Rabobank’s Quiet Revolution

When a team fails to deliver results, the most common outcome sees the manager getting sacked. Yet this very rare in pro cycling as most team managers are also the owners of their team.

Not so at Rabobank. The team isn’t just sponsored by the Dutch bank, it is owned by them. The head of the team is Harold Knebel, a banker and not a cyclist (pictured above). Rabobank has total control of its sports sponsorship.

This week we got news of a management shake-up in the team. But it’s more than a shuffle of people and job titles, it’s part of a plan to make the team more professional. Indeed several teams are moving away from the old model of where the team manager hunts for sponsors, drives the team car, decides on tactics and negotiates new rider contracts.

The team can trace its DNA back to 1984 and the Kwantum team, over the years it became Superconfex, Buckler, Wordperfect and Novell until 1996 when Rabobank started. The pro team is the summit of a pyramid structure where the Dutch bank is closely involved in cycling, with a development team, a women’s team and all the way down to grass roots sponsorship.

Which is more Dutch, the windmill or orange lycra?

Since then the team has been a strong performer but often outshone by rivals. It’s tried to be active all year long, aiming for the spring classics and the Tour de France overall alike. Did it work? Well Denis Menchov won the Vuelta and Giro and Michael Rasmussen was on course to win the 2007 Tour de France until he was thrown out of the race in disgrace. This episode changed everything. The Dane had claimed to be training in Mexico but TV commentator Davide Cassani spotted him training in Italy. This wasn’t a white lie, the anti-doping whereabouts system was being abused and when it emerged that he’d missed three tests, Rasmussen was ejected from the Tour de France whilst wearing the yellow jersey. He was sacked by the team manager Theo de Rooij who himself resigned a few days later. Rasmussen was banned but is still trying to sue Rabobank for damages.

Earlier this year Dutch newspaper Volksrant published a story saying doping had been tolerated in the team. If the article was meant to shock, it didn’t score high on the Richter scale because doping was so widespread at the time. What was interesting was the way the team tolerated things, it even had its medical staff advise the riders – including Dr Gert Leinders, worrying employed by Team Sky – but would not facilitate their doping. But this is not new, for example Dr Max Testa – today at BMC – gave the Motorola riders clear instructions on how to use EPO in the 1990s. Testa told the New York Times in a telephone interview that “he had given each rider literature about EPO, in case any of them decided to use it on their own.Dr. Testa said he urged the riders not to take the drug, but he wanted them to be educated.” Tolerating doping is one way of putting it, I’d use stronger terms like facilitating. And even if the team was not purchasing banned substances directly it was happening indirectly via salaries and bonus payments. The more a rider like Rasmussen earned, the more he could spend.

But all this is in the past or at least it seems they want to put things behind them, despite the current embarrassment over Carlos Barredo. So much so that Rabobank are working hard to distance themselves from all of this. It could be seen as a cynical move to switch all the staff without any introspection as to what was happening in the name of this large bank. But the changes seem genuine and reflect what could be a real change in attitude if the aims and aspirations are achieved.

On the management side the idea is to entrust specific roles to members of staff. Nico Verhoeven will run racing and tactics. Merijn Zeeman has been poached from Argos-Shimano to run the coaching. Louis Delahaije oversee training, medicine and innovation, the Dutch version of Sky’s “marginal gains”. Erik Breukink and Adri van Houwelingen quit the team car, being replaced by Lotto-Belisol’s Michiel Elijzen and Jeroen Blijlevens, the former sprinter who has been running the Rabo women’s team. And the team has announced other appointments as well as plans to link up with local universities to tap sports science knowledge.

The point isn’t the names or job titles, it is the functions. For years teams have been run like a small family business, a boss who spends time courting sponsors, driving the team car, deciding tactics, hiring and firing staff and more, whilst activities like training have been left to the riders. In recent years the entourage of helpers has grown with PR staff, chefs and admin staff. The old model worked but it was chaotic. Now Rabobank are professionalising the set up with managers taking on clear roles for coaching, recruitment, media. It’s not new, we see Team Sky as the model but they’ve really borrowed a lot from others and then built on this. CSC had their time trial coach Bobby Julich, now at Sky. Bjarne Riis has professional managers to negotiate sponsorship deals. We saw the Highroad team where Bob Stapleton was the owner but delegated much of the work to others; not for him the pre-race briefing. Garmin have a large contingent of coaching staff, for example Robby Ketchell specialises in aerodynamics and equipment. And of course there is Team Sky with its analytical approach to identifying and quantifying everything possible, a total focus on process. The British team’s next move is to manage its public image much more, controlling access to riders in a way that might be normal for other sports but against the open tradition of cycling. Maybe Rabo’s Richard Plugge, the new media man, will copy this too?

UCI pro team wins so far in 2012

It feels like Rabobank have underachieved this year but they have won 23 races. But given the budget and ambitions they’ve not taken the wins they wanted, although L-L Sanchez succeed with a Tour stage win and Robert Gesink won the Tour of California, an important race as the bank has operations in California and note Marianne Vos has been winning everything. Will these changes bring the wins next year? Probably not as shake-ups like this take a while to start working, ask Team Sky who took a year or more to get going. But Rabo this year has already changed and the work put in this year should pay dividends next year.

A big management shake-up highlights the way teams are changing in their management. Rabobank has long been a wealthy squad but it’s now targeting resources towards improving its coaching and making giving separate members of staff specific responsibilities. The bank has been in the sport since 1996 and if the orange kit has been a continuous theme, the way the squad is run has changed. In many ways it’s mirrored the sport: quietly tolerating doping when several other teams were doing it; today it is all about process and sports science. Whether it succeeds depends on results next year.

The changes are to be applauded but what took so long? It’s not just Rabobank, I’ve always surprised at the lack of coaching staff on pro teams, how star riders, despite being the most precious asset of their team, are left to train by themselves. Yes cycling is different from other sports as riders live in different places and often need individual training sessions rather than group rides. But the isolation comes with plenty of risks, from making mistakes like over-training or worse, a rider visits a “doctor” for more than training plans. Pro cycling can sometimes look amateur.

There are other teams that still have the feel of a family business, for example FDJ-BigMat is built in the image of its maverick director Marc Madiot. Other teams like, say, Euskaltel-Euskadi have lower budget and can’t fund the same support. But amongst the big budget teams we are beginning to see a far more structured approach. The days of a team owner leaning out of the team car to give tactical advice might be coming to an end.

42 thoughts on “Rabobank’s Quiet Revolution”

  1. In Fignon’s book he speaks about this, about how he and Guimard formed Systeme U and became the team owners. Before that, teams were generally owned and managed by the companies. It’s a mixed bag either way.

      • Well, it did in the sense that DS found a chance to become millionaires. Fignon hints at Guimard’s sudden greed, but Saiz or Ferretti’s fortunes are better examples of the bad consequences of the model.

  2. Maybe a bit of naïveté on my part, but I’m a fan of Rabobank purely for its enduring support for the sport of cycling. 16 years seems to be one of the longer continuous commitments in the professional realm.

  3. Unconfirmed, but Eurosport mentioned last week that dr Geert Leinders is not working for Team SKY no more, opting the quiet exit. Mind, not confirmed.

  4. I frequently ride by a Rabobank branch in rural central California and always smile and thank them for
    their support and dedication to various cycling programs.

  5. The first thing on the slide there is a ‘CAO voor de wielersport’, in other words ‘collective bargaining’ for cycling. Was there any information on this and if so how does this tie in with women’s cycling and your own interest in the ‘structural factors’ in play with regard to pay (and conditions)?

  6. Find it amusing, not wrong or right, that everything people hate about premiership football and pro sports in general they are applauding it’s arrival in cycling. I like it as it provides an antidote to all the cynicism about more pro sports. I find the solo training faintly absurd though.

    • There’s a balance.

      The absurd degree of media management practiced by top-flight football? It’d be sad if cycling ever came to that.

      But things like ensuring that all your athletes get proper coaching overseen by the team? That’s just the kind of basic stuff that any sporting team receiving sponsorship dollars should be doing.

    • I’m not sure I agree with the criticisms of individual coaching. It is not as though these athletes are left on their own to figure out their training plans. They are all coached, albeit individually, but coached nonetheless. Riders respond differently to styles of coaching: what works for one might not work for another. The rider continues with the coach and program that has given good results for that rider.

      Add to that the reality that professional riders change teams frequently, and one can see the wisdom in an athlete having a coach not tied to a particular team. Consistency from year to year would be difficult if a rider is changing coaches when changing teams.

      Maybe some decisions are better left to the rider. Shoes, saddles, and , arguably, coaches.

      • It all depends on individual cases. Take Philippe Gilbert, he has no trainer and just heads out for a ride although obviously with a particular aim in mind each time, eg hill reps, climbing, speed etc. It can work but there are big risks he overtrains or isn’t getting the best. So my point is more that we have teams spending millions on riders but sometimes with little oversight as to how they do their job. Any other business that was this casual with its prime assets would look odd, imagine an airline that didn’t think too much about servicing its fleet or a theatre company that let its actors rehearse at home with the hope they’ll perform well on stage when the show starts.

          • Well, he found the living shit out of his form last year with no coach, so there are two sides to that argument.

            Also, here in the US, our pro sports have TONS of coaches (football in particular) yet you still run into situations where a previously productive player just melts down for a year, then bounces back the next year and admits “I have no idea why I sucked last year but am back to normal now.” It happens.

        • yes, but these guys are riding a long time and most of them from a young age. I would be surprised if they ‘overtrained’, they already know a lot about themselves and how their body responds to various training loads. Beyond normal coaching and training there are other factors that are throwing riders performances off. It’s impossible to know the true picture regardless of what data they release or how much they decide to tell us about their training schedule. This is pure speculation and even more so with modern cycling.

  7. Again a very good substantiated article. Thanks.
    Only one “addition”: the mill in the above picture isn’t a real Dutch windmill, reminds me more of a Spanish windmill and, as a result of that, of Don Quichote………..

    • I think it is THE wind mill of the Tour of Flanders.

      Also from me a Thank You for Your article. On the one hand we want to know the truth, on the other hand the deeper we dig the more s*** we find. So it is Don Quichote in fact.

      I see two options:

      A) Bury the dark age (including Pat McQuaid) and try a clean re-start.
      B) Do the Spanish Inqusition

  8. First off, even though it’s a bit late, better late than never, and much better facing the issue head on than folding the cards and running away from cycling as a whole as if they didn’t know what was really happening. Bravo Rabo!

    I’ve attended a few Rabo VIP events and one of the most interesting discussions I had this year with one of their top bankers revolved directly around the changes that had to be made. The mentality had to change both in regards to the past, but even more importantly in the present where other teams with similar budgets were producing much better results with a far more structured, businesslike, and scientific approach (let’s hope those are actuall true, but I digress).

    I wish Rabo the best in their shake up. Let’s hope they can be the model of turning cycling around for the better.

  9. First off, even though it’s a bit late, better late than never, and much better facing the issue head on than folding the cards and running away from cycling as a whole as if they didn’t know what was really happening. Bravo Rabo!

    I’ve attended a few Rabo VIP events and one of the most interesting discussions I had this year with one of their top bankers revolved directly around the changes that had to be made. The mentality had to change both in regards to the past, but even more importantly in the present where other teams with similar budgets were producing much better results with a far more structured, businesslike, and scientific approach (let’s hope those results are ‘real’, but I digress).

    I wish Rabo the best in their shake up. Let’s hope they can be the model of turning cycling around for the better.

  10. A long time ago, in college, I had a conversation with a former-pro basketball player. He had managed to become eligible for collegiate play again and played on the school’s relatively good basketball team. I asked him about being a pro because, you know, I wanted to turn pro too (haha). He said the one thing that really shocked him was how much easier it was being pro. In collegiate sports everyone is fighting to get the pro contract. They train hard, they try and impress the coaches, etc etc etc. Once they turn pro things are much more relaxed. You look out for one another. You practice “just enough”. Etc.

    Now, mind you, he was no Michael Jordan, so maybe the good pros actually work harder once they turn pro. Your statements on the “old ways” reminded me of that conversation. Take, from the US anyway, some amateur on the National team, someone living in the (back then) USCF quarters in Colorado Springs, and then throw them into the pro world. This has to be a shock to the rider, going from being coddled to figuring out what to eat at their next meal (and how to get it).

    It’s almost embarrassing to read about how such a significant team is now getting staff for specific tasks. There are past interviews of riders that allude to (not-Rabobank) teams where they were essentially left on their own, then showing up at a new team’s training camp where they’re treated like precious resources.

    Side note: one of the highlights watching the Tour of California a few years ago was to see a Rabobank armored car. I don’t know why they don’t drive one of those behind the caravan domestically, even a fake (not actually armored) one.

    I hope that Rabobank finds more success going forward.

  11. Nice analysis. I wonder how much cycling’s dual personality as a sport has to do with the lack of team-organised coaching. You could view teams as just a collection of individual athletes with the same employer. If cycling was a pure team sport the team prize would be the big trophy in the TDF and the yellow jersey would be like an MVP award. It’s probably only part of the story but I do think it contributes.
    On a different note, you have to applaud Rabobank for the way they approach sport sponsoring. From the beginning, they’ve decided to not only sponsor a big pro team, but also invest a lot at grass roots level. Almost every cycling event in NL organised by an amateur club has the local Rabobank branch as a co-sponsor. And they do other sports too. Of course, this is part of the image they want to propel as a bank for normal people, but it’s a better way to spend your marketing money than just adding in some more prime time TV ads.

    • I thought that too (i.e. that Dr Testa was wrong to have a desire for riders to be educated about the risks they might take).

      If what Dr Testa said to the paper was true (Ha!), to my (albeit liberal) mind that wouldn’t neccessarily be a bad or irresponsible thing. Quite the contrary in fact. To suggest it is dangerous or suspect for riders to be educated in some way about EPO (by their team or another oganisation) seems equivalent to the argument that children shouldn’t be taught about recreational drugs or contraceptives for fear they will use them…

      If the context was widespread and rife use of EPO, it was arguably Dr Testa’s responsability as a medical doctor NOT to stick his head in the sand and ignore EPO, but rather to ensure the riders he was responsible for used it safely.

      • On rereading, seems I could be clearer. I don’t think Dr Testa was neccessarily wrong or iresponsible to educate his riders about EPO use – quite the contrary.

        • But I must protest to your opinion of Dr. Testa’s responsibility. To my (albeit not of the “anything goes and is therefore good”) mind he is exactly irresponsible to have “educated” riders about the proper use of illegal drugs in doping in order to ride harder/faster/longer than un-doped riders. In other words, he went, “now you shouldn’t try this; but if you did here are the steps you would take in order to do bad, illegal things that are cheating the sport, other riders, and the fans. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t do this then you’ll lose because all the other riders are probably doing it too.” Now that is extremely wrong and irresponsible.

          To give a different example, think of someone in an authority position — like a teacher in a classroom, or a coach on a ball team, or a boss in a new job that you just were hired for — who came to you and said the same sort of thing. “Here, this is wrong, but if you want to succeed here in this class/team/job then these are the steps you should know about.” Do you really believe that anyone who is fresh in that situation is going to say, “Ah, no thanks. I know this is wrong and I won’t do it.” Or would they instead give a nod and say, “Oh, right. This is wrong, but everyones doing it and any questions I have about how to do it, you’ll answer. OK.” And then proceed to do that doping.

          Dr. Testa was not adhering to his oath or responsibility as a medical doctor. He was deliberately leading his riders on to doing the wrong and dangerous (to their health, their career, their lives even) thing.

          ‘Nuff said.

          • No, not enough said: your morality is faulty and fictitious. In fact you’ve just said that something is “extremely wrong and irresponsible” without any explanation, offering only a faked quotation instead. You have no idea what Dr.Testa actually said, so don’t make it up.

            You also misrepresent the medical oath, which is, in essence, to “do no harm”. For most doctors, having recognised that an individual is likely to self-medicate irrespective of the contextual ethicality, they will definitely prefer that that individual be educated in the safe method of doing so. That is the essence of “do no harm” and your invented statements from coaches and teachers profoundly mispresent that perspective, since they are not a metaphor for it.

            So your argument is towards a straw man and therefore trivially discarded. Sorry. I suggest rethinking your morality towards one that doesn’t require deliberately misrepresenting the intentions and behaviour of others to support it.

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