By any measure, the men’s Jumbo-Visma team delivered a superb season in 2021. The Dutch powerhouse won a grand tour, Olympic medals, classics, four stages at the Tour de France and more in a 43-win season.
Both were on the sidelines for radically different reasons.
Dumoulin was burned out and unsure if he even wanted to continue racing. Groenewegen was shamed and banned following the horrific crash he provoked by barging Fabio Jakobsen into the fences in a bunch sprint finale in 2020.
What was in common was a thread between these two riders and management and staff at Jumbo-Visma who quietly and privately stood by and supported the riders.
Team boss Richard Plugge told VeloNews that behind the headlines, he and others on the team stayed in touch with both riders, giving them room to each deal with their respective career challenges, but keeping the door open for a return to the fold.
“The door was always open,” Plugge told VeloNews. “There was no pressure from us. We made a [deal] that we would stay in touch, and we had some contact during these months, but we said, ‘it’s up to you to call us when you’re ready.’ And that’s what we did.”
Plugge’s go-slow nurturing style worked.
By late spring, Dumoulin was back in the saddle, and won the Dutch national time trial title in June, and surprised everyone by striking silver in the Tokyo Olympic Games. By May, Groenewegen also returned to racing. Though he didn’t win until August, the Dutch sprinter was back in the fast lane.
Tom Dumoulin rediscovers the joy of racing
One of the biggest shocks in 2021 came in January, when Dumoulin abruptly announced he would step away from racing, perhaps even permanently.
The decision caught Jumbo-Visma off-guard, and no one saw it coming. But for Dumoulin, racing and training became an obligation, and the fun was gone.
Plugge knew the worst thing the team could do was to pile on the pressure.
“We needed to leave him alone and let him find his own way and to help him if he needed that,” Plugge explained. “We said to him, ‘Whatever help you need and we will help you.’ “And he could restart if he wanted to, but the pressure didn’t come from us.”
💬 “My season is finished. That’s a big deception, because I just got really good at it again.” – @tom_dumoulin
Get well soon, Tom! 🍀
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) September 9, 2021
Dumoulin stepped away to find some space away from the pressure-cooker of the peloton, but the pull of the bike proved strong.
Behind the scenes, he was keeping in touch with a few friends in the peloton, but simply checked out for a few months. There’s always a danger of staying away too long, and by April, Dumoulin was spotted at the Amstel Gold Race.
Within weeks, he was fully training again, and roared back to racing by winning the Dutch national title.
Winning races again was key, but for Plugge, seeing a smiling and excited Dumoulin was even more important.
“When he left in January, we wanted to see if he could find himself again and become a happy person, whether he was a cyclist or not,” Plugge said. “Of course, we are extra happy now he is back as a cyclist, and that he wants to perform again.
“The most important thing is that he has his hands on the handlebars of life again.”
Dylan Groenewegen was a different story
Groenewegen’s situation was more complicated than what Dumoulin was facing.
Dumoulin, of course, chose to walk away from the peloton. In contrast, Groenewegen was ordered to stay away as part of his disciplinary racing ban.
The Dutch sprinter ran compatriot Fabio Jakobsen into the fences in the opening stage at the 2020 Tour of Poland resulting in a horrific, life-threatening injury for Jakobsen.
Groenewegen underwent his own personal purgatory. He was banned, hounded by the Dutch media and angry fans, and apparently even received death threats.
Jumbo-Visma faced a different kind of challenge with Groenewegen, at once trying to support its rider but also helping him confront and accept what happened in Poland.
“People might have underestimated how difficult it was for him to come back,” Plugge said of Groenewegen. “You have to have a big strong mindset, especially to say here I am again, and here’s what I am going to do. He had to look in the mirror and learn what he could do better.”
Like Dumoulin, Plugge and the team gave Groenewegen space to deal with the emotions and the fallout from the crash.
“It’s a big relief seeing Dylan coming back,” Plugge said. “It was a difficult time for him, and coming back was not easy. There were obviously more people involved [compared to Dumoulin] and he didn’t know how he would be received the first time he raced somewhere.
“You see your colleagues, and you know that some do not like you, and some will give you a warm welcome,” Plugge said. “Ninety percent gave him a warm welcome. That helped a lot in getting redemption.”
Groenewegen, like Dumoulin, won again, something that comes as a big relief for any pro on the sidelines for any reason.
“And then winning, that’s a feeling every sprinter needs to have,” Plugge said. “That’s a big, big, relief. On a personal level, Dylan knows he can do it again, and that’s what he loves most in life — cycling and sprinting.”
It’s not all just about winning
Plugge said the relationship with both riders during their respective mid-career crises reveals a renewed focus on riders’ mental health and emotional as well as professional development.
A generation or two ago, riders were told either to toughen up or go home. Teams now are giving athletes more space to grow and explore, be it racing gravel or taking a hiatus to study, or having staffers on board to help with counseling or advice.
“If this happened 10-20 years ago, maybe then there might not have been so much attention on it,” Plugge said. “How do we want to work with our riders? We always start an open and transparent relationship. With a rider, we want everything on the table.
“If you want to go to the Vuelta or not, please tell us, then we can have a discussion about it,” Plugge said of his management style. “Maybe we can agree. We want to know what your feelings are. If you’re unhappy, please say it. If we don’t know, we cannot change. We’ve had that Tom, but also with other riders. We try to work it out. That’s the modern way of working with athletes.”
For Plugge, who survived a serious bout of COVID-19 in 2020, and lost his father in May, winning isn’t everything.
“My father died in May, and one of the big lessons he gave me is never do something in your life eight hours a day as work that you do not like,” he said. “Do something you like, otherwise you get unhappy.
“That’s what we said from the beginning with Tom — what do you like the most in your life?” Plugge said. “He made the choice to start cycling again, and from deep down in my heart, I know that’s what he wants.”
Dylan Groenewegen wins stage 1 of the Tour de Wallonie, his first victory in 17 months.
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) July 20, 2021