Is Jumbo-Visma's Vuelta a España team better than Team Sky at their best?

We hear from Richie Porte, Tom Southam and Richard Plugge as we pit Team Sky's 2012 Tour de France team up against Jumbo-Visma's current stars

Clock11:01, Friday 8th September 2023
For nigh on 15 years, Team Sky and now Jumbo-Visma have been the standard bearers in the professional peloton


For nigh on 15 years, Team Sky and now Jumbo-Visma have been the standard bearers in the professional peloton

Comparing two rival squads from competing eras with the hope of defining who was the strongest is an almost impossible yet intriguing task. Sport constantly evolves as parcours, training techniques and a host of other factors always ensure that elite competition is ever-searching for the next level of improvement. However, not since the Team Sky heyday have we witnessed a team as potent and powerful as Jumbo-Visma in this year’s Vuelta a España.

Primož Roglič, Jonas Vingegaard and Sepp Kuss are in a genuine position - at the point of writing this, at least - of taking a podium clean sweep in Madrid, while several of the backups such as Wilco Kelderman and Dylan van Baarle are the best in the world as super domestiques.

Read more:

Selecting a year from Sky’s back catalogue that could compete against the current Jumbo squad is a strenuous task in itself but for simplicity and sanity, we’ve opted for the 2012 Tour de France vintage.

Team Sky's 2012 Tour de France team as the archetype for Grand Tour success

Eleven years ago the British team rocked up at the Grand Départ in Liege with an elite team comprising Bradley Wiggins, a retrospective Vuelta winner in Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers, Christian Knees, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernhard Eisel, Kanstantsin Siutsou, and the greatest sprinter of all time, Mark Cavendish. By the time the team reached Paris, they had gone 1-2 in the GC, wrapped up six stages and controlled the race with almost every pedal stroke.

Read more: Team Sky and the legacy of cyclings first 'superteam'

Their dominance was so stark that the only flicker of uncertainty came when Froome briefly dropped Wiggins in the final week, and the fact that the team had a rider of Froome’s calibre sitting in second overall and riding as a super domestique spoke volumes of their depth.

It’s somewhat ironic that the team also hired riders and staff from the old Jumbo outfit - then known as Rabobank - as they explored the boundaries of success, and that Jumbo has picked up several Ineos riders in the last couple of years too.

Now, there have certainly been more experienced and perhaps more successful Team Sky/Ineos versions over the years but the 2012 iteration remains the iconic standard bearer for a decade of Grand Tour success and it laid the blueprint from which other teams have strived to compete with and eventually surpass.

“It’s hard for me to give you a spicy comment because it’s always difficult to compare teams from different eras,” Jumbo-Visma’s manager Richard Plugge tells GCN.

“Sky did a wonderful job at the beginning and until 2020 at least. They were the first team to really do things differently when you look at 2010 and going forward. For me and Merijn Zeeman, they were one of the examples. Most of the teams back then were doing the same things and Sky came in and were very successful but it’s hard to compare that team with what’s happening today because a lot more teams have improved and we’re doing it differently again.”

Jumbo-Visma certainly has raised the bar. This year they are on course to make history by becoming the first team to win all three Grand Tours in one season. Even Sky never managed that - although they did win three Grand Tours in a row between 2017 and 2018.

Picking a stronger, more complete team is always going to be a matter of subjectivity, combined with a degree of favouritism and nostalgia too.

For example, it shouldn't be forgotten that Sky took Cavendish to the Tour as world champion, and while he was given limited support he still managed to set tempo for Wiggins on several second-category climbs. Christian Knees was regarded as one of the most underrated domestiques of his time, while Edvald Boasson Hagen was a complete all-rounder who could drive the Sky train until there were fewer than 20 riders left in contention. Rogers was an admirable road captain with a decent Grand Tour palmarès of his own, while Porte is relatively comparable to Kuss in a number of ways.

“It’s easy to forget how good the team was, so I’d agree that 2012 Sky was probably our best squad,” Porte tells GCN from his home in Australia.

“And I mean this with no disrespect, but Froome was untouchable for years. He won four Tours, a Giro and two Vuelta. That’s still the best palmarès of any rider in the current peloton. When you look at Vingegaard and Roglič and put them into a head-to-head battle with Froome and Wiggins, I just don’t know who wins. In a lot of ways the sport has evolved but I think it would be a great battle.”

“In 2012 at the Tour, it never felt like we’d lost any control over the situation. We had Sean Yates in the car, and I think Nico Portal learnt a lot from him. Nico was probably the best DS I ever had, other than Sean. We had Rogers as the perfect road captain, who was there at critical times to make key calls between himself and Brad on the climbs, and then really good climbers. We knew from around the first time trial that we’d have the race won. I remember following the result from the car and Tejay and Cadel were the guys we were focused on and Froome rolled through the intermediate a minute quicker, and then Brad went a minute faster than that. We were so strong that we were able to share out a couple of easy days during the race. In the years after it was always more hands on deck.”

Jumbo-Visma go in search of 'total cycling' as their blueprint

Plugge, while tipping his hat to Sky/Ineos and their achievements, finds it hard to pick his strongest squad.

“That’s like asking me to choose between my children,” he jokes.

“We’ve had a very strong Tour de France team this year, maybe the strongest we’ve had for a parcours like that. On the other hand, we’ve now got a couple of big leaders at the Vuelta so when you combine their results it’s a really good scorecard. However, we won the Tour the last two years with very strong teams and in 2022 we had six stage wins. That’s not happened for a long time.”

“But I do think it’s good to make the comparison. In Holland we have ‘total football’, and as a team we like to play total cycling. We look at each stage, each race and look at how we can win and we can only do that if we all work together. One day it might be one rider’s chance, and then the next day another rider can try. Everyone has to work together. I just can’t say if we’re better or not than Sky. It's too hard because it's from different eras.”

One talking point is the fact that Jumbo-Visma certainly have the air of a more polished team when compared to 2012 Sky. Back then the British team were still learning, and while they blew everyone away in the warm-up races heading into July, there were still questions over whether Wiggins could win a Grand Tour.

Jumbo on the other hand have made improvements even in the last two years. In 2020 they naively gave Tadej Pogačar an armchair ride to the Tour de France win, while a year later in 2021 they learnt from those mistakes.

Jumbo-Visma takes both lessons and inspiration from Team Sky

“Now Visma are more street smart than Sky were,” says Tom Southam, a leading DS at EF-Education EasyPost.

“Tactically, Jumbo have reached the next level compared to Ineos and they have the next level of rider. Sky had that elite calibre of rider but they had one tactic that worked, even though it was unglamorous. Jumbo are more dynamic, and if they pull off three Grand Tour wins in one season that would set them apart in the record books.”

Another area where the Dutch team has the edge is rider management. In 2013 Team Sky had to tear apart their Tour leadership because Wiggins and Froome couldn’t be in the same room as each other, let alone the same squad. Wiggins never rode the Tour again and while Froome claimed four titles, it would take until 2019 before the team would go 1-2 on GC again.

“Maybe that’s something we do differently,” adds Plugge.

“Sky had a very clear leader but we maybe have the next step by showing it’s a team sport. If you’ve seen something from our team over the last few years is that in terms of coaching and working together, we look at it more like a team sport, and maybe that is different.”

Read more: Jumbo-Visma dismisses reports linking Primož Roglič away from the time, insisting they are more than happy with their leadership options

Southam agrees with the Dutch team boss, pinpointing several almost impossible aspects that can never be scientifically proven.

“In terms of rider management and team development, at some point it’s going to go wrong because the Froome and Wiggins thing didn’t work for long. Cavendish left too, while the spread of wins that Jumbo has with its riders does make a difference.”

A big question remains for Southam: If he were able to take the 2012 Team Sky and put them up against this Jumbo team at the Vuelta who would win?

“It’s hard to say but what Sky did has informed what Jumbo does now. Purely in terms of numbers, I think they’re going that bit faster now but there’s factors in there like equipment. Are Jumbo a better athletic team? Again it’s hard to say. My gut wants to say Sky because I’m still attached to how strong they were. If you really dropped them into the same race now though, I think Jumbo would probably take it but if you stripped back the evolution of the sport then it tips more towards Sky."

Whatever side you fall on, there’s no doubt that Jumbo-Visma, as a unit, have taken over the mantle as the strongest Grand Tour team in the world. Winning the Vuelta would set them apart but only time will tell as to how long their domination will last and what it will mean in years to come.

Head over to our Vuelta a España race hub for all the latest news, results and tech from Spain. Today, the peloton takes on the Col du Tourmalet summit finish, make sure to check out our extended preview ahead of the race!

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