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How best to describe LottoNL-Jumbo’s 2018 campaign? Words like “renaissance” and “turnaround” come to mind. The squad endured a mediocre 2017, finishing the season ranked 16th out of 18 WorldTour teams. Its two stage victories at the Tour de France that year overshadowed the team’s modest grand tour GC results— Steven Kruijswijk’s ninth place at the Vuelta a España was simply not good enough.
Perhaps the mediocre season gave the Dutch team more motivation to succeed throughout 2018.
This year, LottoNL blossomed into a stage racing juggernaut. Much of that success came from up-and-comer Primoz Roglic, who scored overall wins at the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Tour de Romandie. Roglic carried that form into the Tour de France, winning a stage and taking fourth overall to cement himself as the breakthrough rider of the season.
Sepp Kuss then emerged as the most promising young American stage racer with the domestic breakout performance of 2018 at the Tour of Utah. And finally, Kruijswijk animated the Vuelta, where he finished fourth overall, tied for his best finish at a grand tour.
The roots of Lotto’s success in 2018 stretch back several years. When Rabobank pulled out as a sponsor at the end of 2012, team manager Richard Plugge fought to find sponsors to keep the team afloat. For a year, the team survived while lacking a title sponsor. Even after the Dutch lottery and supermarket chain Jumbo stepped in, the team struggled to find results. Marquee riders were either leaving the squad or, like Robert Gesink, simply getting older.
And yet, all the while, the team was sticking to a plan, preaching patience behind the scenes.
“We started with Gesink and Kruijswijk, but we didn’t have the good helpers for them at that point; we had the engine, now we needed the wheels on the train,” Plugge said. “We needed to have helpers to be even better than they were. Then you bump into big talent, Primoz, Dylan Groenewegen, and so many others. We found a core of riders who fit into our plan.”
Plugge made two major decisions to help set the team on its current course. First, he prioritized grand tour success over victories at the cobbled classics. Then, rather than hunt for expensive marquee riders on the transfer market, Plugge instead inked smaller deals with veterans and promising up-and-coming talents. That scouting brought in Roglic, Kuss, Groenewegen, and American Neilson Powless. The payoff has been huge.
Roglic appears to have the right skill set to challenge for the Tour de France for years to come. He can survive the long, soaring climbs, and blaze an individual time trial. Groenewegen joined the pantheon of cycling’s fastest sprinters this year. Meanwhile, Kruijswijk and Kiwi George Bennett reliably scored top-10 finishes at grand tours. Kuss and Powless are young stars who may blossom into top domestiques, or leaders themselves.
“They’ve taken guys that they perceive as talented, and then it’s just teaching them how to be a pro cyclist,” Bennett said. “If I’d started in this team, I feel like my career would be advanced already a few years. I look back at what I used to do and I just say, ‘What an idiot, what was I thinking?’”
Maintaining the team’s competitive edge may prove to be a challenge in the coming years, as Groenewegen, Roglic, and Kuss are bound to receive offers from other squads. Roglic and Groenewegen are both on two-year deals, which should give the squad enough cohesion to contend in 2019.
What words will we use to describe Lotto’s 2019 campaign? Only time will tell.