Richard Plugge: Departure of 'instrumental' Merijn Zeeman is 'very sad news' for Visma-Lease a Bike

'Too early' to think about Jonas Vingegaard and Tour de France as various setbacks affect the all-conquering Dutch team

Clock10:26, Tuesday 9th April 2024
Richard Plugge celebrates with Jonas Vingegaard at the 2023 Tour de France

© Getty Images

Richard Plugge celebrates with Jonas Vingegaard at the 2023 Tour de France

Visma-Lease a Bike started 2024 on top of the cycling world. They had won all three Grand Tours in 2023, with three separate riders, and had several of the best riders in the peloton on their roster, ready to go in search of more success this season.

Three months into the year, however, the team have been handed a number of setbacks. First, Wout van Aert crashed before the Tour of Flanders, shattering his Classics goals and putting the Giro d’Italia on hold.

Then, champion Jonas Vingegaard suffered serious injuries at Itzulia Basque Country. Finally, it emerged that sports director Merijn Zeeman will leave the team at the end of the season.

Zeeman has worked with Visma-Lease a Bike since 2013, with another 10 years of DS experience before that, and has been a crucial part of the team’s evolution from a somewhat middling outfit to a Grand Tour conquering superteam. He will move on to the AZ Alkmaar football club.

For Richard Plugge, Visma-Lease a Bike general manager, the departure of one of his key staff is a big loss, but he downplayed the impact it will have on the team.

“It's very sad news,” Plugge told GCN before the start of Paris-Roubaix. “On a personal level we are friends, we're working now for 12 years together, we built this team together and he is very instrumental and very important for the team.

“But also we always said that nobody is bigger than the team, no individual is bigger than the collective, so we need to make sure that the collective is able to fill in gaps if individuals are leaving. So that's a bit of what we did in the past two years already.

"Also, from my position, you never know what will happen with someone, so you need to be ready as an organisation, because the organisation needs to roll on. That's what we have been working on already for a couple of years, but will also be working on this year, because he will leave at the first of October.”

On the topic of Zeeman’s reasons for leaving, Plugge wouldn’t be pushed on whether the success of the team peaking in 2023 may make it hard to hold onto personnel as they seek bigger things.

“I don't think so,” he said. “He told the story himself, how he looks at things, and after 12 years it's sometimes time to do something else. He wanted to go to football one day. It was his dream to be working in football one day, and at a certain moment it's time to go.”

Vingegaard's road to recovery

The news came at a strange time for the team, in the same week that Wout van Aert missed his biggest goals of the season, and Jonas Vingegaard suffered injuries including broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a pulmonary contusion.

Plugge had spoken to Vingegaard’s wife, but not the Dane himself, as the 27-year-old faces a long recovery period, with only 12 weeks before the Tour de France.

“It's too early to reflect on that,” Plugge said about Vingegaard and the Tour, and whether their chances of winning a third yellow jersey have been impacted.

“We are looking into his recovery and his health and also that of Wout. We can only say something about it in a week or two weeks when we have a feeling of when things will be better.

“The most important thing at the moment is that he as a human being is recovering well from all those injuries. We have to first see how that evolves, and then we can think about the things you mentioned.”

Managing expectations for 2024

Having achieved what they did last year, there was always going to be some pressure on Visma-Lease a Bike to produce results worthy of one of the biggest, strongest and richest teams in the world – if not repeat the Grand Tour triple.

“We knew that even if everybody was not in the hospital, it would still be very difficult to have the same result as last year, because it never happened in cycling,” Plugge said. “So every year we are looking at our own goals, and that's what we try to achieve.”

How they set those goals, and what they were, is less clear. Winning Flanders or Roubaix was certainly one of them, and wasn’t achieved, but Plugge insisted that they were still making progress.

“What we do is we try to set new goals. We have already won Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, this is also something nobody did before, so we try to set our own goals.

"How we do that is just making sure that everybody understands that winning three Grand Tours in one year is very difficult, and that we look at something else. Everybody understands that.”

Despite the misfortune for arguably their two biggest riders, Plugge was keen to stress that it would not hold the team up in their continued pursuit of success. That was somewhat proved in Paris-Roubaix, with the Van Dijke twins both finishing in the top 20, after the late call-ups to the team still represented Visma-Lease a Bike well in the race’s key moments.

“That's the good thing and the sad thing about cycling – you pick up your stuff and move forwards, you move to the next race,” he said. “That's also what we should do, we're professional.”

For more of the latest from the professional peloton, visit our race news page.

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