Masters of Sport: Code pink-yellow-red

He led the 2023 Sports Team of the Year. The first team in history to win the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta. Jumbo-Visma sporting director Merijn Zeeman witnessed first-hand how a tightly mapped out policy led to a historic achievement. Jaap de Groot talks extensively with Merijn Zeeman about this unique milestone and the new ambitions of the best cycling team in the world.
John van Helvert

Text: Jaap de Groot

Image: John van Helvert 

This success is no coincidence. What policies led to this?

“Then we go back to the winter of 2016. That's when we finally put an end to the past and made an essential step forward. Because it started about fifteen years ago at Rabobank, the predecessor of Jumbo-Visma. The only team in the world that was a 2012 percent subsidiary of the sponsor, a corporately organized bank. The people who worked at Rabobank always had the idea that they could stay there until retirement. Salaries were much higher than other teams and there was little drive to improve or grow. When Rabobank stopped in 2016 after the Lance Armstrong doping case, our current general manager Richard Plugge took over the team. The beginning of an extremely difficult time. Because just find a sponsor who will take over your team after a doping case. In 2016 we reached rock bottom. With the lowest budget we came last in the World Tour. Then Ton van Veen and Robert van der Wallen, on behalf of our sponsors Jumbo and Visma, held discussions with Richard Plugge and me and indicated that although we had the confidence, we absolutely had to do better. We started working in the winter of XNUMX. Starting with the question ourselves  to ask: 'Who are we really? What is our culture?' Because there was still a lot lingering internally from the Rabobank days, intensive discussions were held with everyone. Everyone was given the opportunity to indicate what needed to be changed and improved. During that winter the foundation was laid for the culture that remains very strong to this day. The values ​​we stand for, behavior we hold each other accountable for and what attitude is expected. It was then also stated that we, as the worst team on the World Tour, would ever win the yellow jersey. We went for a yellow jersey organization. That has been our sacred goal ever since. This rigorous cultural change ultimately led to the current successes.”

What is the division of roles?

“We employ more than two hundred people. Richard Plugge is general manager and manages the entire company. I am responsible for the sporting part. This includes three teams: men's team, women's team and talent team. There are also communications, marketing, commerce departments and an operational unit around the team. We recently moved into a new building, a high performance centre along the A2 near Den Bosch. A beautiful and inspiring building that clearly reflects who we are and what we do. It breathes top sport.”

The challenge now is how to improve after a season of maximum performance.

"Absolute! To be successful as a Dutch team from a small country requires a different approach. So don't keep doing what you were already doing. Especially after this season, it is relevant to note that we were the best, but what does the data show? We also consult people from outside, let them watch and give their honest opinion. We are now in that phase of the year. We had intensive coaching days in September and October in which our objectives and strategy were evaluated. Our coaches are then encouraged to say everything they think and that always provides many insights. There were also intensive discussions with the riders. We ask them about what went well and what went bad and what they have seen in others. That internal process has just been completed. These are beautiful but also tiring days, with sometimes heated discussions. Although we made history this year, we only talked about it briefly and we mainly went into depth about what needs to be done differently and better. I have now taken all of that with me and in the coming weeks I will first start making plans with a small group and then with a larger group. We brainstorm the best strategy and much more, and step by step we come up with a comprehensive seasonal plan. What are the strategies, what are the substantiations, what are the opportunities, what are the threats? We are in that process now. So when we go to training camp for the first time in mid-December, we will achieve the objectives for the entire group. In the meantime, I will also involve leaders Wout van Aert, Jonas Vindegaard, Steven Kruijswijk, Christophe Laporte and Olav Kooij in this process. I want them to think along, so that the riders are also owners of the strategy. To get all our two hundred people on board, I will present the entire plan to the entire team in January. From the doctors to the people in the office. Everyone is told what we are all going to work on. Then the season can start.”    

And anticipation of current events begins, such as the situation of three potential winners during the Tour of Spain.

“That's exactly how it is. You start with the main points, after which it becomes a matter of details from match to round. About clothing, nutrition, tactics. You start very large and spacious and move from there to small and detailed.”

What was it like to experience that Roglic, Vindegaard and Sepp Kuss could win the Vuelta in Spain?

“With three leaders during the Vuelta, I couldn't be in a better place to develop my own leadership style and learn lessons. Because this was definitely very extreme. What I have especially experienced is the power of realizing what our culture is and what our values ​​are. That turned out to be the railing I could hold on to. Starting with our strategy. We completely surprised our opponents with the way we drove. We kept attacking. Even when we were in the lead. The motto has always been that we keep attacking so that we never have to defend. Only there was no scenario for when we were at one, two or three, the moment when there was no one left to attack. Suddenly there were three of us, but the option of attacking each other had always remained undiscussed. When Roglic felt good, he thought he could take the red jersey at the expense of Kuss and launched an attack against his own teammate. With the risk that Kuss would have to let go and someone else would come on stage. So we as a whole had become less of that. At that moment I quickly started sparring with Richard Plugge. And we found that after all these years we had become so close as a team that this was no longer possible. I later talked about this one-on-one with Primoz, and then raised it in the group. Then we had an intense but beautiful conversation with each other, in which everyone agreed on one thing: we do not attack each other. We should not compete against each other, but against our opponent who is in fourth place. We have to ensure that we remain one, two and three and we will defend that. That was a very special moment for Richard and me. To experience in such an extreme situation how everyone was so aware of our culture and philosophy. During the conversations in recent weeks, I have noticed how more than ever everyone understands that their own ambitions are very important, super important even, but that there is a limit. The team's interests always take precedence over your interests. With us, everyone gets many opportunities, no one is limited in their possibilities, but unconditional support for each other is above all. That is a wonderful lesson I learned in 2023.”

Team Jumbo-Visma celebrates the victory of the 2023 Tour de France by Jonas Vingegaard

You also studied at Johan Cruyff University. To what extent are you, as a sporting director, inspired by Cruijff?

“Cruijff's vision is that people with an understanding of top sports should lead a top sports company. That is essentially what it is about. Top sport is so specific and to be successful you need people who understand top sport. If you don't do that and you don't work with like-minded people, you will increasingly believe in your own right. You should always try to prevent that. When I talk to Robert Eenhoorn and Max Huibers at AZ, I enjoy how they continuously question each other and how they spar with people from outside, who also let them watch. Just to test whether they are doing everything right. That is also what I am open to. Above all, don't believe in your own right. That is the beginning of the end.”

Does Jumbo-Visma have the highest budget in cycling?

“Not by a long shot. The average budget for a World Tour team is now 26 million euros. In terms of budget, UAE Team Emirates stands out with approximately 50 million. We don't come close to that. But that's not my concern. Budget only has a limiting factor if it is too low. I find the challenge of using a philosophy to be better than competitors who have deeper pockets very motivating.”

How important is it that Jumbo-Visma is a Dutch team?

“We call it roots to rise, which means that we always realize that we come from the Netherlands. Just as it applies to large international companies such as ASML, Philips and Pon. We are proud of our roots, but they do have an open view of the world.”

Merijn Zeeman during a training by Wout van Aert

MASTERS Magazine

Curious about the rest of the interview. You want this edition of MASTERS. A milestone in print, pushing the boundaries. Innovative. Surprising. Stunning. Including a very extraordinary guest editor. An interview with the man who pointed out to the Ajax Supervisory Board in 2015 the gaps within the organization that have now come to light. Merijn Zeeman explains how Jumbo-Visma has developed into a top sports company. Quoteman Paul van Riessen calculates how much you need to no longer have to work. Sabine Riezebos explains what sets Bernardus apart from other golf courses. A look at the Stratos Yacht yard, where the ultimate boat for carefree sailing pleasure is being built. And also the rise of robots (where is the sex robot?), Fake News and, exclusively in MASTERS: the 'new Doutzen Kroes'.


Order MASTERS Magazine #56 here