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How Jumbo-Visma won the van Aert sweepstakes

The Dutch-based team landed the three-time defending cyclocross world champ as he transitions to the road.

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Of the current crop of prospects entering the WorldTour, perhaps none were as pursued as Wout van Aert.

The 24-year-old cyclocross world champion’s steady showing on the road during 2018, racing on a limited schedule, only hinted at his untapped potential. Not only did he shine in the northern classics, he won the Tour of Denmark stage race as well. Team managers were licking their collective lips at the chance of signing the budding superstar.

So how did the highly touted rider land at Jumbo-Visma? By its own accounts, the Dutch-based team is hardly the wealthiest in the peloton. Instead of dangling a big check, officials presented van Aert with a blueprint on how they could reshape him into a WorldTour superstar.

“It wasn’t for money,” said team manager Richard Plugge. “It was about the plan we had to develop him into a star.”

It worked. Van Aert looked past other well-established teams with more lucrative offers to sign a deal to keep him in a Jumbo-Visma jersey through 2021.

“From our side, we always have a plan with a rider when we approach them,” Plugge said in a telephone interview. “We made our presentation to him and showed him how we could work with him to develop him into a star. He was satisfied with the way we are working.”

The team already had a line on van Aert for 2020, when his contract with Verandas Willems-Crelan was set to conclude at the end of next year.

Plugge could only sit back and watch as a contentious, months-long legal battle played out this summer and fall concerning van Aert’s future.

Verandas Willems-Crelan management struggled to keep the team viable this summer, and van Aert was the glue that could keep the pieces together. Merger talks with Aqua Blue vaporized before it linked up with Dutch Pro Continental team Roompot-Nederlandse Loterji. The merger was a salve for both teams as each had key co-sponsors stepping away at the end of 2018, and the team will race as Roompot-Crelan. Managers incorrectly assumed that van Aert would be their star rider in 2019.

The Belgian, however, was not pleased about the merger. Van Aert unilaterally broke his deal with the team following the merger in late August. After weeks of legal wrangling that bounced around Belgian courts and at the UCI, van Aert got the green light to sign with a WorldTour team in 2019.

Plugge wasn’t keen to get into the middle of a potentially messy contract battle, but he didn’t want the chance of signing van Aert slip away.

“We were talking about 2020, but suddenly the opportunity opened up for him to join us this year,” Plugge explained. “We did not want to be involved in a fight between a rider and a team. We told him to arrange it and come back to us if you settle everything.”

Plugge said he received guarantees from the UCI about van Aert’s availability before moving ahead with a contract. Another key part of the deal is that will be free to compete in selected cyclocross events going forward.

“We are proud that he has chosen us,” Plugge said. “And we are confident we can develop him into the rider everyone believes he can become.”

The arrival of new partner Visma came at a good time and brings additional financial muscle to the team. In addition to signing van Aert, Plugge also brings on six other new riders, including Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), Mike Teunissen, who rejoins the team after two years at Sunweb, and promising GC rider Laurens De Plus (Quick-Step Floors).

Van Aert will ride out his contract with the cyclocross team this winter and join Jumbo-Visma in March. Late last week, the team announced a full spring classics campaign for van Aert that runs from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad through Amstel Gold Race, including a return to Strade Bianche — where he was an emotional third this year.

Plugge is hoping that van Aert won’t miss a beat in his return to the European road circuit this spring.

“The signs are there he can be a big star for the cobbled classics. He already showed us a little bit of his talent last spring,” Plugge said. “He’s still young. We have to develop his long-distance motor.”

The team has a consistent track record at developing young riders. Steady investments in riders like Primoz Roglic, George Bennett, and Dylan Groewenwegen are paying off handsomely. Others are in the pipeline, including Antwan Tolhoek, Pascal Eenkhoorn, and the American duo of Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless.

Where does van Aert fit in? Other cyclocross riders have transitioned well to the road, including Lars Boom and Zdenek Stybar. Many believe van Aert’s potential is even greater.

“We think he can be a big star,” Plugge concluded. “It’s like with everybody. We will develop him and see how far he can go. The first step is to do the classics because that’s already where he is strong.”