It was a heartwarming scene that didn’t always seem to happen. Jonas Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss and Primoz Roglic enter Madrid arm in arm on Sunday evening at the end of an extraordinary Vuelta a España; Vingegaard, the reigning Tour de France champion, and Roglic, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion, grinning and pointing at Kuss between them, wearing the Vuelta leader’s red jersey, as if to say: ‘Sepp is the man’.
The American, for whom this was his first Grand Tour victory after years as a stalwart, looked both humbled and delighted by the respect shown to him by his two more illustrious teammates.
The demonstration of team unity capped an extraordinary season for Jumbo-Visma, who completed two historic trebles in Spain; a Vuelta podium clean sweep (the first team to do so since Kas in the 1966 Vuelta) and the Grand Tour ‘grand slam’ in one calendar year (the Dutch super team is the first team to ever do that – even Team Sky in their most dominant years never achieved a clean slate).
It was also the end of an extraordinary three weeks, from which Jumbo emerged with its honors almost intact. And their reputation has improved enormously.
How they did it
Make no mistake: things could have turned out very differently for the Dutch team in the last few days of the race. For a while last week it seemed that Jumbo would definitively take over from Team Sky as the most successful but least loved team in cycling.
After Roglic pulled away from Kuss on the Angliru at the end of stage 17 and Vingegaard followed the Slovenian, Jumbo’s reputation was at stake. Kuss’s once healthy lead in the overall standings had been slowly whittled away by his two teammates, who now occupied second and third places in the standings, and fans of all creeds were apoplectic at the thought that one of them could take the jersey from him take away. his moment of glory.
In cycling, it is not customary to attack your own teammates, especially if they have sacrificed themselves for years for your successes in the Grand Tour. Kuss may not have arrived in Spain as the designated leader for Jumbo and almost accidentally inherited the jersey early in the race, but now that he was wearing it, the soft-spoken 29-year-old from Colorado was certainly primed for victory. unless one of his teammates took it away from him.
That they did not was down to a combination of factors, not least a small but crucial turn from the Bahrain-victorious Mikel Landa, who helped limit Kuss’s losses on the Angliru, meaning the American was left to still had an eight second lead over Vingegaard at the end of the last lap. Wednesday.
But perhaps most important of all was public sentiment. By Wednesday evening it was clear that if Jumbo continued to allow their three riders to duke it out, as they threatened to do, there would be outrage and the team would lose a lot of goodwill.
They chose the sensible option and collected a lot of PR credit in the process. “It was a great situation we were in [with the top three riders on GC] but at the same time something that has never happened before and for which there was no textbook solution,” said Jumbo-Visma director Richard Plugge on Sunday when he explained their thinking. “We have had good discussions with all parties involved. We listened to everyone’s opinion, put everything on the table, drew up a plan based on that and asked if everyone agreed. As a team we were true to our values and racing philosophy: winning together.”
Plugge added: “[Picking one winner] is like choosing between your own children. We just wanted to win the Vuelta. To whom it made no difference. It’s great that two great people, based on their personal leadership, allowed this to happen [Kuss] to do it.”
How did they do it?
Jumbo-Visma is now supreme in the Grand Tours. This much has been clear for some time, but this current dominance is on a scale that was previously unimaginable. It begs the question: how can a team without the largest budget in cycling (exact figures are difficult to determine, but Jumbo may have the third largest budget on the World Tour, considerably less than Ineos Grenadiers and Soudal-QuickStep? ) managed to profile itself as such a force?
Plugge, a former journalist, said on Sunday that this is the culmination of ten years of hard work, which he divides into three eras. The first era was simply about surviving after the Rabobank years. The second after Lotto-Jumbo came on board was consolidation. This was the era when Sky were dominant and Plugge says he and sporting director Merijn Zeeman tried too hard to emulate their ‘marginal profit’ philosophy. “We focused too much on details,” he says. “But they are only effective if the foundations are in order. We realized that we had to train, sleep and eat well – the basics for an athlete – as well [sort out] the equipment. So we threw out all the details of marginal gains. Everyone tried to copy and paste Sky. But it starts with five hours of training a day.”
The team started to have some success with Dylan Groenewegen and then Roglic joined. Although he has not (yet) won the Tour de France, Plugge called the Slovenian the “king” of the team on Sunday.
The third phase was about excellence. Plugge talks about building a culture, about Zeeman drawing inspiration from celebrated Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, about talking to Dutch special forces to understand how to push athletes without letting them fall over the edge.
Only then, with all the pieces in play, was it time to unleash what he has in the past called ‘Total Cycling’, a play on the Total Football that was developed in the Johan Cruyff era of Dutch football in the seventies.
“It may have sounded like arrogance,” Plugge admitted last December in an interview with the Cycling Podcast. “But when you saw the Col du Granon stage [of the 2022 Tour de France, when Jumbo worked over Tadej Pogacar and effectively sealed last year’s Tour for Vingegaard] you could really see what I meant.
Can we trust them?
Naturally, there are people who will watch Jumbo’s performances this year – and we haven’t even mentioned the remarkable Wout van Aert – and think: we’ve heard this before. How can we trust Jumbo when history has shown that incredible cycling achievements are so often literally that?
Ultimately, there’s no way to know. Skepticism is the default (and the only sensible) attitude in cycling and of course the Jumbo riders and staff were asked how we could trust them. It undoubtedly helped the Dutch team on this occasion that it was Kuss, and not their strongest classification rider, who had won. The American is extremely popular and is considered very reliable. Kuss stated that for him cheating or doping was “out of the question” as he did not need to win to feel good about himself. Accepting that “sometimes you’re not good enough” is a fundamental part of the sport, he added.
How long can they keep this up?
While [doping] The question will certainly continue to be asked as long as Jumbo maintains these levels, but it remains unclear exactly how long that will last. The fact that Jumbo managed to prevent a full-blown civil war last weekend does not mean that there were no tensions within the teams. Can the team keep all their riders happy? Will Kuss look to lead at other Grand Tours now that he has proven he can win one?
There are already rumors that Roglic may be eyeing a move to a team that can guarantee him leadership in the Tour de France.
Plugge obviously downplayed that when asked about it on Sunday. “Roglic is our king and the king is difficult to let go,” he said. “He has won every GC race he has started this year except this one, and he has won 15 races this year. Why would I consider letting him go?
“If you compare him to football, he is a goalscorer who, together with Jonas, scores the most goals for our team. [Vingegaard]. If he leaves we will miss a lot of goals and we need to find someone who can score more goals, and there are not many people who can do that.”
Time will tell. One thing Team Sky did with great success during their glory years was transition from one big beast to another, even if some of those successes were bloody.
Plugge made it clear that other teams will not stand idly by. Tadej Pogacar, a generational talent, will clearly try to win back his yellow jersey in France next summer. Ineos are lacking a bit of direction at the moment, but their vast wealth suggests they will bounce back at some point, either with Carlos Rodríguez as their main GC man or someone else. Maybe Tom Pidcock will go all in for Grand Tours after the Olympics. Can Remco Evenepoel win a Grand Tour that Pogacar, Vingegaard and Roglic also finish. The jury is still out on that.
“We have to stay sharp,” Plugge concluded. “Merijn Zeeman and I are evaluating what we can learn from this Vuelta to do even better next year. We owe it to ourselves to look in the mirror, because before you know it you will be overtaken.
“Our only goal that we have not achieved this year is to win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. Much remains to be done. This is a very nice ‘crowning’ on ten years of hard work, but I am not going to sit back now. We have drawn up a big plan towards 2030. There is room for even more crowns.”
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