If anyone knows about the principles of 'total football', it's Frank de Boer. A graduate of the famous Ajax academy in Holland, where he went onto make over 300 appearances for the club and earn over 100 international caps, De Boer can certainly appreciate a sport when it's played at a high intensity, when a thrill to entertain is coupled with the thirst to succeed.
Step forward the LottoNL-Jumbo cycling team who, despite the presence of Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk, perhaps lack the stars of an Ajax football team of the 1970s, '80s or '90s, but certainly have come into this year's Tour de France with the belief that they can play key roles in the destiny of the race.
At the start of stage 15, De Boer – at the race working for Dutch television – laid out the ethos behind the Ajax way.
"Ajax was about playing attractive football – about trying to dominate and, of course, about trying to win,” he told Cyclingnews.
"They were the key things, and they still are. At the end of the day, you need to win, and that was the pressure and the beauty of Ajax. You have to get used to that pressure."
Pressure doesn't seem to be a factor at LottoNL-Jumbo at this year's Tour. They came into the race under the radar, and have played cameo roles for much of the race.
Dylan Groenewegen won two early stages, and while that represented success for the team, it took the spotlight off Roglic and Kruijswijk. Coming into the race, it was Kruijswijk who was positioned as the overall contender, while Roglic was sold as the support act who would be taking the GC battle at his own pace.
On stage 12 to Alpe d'Huez, LottoNL executed two important and race-defining moves. First, they posted Kruijswijk up the road for a 75km solo break, and then they had Roglic attempt to hold the rest of the GC group on the final climb. They missed out on the stage win, and Roglic would eventually lose some time, but the fact that the Dutch outfit were willing to roll the dice, open the race and challenge Team Sky's control won them a new wave of Tour fans.
The fact that it was Kruijswijk who was willing to take the biggest gamble only made the situation more of a thrill. To apply that football term to a two-wheeled sport, this was what De Boer might have called 'total cycling', and it was no coincidence that at the start of the next stage the now-retired Thomas Voeckler – one of the last great all-out attackers at the Tour – sought out Kruijswijk to give him a pat on the back and a handshake.
"It wasn't planned that Primoz would come here as a classification rider, so he was lucky to survive in the first week as well as he did because he didn't have much help," said LottoNL-Jumbo directeur sportif Frans Maassen, who won a stage at the Tour in 1990 and Amstel Gold Race a year later.
"Primoz managed to survive and stayed in the running for the general classification. He looks healthy, and he's up there in the standings, so we'll now look for the best results we can in the final week."
Maassen, who rode under Jan Raas in a number of different colours in the late 1980s and early 1990s, smiles at the comparison between total football and the free-flowing attacking cycling that his team has displayed at the Tour – not just with Kruijswijk, but also with Roglic thanks to his kick on the final climb of stage 14 to Mende, which netted him a few extra seconds.
"What Steven did at Alpe d'Huez was not our plan, either, but he decided to do it, and he felt good," Maassen admits. "In the end, he proved himself, and only lost 50 seconds. I wasn't worried, but it's difficult to carry out a plan like that, because there’s a chance that you won't still feature in the general classification afterwards. But Steven's biggest strength is that he has great recovery, and that will help him in the final week."
With Roglic's reputation within the race growing by the kilometre, and with Kruijswijk still holding firm within the top 10, is there a chance that LottoNL could become less active in the race as they realise that a podium place could be on the cards?
"No – we'll keep the same philosophy," Maassen said. "Whether we're fourth or sixth doesn't matter so much. We want to take it one step further. If it's necessary, we could sacrifice one rider for the other.
"We have good spirit and good motivation within the team. We weren't the biggest favourites before the Tour at all, but now we're in a position to challenge the favourites. And we want to do that," said Maassen. "Roglic has proved already that he's one of the biggest talents in the world. They'll not let him go again from now on. They'll watch him. They know that he's special, and that he's made big steps. He must use the opportunity he has to go for the best result possible."
Outside the team bus, De Boer looked on as the riders headed towards the stage sign-on. In terms of the GC battle, Roglic sits fourth overall, 2:38 behind race leader Geraint Thomas, while Kruijswijk is seventh at 3:57.
How far they can both go at this year's Tour de France remains to be seen, but De Boer will be watching. If the team can remain true to what has carried them so far in this year's race already, then who knows how far this 'total cycling' philosophy can carry them?
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.