Visma's tactic for Tour of Flanders: 'We need to get rid of Mathieu van der Poel'

Team director Merijn Zeeman says the team are embracing the 'underdog' role after the loss of Wout van Aert

Clock08:36, Sunday 31st March 2024
Visma-Lease a Bike's riders on the podium at the start of the Tour of Flanders

© Getty Images

Visma-Lease a Bike's riders on the podium at the start of the Tour of Flanders

The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were two of Visma-Lease a Bike’s most coveted ambitions at the beginning of the season but, despite a record-setting start to the campaign, the team are in danger of missing out on both crowns, with Wout van Aert out through injury and a heavily depleted team for the remainder of the cobbled Classics.

Yet despite missing their Belgian leader, as well as Jan Tratnik and Christophe Laporte, the Dutch team remain, arguably - the strongest men’s outfit for Flanders.

While they lack the pedigree of runaway favourite Mathieu van der Poel (Alpeci-Deceuninck) they still possess a world-class roster with Matteo Jorgenson, Tiesj Benoot and Dylan Van Baarle within their ranks. All isn’t lost, even if Van der Poel is the outright favourite for a Flanders and Roubaix double.

In a side room, away from the Visma-Lease a Bike press conference in Gent, GCN caught up with sports director Merijn Zeeman for an exclusive breakdown on the team’s predicament and what winning one of the next two Monuments would mean given the loss of Van Aert and a host of other crashes and illnesses in recent weeks.

"It would mean a lot. We had the best start to the year ever for us with 18 wins. We won Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in one year. We won both races in Opening Weekend. We won Dwars door Vlaanderen, and there were other wins," Zeeman said.

"Despite the injuries, we had lots of wins but of course, the big ambition was, or rather still is, winning Flanders and Roubaix. The ambition to make that happen is still really strong, this year and in the coming years."

Read between the lines and it’s clear Zeeman is taking a realistic and pragmatic approach to Flanders and Roubaix. The Belgian race is often 'won with the legs' as Soudal Quick-Step’s Tom Steels told GCN on Saturday, meaning that there’s little room to hide when Van der Poel makes his expected assault. Visma will need luck, they’ll need the perfect tactics, and they’ll have to hope that one of their riders steps up.

“Mathieu, compared to the rest of the peloton, is in a bit of a league of his own but it is still possible in these two hectic races,” Zeeman admitted.

“Anything can happen. Hopefully, we can make something in the final but obviously, we need to get rid of Mathieu. That’s the big goal.

"When you’re the big favourite you have to avoid all the big things I’ve named, like crashes, like bad luck. Also in Flanders in the first 100km so much can happen with bad luck. And let me be clear, I hope we don’t win because of someone’s bad luck, but when you’re the favourite that’s something that you need to survive.”

Underdogs?

Jorgenson is probably the most interesting card on Visma’s team sheet. He won Dwars door Vlaanderen in the build-up to Flanders and has avoided much of the bad luck that has beset his teammates. He isn’t on the same level as Van der Poel at this moment in time but no other rider currently is - especially given Mads Pedersen’s (Lidl-Trek) own injury status after being involved in the same mid-week crash that spelled the end for Van Aert.

“The guys who start on Sunday are 100% fit and super, super motivated. So it’s been about balancing the news of our bad luck and having the right spirit and mindset. We can only focus on what we can do, and that spirit is very high,” Zeeman said.

When presented with the notion that Visma are the strongest team, despite their injury woes, if Van der Poel is out of the equation, Zeeman instantly replied: "I agree with that. That’s exactly what we do to create those high spirits for Sunday.

"Dylan was second in Flanders, he won Roubaix. Tiesj was a top-10 rider multiple times in Flanders. Jorgenson is just behind Mathieu, Wout and Mads Pedersen. He’s the best of the rest, I would say. And sometimes it’s good to be the underdog. We were expected to be a favourite but now we’re more of an underdog. That’s nice sometimes.”

Zeeman and his team are no strangers to setbacks. They lost the Tour de France on the last day in 2020 and came back from adversity to win the race two years running in 2022 and 2023. The won the Giro d’Italia in 2023 thanks to a final-day blitz from Primož Roglič but winning either of Flanders or Roubaix would surpass those efforts as the team’s greatest comeback.

“If we pull it off, then for sure," Zeeman said. "But we have experienced bad luck. We’ve had setbacks in the Tour de France. I remember Jonas Vingegaard crashing before the second rest day at the Tour in 2022, before the Pyrenees, so we’re just going to switch from disappointment and do the right thing.”

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