Jumbo-Visma’s decision to send Tom Dumoulin, Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk to the Tour de France - and announce their eight-rider roster at the same time - caught many by surprise, but lead coach Merijn Zeeman is convinced that the rewards greatly outweigh the risks.
The Dutch team announced their full Tour de France team during the tail end of December with all three of their Grand Tour leaders given spots alongside Tony Martin, Sep Kuss, Laurens de Plus, Wout van Aert, and Robert Gesink.
There was no space for sprinter Dylann Groenewegen and his lead-out, while George Bennett was handed the chance to race the Giro d’Italia and the Olympic Games. Putting all their GC eggs in one basket is not a typical tactic for a WorldTour team. Team Ineos and Movistar have tried it in recent years, with varying degrees of success, but 2020 is the first time Jumbo-Visma have employed the approach.
"Of course, we had discussions about sending one of the three leaders to the Giro and one or two to the Tour de France but our analysis of how we won the Vuelta showed that if you want to win the biggest race in the world then you need to bring your best riders," Zeeman told Cyclingnews just before the Tour line-up was announced.
"If you look at compromising, then it’s a risk. Ineos won many times in the last few years so it would be a naïve of us to think that we could beat them with a weaker team. They are the absolute favourites but we want to really fight them, and that means bringing the best. That does mean that only one of our riders can win but, after so many years, what matters is that there is another rider from another team at the top of the podium. Primoz, Tom and Steven all understand that."
Only time will tell if Jumbo-Visma’s strategy is a success but, for Zeeman and his staff, the most important aspects that will determine success and failure are based around clarity and communication. By announcing their Tour line-up months in advance, the management are instilling belief in their riders, while adding a sense of responsibility, too. One might argue that they are also sapping the motivation and drive of those who might have been on the cusp of a Tour spot but Zeeman has spent months ensuring that every rider in the squad is aware of their purpose.
The plans for 2020 were drawn up months ago - just after Tom Dumoulin was confirmed as a Jumbo-Visma rider and the curtain came down on the 2019 WorldTour. The Jumbo-Visma management began drafting their Grand Tour rosters with each phase of the plan put together after a series of meetings before a ‘captains’ dinner’ in late October accelerated the team’s objectives.
"It was a pretty intense process. Straight after the season, I started to create the 2020 plan," Zeeman said.
"We had China as the last race and then we had the team day where we announced the new riders and staff at an internal level. At that point we also set the ultimate goal of the team, and where we wanted to be in the long-term. Then after that weekend, we had three intense days of evaluations. Everyone had their input and we analysed every part of the season, from the Classics, the Giro and the Tour. We looked at talent development and each rider had two coaches interview them about how they felt the year had gone. We took feedback, the coaches had their input, and then that information was presented to the rest of the group.
"We looked at what our qualities were and where we could improve and from there I started to discuss the ideas with Richard Plugge and a smaller group where we could create a concept around our 2020 goals. Then we created the strategy, so if the goal is to win the Tour de France we asked ourselves what that would take and what we needed. In the coaching analysis, we really looked into what it took to win a Grand Tour over the last five years. We looked at the type of riders that were needed, the tactics that were used, and how important the time trials were. That gave us our direction."
Singing from the same hymn sheet
The captains’ dinner was attended by the three Tour leaders, Van Aert and Groenewegen, with the question over the sprinter’s ambitions brought into the discussion. With the team looking to put their best GC squad together, Groenewegen’s possible participation in the Tour could have been a delicate matter but, with so many other aims and the Dutchman’s hope of winning stages in multiple Grand Tours, the team had an easy out.
"For the Tour, we had the discussion with Groenewegen about whether to take him. Then we saw the route for the Giro and with the Vuelta starting in Holland there was immediately an idea to take him in another direction," said Zeeman.
"In October we had our captain’s meeting with all our leaders. Then we had a captain’s dinner with them at the same time in Holland. We didn’t talk about strategies but I gave everyone some questions to answer, and one of them was about their ambitions for the rest of their careers. Dylan was very clear that by the end of his career he wanted to win as many races as possible, but also to win stages in all three Grand Tours. That was an important moment with the idea of bringing him to another Grand Tour with a new challenge."
Although few would argue with the depth and talent within Jumbo-Visma’s Tour de France stable, the key will be to ensure that their leaders manage to sing from the same hymn book and avoid the catastrophic yet entertaining breakdown in togetherness that Movistar displayed over the previous seasons.
Zeeman is convinced by the positive attitude provided by the riders so far and that they have all bought into the idea of collective unity.
"It’s a really interesting and challenging process. I want to create team dynamics that inspire everyone towards the same team goal. We take it step-by-step but we’ve already had a lot of meetings with them both together and individually so that we can create the dream," he said.
"The ultimate dream is to win the Tour and a few years ago we didn’t think we could go there but each year the dream is coming closer. Everyone can still have their individual ambitions and it’s important that everyone speaks out and is honest about them but, in the end, if you want to win the Tour then you need a team around you that has the power and the depth around you when there are only six guys left.
"The most important thing is that we win and that we try and win as a team. Every rider has to show commitment to the team goal. They’re all eager and enthusiastic. At the December camp in Girona the mood in the camp seemed relaxed and friendly, even if riders and staff were involved in a constant run of meetings and briefings."
At present, and without a pedal stroke turned in anger, it’s difficult to envisage the leadership structure for July. Dumoulin and Roglic head into the season as Grand Tour winners but the Dutchman’s lack of competition in 2019 and Roglic’s Vuelta a España win give the Slovenian an early advantage.
"For us, the important thing is to win it as a team. That’s either with Roglic, Kruijswijk or Dumoulin," said Zeeman.
"At the start of the season, we’ll look at how they are going from the beginning but Primoz was the number one rider in the world in 2019. He won so many races and so many stages. Steve and Tom will say that right now he’s a bit ahead of them but that doesn’t mean we’ll play just his card. We’ll play all three cards."