Richard Plugge is a serious man, not given to suffering fools.
He is keen that cycling’s top tier commands the same attention as football’s Champions League, and irritated that his team’s crowd funding campaign, conducted last year before Belkin’s departure and the arrival of new sponsor LottoNL-Jumbo, should be regarded in any other light than that of a football club selling tickets to a match.
Holland’s only WorldTour team, following the demise of Vacansoleil-DCM, has experienced uncertain times since Rabobank’s withdrawal in 2012, in the immediate aftermath of the USADA report into systematic doping at US Postal. Rabobank’s own team could hardly be held up as a model for clean cycling and the Dutch bank might regard its departure as timely, following the subsequent investigation into the activities of former team doctor Dr Geert Leinders, banned from the sport for life in January.
By contrast, Plugge’s team – he is LottoNL-Jumbo’s managing director, and has steered the team since Rabobank’s departure – might be said to embody the much vaunted “new cycling”. Wins have been scarce this season – sprinter Moreno Hofland is responsible for both of the team’s victories – but they have fought bravely and conspicuously: witness Sepp Vanmarcke’s tireless pursuit of the leaders at Strade Bianche and Het Nieuwsblad, or Steven Kruijswijk’s heroics on the Mortirolo.
“For me, the way Steven raced is the way I’d like to race with my team,” Plugge says. “You have teams that are always in the first break and are caught one hour before the finish. We don’t want to be in the break just to be visible. We want to be in a break to win a race. That’s a big difference in mindset.
“It’s the way Sepp Vanmarcke raced. At Nieuwsblad, he was chasing the four leaders. He was on the television all day and had a chance to win that race. That way of racing I love, even if you don’t win the race. Of course, you want to win the race, and we have to aim for winning, but [I’d] rather not win and die fighting, than be invisible and come fourth.”
For a team not among the WorldTour’s heavyweights, LottoNL-Jumbo is at the heart of professional cycling’s shifting landscape. It has recently withdrawn from the MPCC over the suspension of George Bennett from the Giro d’Italia for low cortisol levels (the team contests the accuracy of MPCC’s procedure), and is one of the Velon group’s 11 members: a body whose ultimate intention is to command a greater share of the cake for the teams who provide the show.
Plugge argues that cycling’s business model is entirely different from almost any other sport – he cites the NBA’s franchise model, and football’s stadium-owning stakeholders – yet is among the most popular in the world, both in terms of viewing figures and participation. If 99 per cent of a cycling team’s current income is from sponsorship, he argues, it is critical to grow other revenue streams to 20 or 30 per cent, hence Velon.
The teams help the organiser to create a better product through the participation of the biggest names, Plugge contests. A better product means a higher price. “In that case, we will all benefit, so it’s not about asking money from whatever organiser, it’s building together a better product for the whole industry.”
Cycling’s greatest attraction for the fan – that it is free to watch at the roadside – is its Achilles heel for teams starved of revenue streams beyond sponsorship. Stadium sports do not have this challenge. Plugge returns throughout our conversation to footballing analogies and it clearly irks him that the crowdfunding campaign, launched last year under the hashtag “#ridethefuture!” after previous sponsor Belkin announced its withdrawal, was interpreted as a desperate measure.
For Plugge, the initiative was closer to a membership scheme, and a direct parallel to the football club’s season ticket. The season ticket holder subscribes as much from his desire to support the club as to watch each game, Plugge argues. No-one questions the club’s motivation in selling season passes, even when the biggest of them also sell three-figure match tickets for entry to stadia that are often government owned.
“Many people ask me the question, why does a big team like us need crowd funding, but no-one asks this question of Barcelona or Real Madrid.”
Plugge shares the view of Tinkoff-Saxo’s technical director Riccardo Scheidecker that teams need to do more to assist sponsors in “activating” their investment, if they are to attract the likes of Coca-Cola to the sport. But he is also concerned by what might be described as a lack of clarity in the marketing of the top tier. Again, he reaches for a footballing analogy.
Cycling’s WorldTour does not have the same presence as the Champion’s League. A device as seemingly banal as the competition’s anthem, played before each game, signals to even the most casual observer (“your neighbour or your aunty”) that they are about to watch an important match, even if it is an early round fixture as unappetising as Liverpool taking on the mighty Bate Borisov.
Plugge does not buy the argument that the Champions League gains its profile from association with the most popular sport in the world. Less popular sports than cycling have gained greater brand awareness, he argues.
“Triathlon is a small sport, not much participation, not much TV time, but they created a series called the Ironman races, and everybody within that world knows that an Ironman is an important race. Now suddenly, people like Coca-Cola are interested in this series. If you have this series, then you can activate your sponsorship better.”
Plugge says the job of clarifying the importance of cycling’s top tier is one to be shared by all stakeholders: the UCI, race organisers, Velon, and the riders. He does not accept that matters are harder for a team like his, fighting on all fronts, than, say, Etixx-Quick Step, whose season is judged as successful or not by its performance in the Spring Classics. The WorldTour’s points system makes it equally important for the Belgian squad to succeed in Grand Tours too, Plugge believes, hence the big money signing of Rigoberto Uran, and the nurturing of Julian Alaphilippe.
Like the Belgian superteam, LottoNL-Jumbo had a spring to forget. “We’re not satisfied in the least,” is Plugge’s blunt assessment. With Robert Gesink’s return to form at the Tour of California, and Kruijswijk’s Giro heroics, the team looks to be on a better footing for the Tour, where they will be united with fellow GC riders Wilco Kelderman and Laurens ten Dam.
The Tour unites the threads of our conversation: the importance to a team of sporting and commercial performance. It remains the sport’s biggest shop window, Plugge agrees, and he hopes the team’s varied talents – Classics specialists and climbers among them – will lead to a strong squad.
“It’s the happy hour of cycling; the happy three weeks. Everybody is free in Europe. It’s a holiday. Everybody has the time to watch it and everybody is watching it. If you want visibility, these are the three weeks to do it.
“I think we have a really strong team with four of the top climbers of the peloton, and one or two who are just below that, let’s say the top 40, who can help these top four climbers. And then we have some Classics guys who are really good on flat stages.”
The men in yellow must light up the Tour if they are to continue to fulfill the expectations of their sponsor. In Gesink, Ten Dam, Kelderman, and Kruijswijk, they have the personnel to do so. Vanmarcke may choose the cobbled stage four to banish the disappointments of Spring. Plugge, the man ultimately responsible for the team’s future, will watch with interest.
Richard Plugge is a serious man, not given to suffering fools.