How Jumbo-Visma channeled rugby’s ‘All Blacks’ to become a cycling superpower
Dutch squad was mid-pack before a radical reinvention inspired by Kiwi rugby took Wout van Aert, Primož Roglič and Co. to top of pro peloton.
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Turns out the Jumbo-Visma cycling team and the New Zealand rugby “All Blacks” have more in common than you might think.
The Dutch WorldTour squad and the all-conquering rugby union team share one guiding philosophy – and it helped Jumbo-Visma transition from mid-pack to the top of the pro peloton.
Primož Roglič just won Paris-Nice, Jonas Vingegaard finished best-of-the-rest behind Tadej Pogačar at Tirreno-Adriatico, and Wout van Aert looks red-hot for the classics, but the Dutch crew hasn’t always been the cycling superpower it is today.
Not so long ago, the Rabobank/LottoNL-Jumbo franchise was way off the pace.
The middle of the last decade saw Team Sky on the up and the Dutch stalwarts far off the back. The 2015 season was a low point – six victories put LottoNL-Jumbo 14th out of 17 in the UCI team ranking for the season and with a lot of distance on the road to make up.
Since that point, the trajectory has only pointed upward.
New sponsors and new thinking gave Jumbo-Visma a fresh wind that helped it harvest a stack of Vuelta a España and monument victories from a roster filled with home-grown talents and cycling celebs.
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So how did the peloton’s pack-fodder become cycling’s own “All Blacks”?
VeloNews called up lead sport director Merijn Zeeman to find out.
VeloNews: The evolution of Lotto/Jumbo-Visma has been one of the turnaround triumphs of the past half-decade. You worked alongside team boss Richard Plugge during this transition – can you explain a little how this shift started?
Merijn Zeeman: The most important thing to realize how we evolved is that there was always a plan behind our team. We had a very clear vision of where we wanted to go. We were really passionate about where we wanted to go and that was that we want to be on top of the podium in Paris.
We started as we are now in 2016 and we realized at that moment that we were by far not good enough. And there were no excuses for that. We were too much thinking like we were not good enough, because of budgets, for example, or because we don’t have the riders or something.
We took an internal critical voice like ‘OK, what we are doing is not good enough. And if we want to improve, we need a plan. We need a strategy, we need a better structure for how we will organize this and create this.’ We looked at everything – how we were handling training, how we were nutrition, how we were equipment, how we were handling the business side, everything.
From that moment on, the culture started to change and in the end, it all starts with culture, obviously. They say ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’
VN: Can you explain a little about this team culture you refer to?
MZ: For us, the most important thing is that there’s a motivation and passion to want to do better every day, from the staff, riders, and people in the offices. We make sure we’re not held behind because of ego. We aim to constantly learn and get better.
So there’s a constant process of evaluation and looking critically at things – never stop learning, never stop progressing, be open to a lot of people, and a lot of ways to improve. Even though we are now one of the best teams in the world, I think we have still things we can do better.
Particularly at the start, we were active in learning and watching other teams, sports, and businesses to help us grow and change.
VN: Were there any particular sports, businesses, etc., that you looked toward during this process?
MZ: The kinds of things in the book “Legacy” was a big, big inspiration for us. The process of the “All Blacks” written down by James Kerr is an example and an inspiration for us – and that’s also the culture that we want to have. This book is so important to us it was the Christmas present that everyone in our team received.
[Editor’s note – the leadership and management book Legacy explores what the all-conquering New Zealand rugby union team did to dominate the sport through the 2000s. Kerr looks at the team’s commitment to learning, its empowerment of players through the squad, its approach to preparation, and many other things.]
That “All Black” culture is about how people take responsibility and that the responsibilities are low in the organization. It’s not top-down organized. It’s like, ‘if you are part of this team, you’re obliged to think and to give your critical opinion and always look for ways to get better.’ And that’s how we work with riders and staff.
We try to organize the team by sitting down to ask people their honest opinion about what they believe we are doing good but also what we need to improve. Sometimes it’s hard discussions and it’s not always nice because if you ask for criticism, you get it. It’s good, but it’s never comfortable. So we are always looking to get better.
We also work closely with our partner speed skating team and the head coach Jac Orie.
One of his athletes won gold in six Olympic Games in a row, which is extraordinary. He’s very well known because he knows really everything about data and training. We learned a lot about training about periodization about adaptations of training. Despite his different background, he made a big difference for us.
VN: You mentioned training, tech, nutrition all got an overhaul since you re-set the squad. Is there anything, in particular, you changed that you feel was a particular success?
MZ: There was no one magic thing that we changed but what we have changed was being active in trying to learn from other sports, and not giving excuses why you are not doing the optimum.
Probably the biggest specific change was that we developed the “food coach” app with our sponsor Jumbo. There’s a lot of knowledge and science behind it, and we have a fantastic nutritionist. We believe now it gives us a big advantage compared to the other teams. It’s completely personalized for all the riders. That’s perhaps the biggest shift over the years.
VN: How influential have the top leaders at Jumbo-Visma been in the team’s recent turnaround?
MZ: These guys like Wout, Primož, Tom [Dumoulin], they are fantastic bike riders, but they all are also all smart guys. They’re really engaged in getting better and are involved in the whole team, not only their individual success. They also want the team to do well.
Primož for example with Jonas – he’s a little bit like an older brother. He really takes time to explain things or take Jonas with him.
Like last year toward the Tour de France, Primož was constantly telling [Vingegaard] that he could end up on the podium that he could win the Tour de France – Primož has really big confidence in him.
VN: Were there any key races or results in the team’s recent history where you felt the team was tipping the right direction?
MZ: The first key moment was in 2017 when Primož won the Tour of Algarve. It was early in the season, but it was a new step. It’s not the biggest race, but it had been a long time since we could win a stage race like that.
Of course, he’s not on our team anymore, but the performances of Dylan Groenewegen also. Winning the Tour stage of the Champs-Élysées in 2017 was a fantastic performance that showed we could do something.
In 2018, especially the last week of the Tour de France, with Kruijswijk and Roglič, we were among the best riders in the mountains, and that for us was a totally new experience. And then obviously 2019 where we ended up on the podium in the Giro, in the Tour de France, and won our first grand tour with Roglič at the Vuelta. That year in particular was a moment where we got the confidence that we could become one of the best teams in the world.
Then in 2019, when Wout started this first season with us and was getting better and better and winning a stage in the Tour, that gave us the confidence that we could be among the best in all different parts of pro cycling.