Jumbo-Visma sports director Merijn Zeeman believes that his WorldTour team has significant strength in its ranks beyond star riders Primož Roglič, Steven Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin, singling out climbers Sepp Kuss and George Bennett as prospective future Grand Tour leaders.
In the second part of a wide-ranging two-part interview published by Wielerflits on Monday and Tuesday, Zeeman talked about the team's second row of riders, and how Jumbo-Visma are working hard to ensure that they – and those riders still to step up, or even yet to be discovered – will be ready to try to fulfil the team's long-term ambitions over the next decade.
On Monday, Zeeman admitted that Roglič had arguably been the best rider of the 2020 season, finishing second at the Tour de France behind compatriot Tadej Pogačar and then winning the Vuelta a España for the second year in a row, as well as winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de l'Ain and the Slovenian road race title.
But while it's clear to everyone that the likes of Roglič, 2017 Giro d'Italia winner Dumoulin and Kruijswijk – third at the Tour in 2019 – form a powerful forward line, behind them, younger riders, and climbers, in particular, also form a valuable source of support.
They may also be expected to step into the breach at a moment's notice – just like Ineos Grenadiers' Tao Geoghegan Hart did when Geraint Thomas was forced out of this year's Giro d'Italia after crashing on stage 3, with Geoghegan Hart going on to become the surprise winner overall.
"First of all, I'll mention Sepp Kuss, who has grown strongly again this year," Zeeman said. "I also want to include George Bennett. He has really taken a huge step in his development this year.
"On the first day of the Tour de France, George fell very hard," he said of the New Zealander's crash on the wet opening stage in Nice, which saw a number of riders fall throughput the day. "He was actually recovering from that all the way until the Vuelta a España."
Before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant change of the racing calendar, Bennett was set to lead the team at this year's Giro, but was instead drafted in to the squad for the rescheduled Tour.
"If George hadn't done the Tour, then he could have performed extremely well at the Vuelta. He could have astonished the world there," said Zeeman. "I think our strength is precisely that we are so strong across the board."
Kuss, meanwhile, revealed himself as Roglič's key lieutenant at both the Tour and the Vuelta – often the team's last rider capable of staying at the Slovenian's side on the climbs, offering valuable support and assistance, and at the same time learning about what it takes to feature among some of the best Grand Tour riders in the world.
"Together, we've really found the key to how Sepp has managed to develop so well, but that process is far from complete," Zeeman said. "If you want to be a Grand Tour winner, you have to be able to ride very fast and recover very well; you have to master many aspects of racing.
"Sepp has already mastered a number of them, but certainly not all of them yet, so we're going to continue working with him on that in the coming years," he said. "Perhaps Sepp is indeed a rider who can take over from Primož, Tom and Steven in a few years' time. But there is still work to be done – still quite a few facets that need to be improved."
Kuss: I want to see what's possible next year
In a separate interview published by Ciclismo Internacional on Tuesday, Kuss expressed a newfound confidence that he'd discovered by racing so often at the head of affairs in the mountains.
"Now that I've done more races and more Grand Tours, I know more what to expect, and that helps my focus and my confidence," Kuss said. "Now I feel I have more of a place in the peloton and can focus on being in front at the key moments and not being overly relaxed."
Kuss would even sometimes have the strength to attack on the summit finishes at the Tour and Vuelta, but it was normally with only one aim in mind, rather than any personal ambition.
"Most of the time it was more of a tactical play to draw the other rivals out," he explained. "Maybe in some cases it would have been possible to win, but the main objective was to help Primož win the stage or gain time.
"For me, I really enjoyed this strategy, because I could give my best effort. Sometimes, in other situations, I was there with the leaders, but due to a more defensive strategy, I would only be in the wheels the whole climb."
Asked about his own ambitions, Kuss' response appeared to tally with Zeeman's plans – that of gaining experience and continuing to improve – although the American seems ready for the opportunity to lead in some situations.
"I would love to target races like the Volta a Catalunya, the Itzulia Basque Country and the Vuelta, but we'll see what the plans are for 2021," the 26-year-old said. "Either way, I want to see what's possible in more climbing stage races next year.
"I'm happy to give 100 per cent to the team in races like the Tour, but I also hope I will have my chances in other races," Kuss said.
Looking to the future
Beyond Kuss and Bennett, Jumbo-Visma also have young, up-and-coming riders like Norway's Tobias Foss and Denmark's Jonas Vingegaard, and they're about to be strengthened even further by the arrival of 25-year-old Dutch rider Sam Oomen from Team Sunweb for 2021.
There are, of course, other prospective signings for 2022, and beyond, with Zeeman and Jumbo-Visma always on the lookout to 'future-proof' the team they've so diligently built.
"It's always a very broad list of riders that we follow, and about whom we're collecting more information," said Zeeman. "We'll continue to follow them next year. One thing is clear: we want to be one of the best teams in the world for the next 10 years. You need a strong selection for that, which means that you always have to be thinking about the short and long term. We are good for the short term, and for the long term we are back to building.
"Very little can be predicted when it comes to talent development," he said. "Some riders take a giant step, while others need a little more time.
"But you can rest assured that I'm already working on 2025 and drawing the outline of our squad for then," Zeeman said. "It's certainly true that there must be life after Dumoulin, Kruijswijk and Roglič."
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