While Primož Roglič remains on track to challenge for the yellow jersey in this year’s Tour de France, his Jumbo-Visma team director has acknowledged that the opposition the Slovenian will face has stepped up another level in the last 12 months.
Along with the defending champion Tadej Pogačar, the Dutch squad will take on a rejuvenated Ineos Grenadiers team that has recently won the Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour de Suisse and Giro d’Italia.
According to Roglič’s directeur sportif Merijn Zeeman, several teams now have stronger overall contenders, while the depth within the peloton has improved in recent months, with more and more riders seemingly able to make impressive efforts in the mountains.
While Roglič has chosen to train rather than race over the last few months, the rest of the Jumbo team have struggled to match the dominant pre-Tour de France displays they made last year. The team have not taken a win since April’s Amstel Gold Race, and while there are mitigating circumstances – such as Roglič’s absence and the illness of Wout van Aert – Zeeman is still confident that the team remain on track.
"The team is shaping up well," Zeeman told Cyclingnews.
"Primož is obviously in the middle of a big training period and that’s going well and there’s been progression with the other guys. Of course, there were some setbacks, with the appendix issue with Wout, and Jonas Vinegaard had an injury but now they’re all back in training and training well. I’m very confident that we are in very good shape with the team."
At the Critérium du Dauphiné, without Roglič, the team missed out on a top overall result, with Steven Kruijswijk finishing 15th and Sep Kuss 23rd behind overall winner Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers). Zeeman was not concerned by those results, arguing that peaking in early June was not an objective for a team that hopes to improve on last year’s second-place overall.
"There’s a difference between this year and last year. In 2020, the Dauphiné was two weeks before the Tour and only five days, and this year it’s three weeks from the race. We didn’t prepare them for the Dauphiné, we’re preparing them for the Tour so Sep was really good in La Plange but then he blew up on the wheel of Padun.
"If he had raced more conservatively then for sure he would have done top three on the stage but Sep really needed that race in order to take the next step and the same counts for Stevie. He’s also getting better and better but it’s obvious that the opponents are stronger than last year. That’s for sure. Ineos are looking very strong and also other teams are getting better and better. We’ll be good but the opponents are going to be better than in 2020. It’s going to be a big fight."
Part of the reason as to why Zeeman believes that more teams have reached such a high level this year is because squads have adjusted to the relative normality of a typical race season – whereas last year teams either sank or swam due to the restrictions from COVID-19 and the global pandemic.
"It’s a normal year again. So last year there were some teams using the corona time in a good way and some not so well. Now it’s normal again and in every team, there are smart people and they’re using their experiences to improve and what I see now is that there are more opponents and that they’re getting stronger. The differences between teams and riders is getting less. That's good for the sport and it’s going to make for some exciting racing."
Several riders have commented on the belief that racing speeds have also increased this year.
"Maybe [they are] a little faster but there are now more riders who can do a certain speed and a certain power," said Zeeman.
"That’s the main thing. Every team has guys now that can do these kinds of efforts. That makes it so that there are lots of riders with ambitions."
Jumbo-Visma have already announced their Tour team and there is no doubt in Zeeman’s mind that Van Aert will be on the start line later this month. The Belgian has had a disrupted build-up due to his operation, and he was forced to miss the Dauphiné as a result.
Even at 80 per cent, Van Aert is worth taking to the Tour de France but in recent weeks the Belgian rider has talked down his own chances of success in the race. Zeeman argued that patience was needed and that the rider and his team wouldn’t fully understand Van Aert’s goals until the race began.
"He had a very serious injury and it really set him back. But he’s a big talent and he improves quickly. It’s not ideal preparation, that’s clear, but ambitions depend on how quickly can improve," Zeeman said.
"I’m not going to put any expectations on him but he will be very valuable to the team. It could be that he can win for himself or that he can give us a very strong supporting role with everything in between. We’re just using it every day to improve and then we’ll see what happens in the Tour de France.
"If he feels like he can win then we’ll always support him with that but it really just depends on how he feels and how quickly he improves. He’s 100 per cent fit, has no problems and he’ll be at the Tour. He’s an incredible talent and if anyone can do it, it’s him. I’m confident that he can do it, he’s working hard and every day he’s getting better and better."
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