MOTRIL, Spain (VN) — With all the Spanish fans crushing in around Tinkoff-Saxo to catch a glimpse of Alberto Contador, it’s a lot quieter around the LottoNL-Jumbo team bus.
That scenario plays out differently at the races in the Netherlands and Belgium, where the team has a huge fan base, but down in southern Spain in the middle of February, things are very quiet indeed.
That’s just fine for the Dutch team that has been through the wringer the past few seasons. Rabobank ended its two-decade-long sponsorship in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal in 2012, and the team management has been scrambling to keep the boat afloat ever since.
Belkin came in with a low-number title sponsorship, but bailed after less than two full seasons in the sport. Yet the team has quilted together a new patchwork of sponsors to roll into 2015 with new stability and big ambitions.
Being at the start line in Andalucía with new backers and a more secure future comes as a relief, and the team is poised to make the most of that new foundation.
“Ever since Rabobank left, this is the first season that we’ve had real stability,” sport director Merijn Zeeman told VeloNews. “We have strong support not just from one sponsor, but from several, so it makes for a bright future. It gives everyone extra motivation.”
For the Dutch team, the five-day Ruta del Sol represents the European season debut for 2015. Another squad is racing at the Volta ao Algarve across the border in Portugal. With a mix of rising GC prospects and some cagey classics veterans, the team could be one of the surprises of the year.
Riders such as a healthy and fit Robert Gesink, Steven Kruijswijk, Laurens Ten Dam, and rising talents Wilco Kelderman and Moreno Hofland will keep them in the mix for one-week stage races and grand tours. Sep Vanmarcke will barnstorm across the northern classics, looking for an elusive victory after knocking on the door with major podiums the past two seasons.
Zeeman insisted the team’s GC credentials remain on solid footing despite the departure of Bauke Mollema to rival Trek Factory Racing.
“It was because of our team that he progressed as he did as a rider. The team has to look out what’s best for us, and the rider has to look out for what’s best for him,” Zeeman said. “We have a very good group of GC guys on this team coming into the season.”
Zeeman said Gesink and Kruijswijk are both healthy and back on track after a few seasons of health issues and personal issues. Gesink will be focusing on the Tour de France, while Kruijswijk will carry team colors at the Giro d’Italia.
“Gesink is coming into the season looking very strong. He’s excited to be racing again. He’s had so many problems the past few years,” he said. “We also have [Laurens] Ten Dam for the Tour, so I think we will be on very solid footing.”
There was quite a bit of turnover during the off-season, with 12 riders leaving, and seven new arrivals. As management cobbled together a new sponsorship package, they were also making some significant moves. Following Mollema out the door were Lars Boom (Astana), Theo Bos (MTN-Qhubeka), and Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky). George Bennett (Cannondale) and Kevin de Weert (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) were the top arrivals.
The team is clearly betting on its homegrown talent, and one rider likely heading to the Tour this year will be the promising all-rounder Kelderman.
Another tall, gangling Dutchman, Kelderman looks to have the complete skillset to challenge for grand tours some day. He has solid time trialing and climbing skills that are only getting better.
“Wilco is a very special talent,” Zeeman said. “He’s already proven he can race at the WorldTour level. We will bring him to the Tour, without pressure, but he will have a big future.”
Turning 24 in March, Kelderman already has posted some impressive results in his first three seasons in the WorldTour. In his sophomore year, he won the Tour of Denmark and was fifth at the Tour de Romandie. Last year, he took on harder races, and with bigger ambitions, and notched a solid top-10 at the Giro with seventh overall and fourth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He also punched into the top-20 at the Vuelta a España, which meant he put two grand tours into his legs last season.
“Wilco is already looking stronger than last year,” Zeeman said. “He is young, there is no pressure, but he is ambitious to race.”
So, too, is the new-look LottoNL-Jumbo.