Transforming chaos: Visma-Lease a Bike's strategy to overcome a season of setbacks

Team manager Richard Plugge says the injured Jonas Vingegaard will not ride the Tour de France unless he is 100% fit

On paper, they are having one of their best seasons ever. With 18 wins for the men’s team, the Visma – Lease a Bike squad is in an enviable position. But numbers hide another truth, that their impressive early-season tally has largely come without their two stars, Wout Van Aert and Jonas Vingegaard, both victims of serious crashes.

And yet the Dutch team keeps winning. “It’s our best start of the season, even without our two leaders,” team manager Richard Plugge told Rouleur last week. “We have just had so many setbacks, so much illness and injury on multiple parts of the team. We’ve always had one or two riders sick or injured but nothing like this. This has been an incredible wave, and it’s not good.”

Over the past decade the Visma team has earned a reputation as one of the most well-organised outfits in the sport, pushing the idea of marginal gains to new levels, But what has been most impressive this spring is their ability to adapt to chaos, and still keep winning.

“I strongly believe in planning. You have to make plans and also believe in the plans,” Plugge explains. “And if you make good plans, you can always adapt when something doesn’t go according to plan. You must be flexible. But if you don’t have a really strong plan then it is even more difficult to adapt to setbacks.”

Van Aert is clearly the team leader when it comes to the great one-day races. But this year, the team has largely been forced to improvise without him.

In February at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Van Aert started the race as the overwhelming favourite. Heavily marked in the final, the team instead opted to use one of their B plans, sending Slovenia’s Jan Tratnik up the road in a late-race break with Nils Politt (UAE Team Emirates) that garnered the 34-year-old the first Classic victory of his career.

In some ways, however, the season-opening Classic was a study of things to come, and when Van Aert crashed out of Dwars door Vlaanderen, the team immediately responded, sending Tiesj Benoot and Matteo Jorgenson on the attack. The two then took turns attacking and counter-attacking the breakaway until Jorgenson managed to break clear and ride to his first Classics victory.

“Adapting starts with a plan. Playing the lottery is 100% luck while playing chess is 100% skill. The goal is to be as close to chess as possible, so when luck arrives, you are ready to seize it.”, Plugge explained. “In Dwars door Vlaanderen, Wout crashed and we had to come up with another plan. But even without the crash, it could have been that Wout simply couldn’t get away because everybody was watching him. We had to have a plan to use other guys as well, like we did in Het Nieuwsblad. So we were already looking at the scenario where Wout was not able to fight for the win because everyone was on his wheel. And we had a plan.”

In some ways, Visma is simply taking pages out of bike racing’s unwritten textbook. In the past, powerhouse Classics teams like Mapei or Quick-Step went into every race with leaders like Johan Museeuw or Tom Boonen, but they always had backup plans with support riders like Andrea Tafi, Franco Ballerini or Stijn Devolder. To articulate such plans, however, requires not only a depth of talent but also strategic prowess. The Dutch team clearly possesses both.

Matteo Jorgenson has been a revelation since signing for Visma-Lease a Bike this season

If Visma – Lease a Bike has more than managed to salvage their Classics campaign with victories in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Dwars door Vlaanderen, however, their challenges will only increase as the Tour de France approaches.

Vingegaard’s injuries from his horrific crash in the Itzulia Basque Country include not only a broken collarbone and several ribs, but a pulmonary contusion as well as a pneumothorax. After spending 12 days in the hospital, the Danish star was finally released earlier this week, but with the start of the Tour de France less than 10 weeks away, time is clearly not on his side.

Plugge has already stated that Vingegaard will not start the Tour if he is not 100% fit. “There is no reason to bring him to the Tour to ride for fifth or sixth,” he said, “that just doesn’t make sense. He is the two-time winner.” But while Plugge insists it is far too early to count Vingegaard out for the Tour, it is clear the team will have an alternative plan to win, be it with Sepp Kuss, the surprise winner of the Vuelta a España last season, or perhaps new recruit Jorgenson, who has proven to be the team revelation this year with victory not only in Dwars door Vlaanderen but Paris-Nice, considered by many a sort of mini-Tour de France.

“Even in a worst-case scenario, if we have to go into the Tour without Jonas, we will still go into the race with a plan to win,” Plugge insists. “Already back in 2022 we did that. Nobody thought at the start that anyone could beat Tadej [Pogačar]. Everybody thought we had entered the Pogačar era. But we went into it with a plan to win and ultimately Jonas won, and that was because we had a plan. So even this year, in a worse-case scenario, we will not give up that easily. First, we have to see if Jonas can be ready. We have some time before the Tour to dive into the different scenarios. You have to keep pushing. And if we are at the starting line, we are there to win.”

But while Visma has proven adept at improvising, Plugge is frustrated by the amount of crashes ravaging the sport and he is committed to being proactive. Finding solutions is as much of a priority as winning bike races.

“Crashing is bad for everyone. It’s bad firstly for the riders involved, but also for the teams and sponsors. And it gives a very bad image of cycling,” Plugge analysed. “We in cycling need to help each other. It [crashing] is nobody’s fault. It is our problem. It’s the problem of cycling. We all own it. You cannot say it is the UCI’s fault. You cannot say it is the organiser’s fault. It’s our problem.”

As one of the founding members of SafeR, an independent entity funded by different shareholders in the sport, Plugge is focused on changing behaviour, be it with race organisers or riders. He supports an independent organisation that validates race routes and he insists that race officials need to be consistent in disciplining riders for dangerous riding.

“If a rider doesn’t hold his line in a sprint he must be penalised. If a rider throws a water bottle in front of another rider they must be penalised. It is only through consistent rules that will help change behaviour,” Plugge says.

“We need outside experts that make the decisions for everyone. Trying to find ways so that everybody benefits. Nobody benefits from the crashing, not on a personal level and not on a business level.”

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