problem I guess. It’s more on that level, with a discussion than a firm one strike policy.”
The team have already had to weather two soft jabs. Theo Bos was forced out of the Vuelta a Espana after the team adhered to the MPCC’s rule over low cortisol levels. The rider was latter cleared of any wrong doing and has since come back to racing.
“We did a lot of examinations on how it could have happened. We took him out of the race as stipulated by the rules of the MPCC but we had an investigation because we were really surprised by it all. There was a lot of fuss and rumours but in the end it appeared that nothing was wrong. Everything is linked to doping in cycling if there’s something wrong and that’s why we had to be really careful. I’m strict against doping but you have to be careful that you don’t start a witch hunt about something that’s not linked to doping. A rider’s image, a team’s image would be on the line.”
Then last week the team announced that they had paid Luis Leon Sanchez to leave the team, ushering him out of the door with his contract paid up. The Spaniard had been a success on the road, winning stages in the Tour de France and a San Sebastian title. He was even offered a contract extension from the old Rabobank bosses. Plugge would not go into details but the team have not denied that the Spaniard’s departure is due to his continuous links with doping investigations.
“We agreed that at the end of the season our ways should part. We also agreed that we would not discuss the agreement in public.”
Plugge goes into the 2014 season with a different set of targets. With the team’s future assured for the next two seasons the Dutchman can concentrate on getting the best out of his riders, and have kept the core of the team together, he’s understandably optimistic. He has made only minor changes to the team's roster. Mark Renshaw will ride for Omega Pharma-Quick Step, while Tom-Jelte Salgter has moved to Garmin-Sharp.
“We have a pretty strong team for the future, and especially for next year. We have a strong front like with Mollema, Gesink, Kelderman, ten Dam but behind them we have some incredibly strong domestiques to help those guys.”