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Giro d'Italia

Bargain riding: A Kruijswijk Giro win would be budget milestone

With the LottoNL – Jumbo squad operating on a budget that's roughly half of Sky's, Steven Kruijswijk is leading the Giro on the cheap.

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PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — Not only would a Giro d’Italia victory by Steven Kruijswijk be a historic first for the Netherlands, it would also be a major milestone in cycling’s ever-increasing budget wars.

LottoNL – Jumbo’s budget and Kruijswijk’s salary are nowhere near the stratospheric sums of the peloton’s top WorldTour squads, but the team’s Giro success reconfirms that money doesn’t always buy success.

“In terms of our budget, this is so important to us,” LottoNL sport director Addy Engels said. “We cannot compete with the budgets of the big teams, but here we are competing for a grand tour victory. This is very big.”

Just consider the numbers: Based on estimations, Sky’s budget is nearly $35 million annually, while LottoNL operates on less than half of that, about $17 million. Sky offered a succulent contract worth an estimated $2 million per season to Mikel Landa to lead for the Giro this season. The Basque climber is now at home, while Kruijswijk earns an estimated $500,00 per season and rides into the Alps with the pink jersey on his broad shoulders.

What gives? Money can only go so far to guarantee success in a grand tour.

Even with the biggest budget in cycling, Sky has been unable to crack the Giro despite dedicating a significant amount of resources and budget toward the maglia rosa. Bradley Wiggins infamously fizzled out in 2013 and Richie Porte pulled the plug in 2015. Rigoberto Urán came the closest, riding to second in 2013 in a Sky jersey, and has since joined Cannondale.

Looking at the past 10 or so editions of the Giro, the pink jersey has been won by a top-salaried, pre-race favorite. The lone exception is Ryder Hesjedal’s victory in 2012 with the Slipstream organization, another team typically hovering near the bottom rung in the WorldTour salary ladder.

While the top teams have the money to sign the best riders — Astana and Movistar also boast annual budgets topping $25 million — the punishing demands of a grand tour mean there are no guarantees. Money only buys potential. Illness and crashes inevitably take their collective toll, and this year, GC contenders such as Landa, Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale), Tom Dumoulin (Giant – Alpecin), and Trek – Segafredo’s Hesjedal have all packed it in.

Teams constantly try to strike a balance between the salary demands of established GC riders and trying to develop in-house talent. It’s like buying Google at $700 a share and hoping it keeps rising, or getting in on the ground floor of the next Über.

That long-term strategy has worked well this season for Orica – GreenEdge, which resisted paying big salaries for established GC stars and patiently nurtured Esteban Chaves to grow without pressure. Katusha has taken a similar tact with Ilnur Zakarin, fifth overall at this Giro.

“You pay the money, or you take the young guy and develop them,” Katusha general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov said. “There are only a few GC guys on the market, and you need a lot of cash to buy them. It depends what the agents want, and they push their price. They push until the market answers them.”

Kruijswijk is also a “homegrown” product of LottoNL. With DNA tracing back to the once-mighty Rabobank organization, the current LottoNL squad is operating on a relative shoestring budget.

The 28-year-old Kruijswijk joined the Rabobank development team in 2007 for three seasons, where he was a teammate of Tejay van Garderen, before jumping to the WorldTour team in 2010. While the squad morphed from Rabobank to Blanco and later Belkin to today’s current sponsorship deal, and many of the staffers and management have left, Kruijswijk was given space to gain experience, overcome injuries, and slow-cook into a legitimate GC contender.

That investment will pay huge dividends if Kruijswijk hangs on to become the first Dutch winner of the Giro. The irony is if he does win, LottoNL might not be able to afford to keep him. Kruijswijk is off contract in 2016, and if he makes history Sunday in Torino, his asking price will likely quadruple.