One team dominated and took victory every single Grand Tour of the season, and the other had just two WorldTour stage wins in 2023, both by the same rider. It’s not hard to see the harsh contrast between the performances of the men's and women’s Team Visma-Lease a Bike squads. The men’s outfit is known to be at the forefront of the most cutting-edge technology in the sport, monopolising podiums on every level, while the women’s squad is unable to assert itself as a key player in the women’s peloton, finishing in eighth place on the UCI team rankings last year.
It’s not just in their results that the differences between the two teams are evident. When Team Visma-Lease a Bike announced its new jersey a few months ago, the women’s team was barely mentioned, hidden behind photos of star riders in the men’s squad. Speaking to Rouleur at the Tour de France Femmes last year, Carmen Small admitted that a lack of finances meant that the team only had one sports director at the race, rather than the usual two. It was clear that something needed changing.
Those changes came in swathes ahead of the 2024 season. Over the winter, the women’s side of Team Visma-Lease a Bike announced a mass exodus of all its staff, with the likes of Lieselot Decroix, Carmen Small and Marieke van Wanroij replaced by former men’s Jumbo Visma team rider, Jos van Emden (who retired from racing at the end of last season) and Jan Boven (who joins the team after almost a decade of working with the men’s Jumbo team) as sports directors. Six riders also left the team at the end of the 2023 season, while they remained quiet in the transfer market, not signing any well known talent and having a roster of two fewer riders going into the current season.
So, what next? What’s the plan for the women’s squad in yellow that has plenty of work to do in order to match the performance of their men’s equivalent?
“A more professional approach,” Jos van Emden said ahead of the team’s opening race of the season at the Tour Down Under. “That’s the task I got, to align them with the men’s team. I didn’t get any guidelines, they just said we want the same approach for the women’s team as we have for the men’s team.”
Jos van Emden working for Team Visma-Lease a Bike at the Tour Down Under 2024 (Image: Team Visma-Lease a Bike/Cor Vos)
After 17 years as a rider part of the Jumbo organisation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that management believed Van Emden would be the right man for the job. The 38-year-old explains that the approach to racing he has developed after so many years as part of the world-beating team is something that he can bring to the women’s arm.
“I assume they think, after so many years, it's my second nature to act in a certain style and in a certain way,” he explains. “I can’t say exactly what they were doing last year, because I wasn’t with the team. But, of course, you hear things that they did differently and, to be honest, it was even lower than amateur level, racing without proper plans during the race, or for the whole year. All these little things add up to a big step back in professionalism.”
In the opening stages of the women’s Tour Down Under, Van Emden’s influence was already clear – Team Visma-Lease a Bike were visible in formation at the front of the peloton in both stages. While they were still a long way off stage victories, the processes appeared to be in place to get them.
“Now everyone has a clear job. That's what I got back from the girls, they feel more appreciated because they have a real job. We have one goal as a team, not different goals inside one team that interfere with each other. We’ve already achieved that in a short time,” Van Emden says.
Working more closely with the men’s team is also part of the Dutchman's plans to help raise the level in the women’s squad. He argues that the women’s team did have the same access and opportunities to do this in 2023, but opted not to use it.
“It’s always been one organisation and all the knowledge that was in the men's team is there for the women's team, but they were not using it. That's the main reason the old staff went out. We had some arguments in the team where the women said that they don't get treated the same and they felt neglected. I explained that was the mistake of the former staff,” Van Emden says. “The doors were opened, but they were not taken. Now, the same knowledge, the same approach, the same training style, everything is the same. That will already be a big change for women and so the level will get better step by step.”
History tells us that directly imitating what men’s teams do on the women’s side of the sport doesn’t always lead to success, however. With the differing physical and mental attributes of men and women, as well as the smaller team sizes and shorter races in the women’s peloton, the techniques that work in men’s racing aren’t guaranteed to do the same in the women’s equivalent. Van Emden argues that he is under no illusion of this, explaining that he still has plenty of learning to do in his role with the women’s squad.
“I have to learn everything about women as athletes. We can't copy everything. There's a strength difference, which involves tactics – it’s the same sport but it has nuances. I don't want the riders to get the feeling that I’m coming into the team as a man who thinks he knows better because I’ve been in the sport for so long. I listen to them and try to learn as much as possible about how they approach things.”
The two WorldTour victories that the women’s Team Jumbo Lease a Bike team achieved last year, both stages in La Vuelta Femenina, came from three-time world road champion Marianne Vos – arguably the most successful and established rider in the current women’s peloton. Vos, along with the likes of cyclo-cross star Fem van Empel, Dutch time trial champion Riejanne Markus and British talent Anna Henderson, remain with the team this season, meaning Team Visma-Lease a Bike still do have some exciting riders in their ranks. However, Van Emden is passionate about nurturing young talent in the team in order to create a greater depth of talent in the years to come.
Marianne Vos at the 2023 Paris-Roubaix Femmes (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
“[Vos] is getting older, we need to think about the future. There's a lot of talent in the Netherlands. It's a young sport and the sport grew a lot, but in my opinion, a bit too fast. That’s led to this gap in the level – you cannot expect the same from every rider like you can in the men’s team. Here the gap between those riders is so big that it’s almost two teams in one. The first goal is to level that up.”
Looking to a longer term future, Van Emden argues that a standalone sponsor for the women’s team would be a positive step towards ensuring that it stands on its own two feet.
“We are one team but want to get a sponsor – in the same family – solo for the women. We want them to attract a sponsor solely to them, rather than current sponsors giving us extra money for the women’s team,” he says.
Van Emden believes that once the team begins to get better results, a bigger budget will follow. With that, in theory, should come better riders, more funding towards training and nutrition education and improved results.
“We are here for the long game. We are far away from the big budgets in women’s cycling. We’re not on the same budget as the men’s team which is not necessary yet. I like this approach,” he explains.
“First, we have to establish our philosophy, tactics, everything and then by results, we have to get the budget up,” he explains. “We don’t get a big bag of money and spend it, you have to deserve it, it’s always been like that in my life. It’s up to the riders, we want to give them everything they need and they have to do it results wise, then money comes.”
Cover image: Tim de Waele/Getty