Merijn Zeeman – I Love It When A Plan Comes Together!

By David Hunter

“The victory of Gesink was incredible. It was emotional. So much bad luck and then coming back like this, just big respect and a big smile on my face. These are the stories that will inspire people to never give up.”zeeman

These are words of Merijn Zeeman, Head of Coaching at Lotto-Jumbo. It is certainly a moment that will live long in my memory and that of many cycling fans. One of those real good moments, where a rider got the win he so richly deserved.

Team Lotto-Jumbo have enjoyed a season beyond the beliefs of many people in cycling. Steven Kruijswijk was within a couple of stages of winning the Giro, Primoz Roglic won one of the Giro TTs and finished 2nd in the other, Robert Gesink won a brilliant stage in the Vuelta and they have unearthed the new sprint sensation, Dylan Groenewegen. Yeah, not a bad season!  To get a different take on it, I talked to Merijn Zeeman.

“Mainly I coach the team during races and I personally coach 7 riders with Groenewegen and Kruijswijk amongst them.

I really like to work with people, coach them and give them insights. Guiding them towards a goal is a fantastic process.”

Coaches can be incredibly driven people. They love nothing better than carefully planning an event and seeing it come to fruition.

“In my personality I love the work before results are coming. It was like that when I was at Argos Shimano. It took years before we start winning. My main motivation is to get things getting started.”

Some are so obsessed with planning goals, they sometimes forget to enjoy achieving them. This is a common trait of many coaches, across a range of sports.

“And it’s so true. Most coaches, me included, should celebrate more and enjoy the good moments. Let’s say: it’s a learning point!”

And what does a coach get up to away from the racing?

“At home I work on the training plans of my riders and prepare my next races, or I work, together with my colleagues, towards the big team goals.

In the team we use Trainingpeaks. Our riders train with the Pioneer power meter and they upload it every day. Of course the best feedback is during the discussion with the rider after the training.”

It is that level of planning which is required to get the best out of riders. Carefully managed training schedules, with a huge level of communication between coach and rider. Back in the races, it’s fascinating to hear what preparation goes on, mostly behind closed doors!

“I always try to prepare the race as good as possible. Everything starts with goal setting. What do we want to achieve with each other? After that we discuss our tasks and roles and describe how we want to achieve our goals. From that moment we prepare the race as good as possible. Getting to know the parcours is a very important aspect in that. When we know the parcours we can adjust our tactics.

When the race is done, we evaluate everything. The whole process: individual and as a team. Often we use video. We look at the power data and we talk a lot. When the day is done we have to look forward again to the new stage or race.”

Just imagine how exhausting a grand tour is for the coaches. When it all goes right, everyone is very happy, but what happens when it goes wrong? I’ve always wondered how riders cope with honest conversations.

“Open and honest communication is something you have to learn. It is always about the content, about what we do, not about who we are. That is a big difference. I try to learn about my riders and how to handle them in this kind of conversation. Without an honest evaluation you cannot grow.”

A good answer! All riders are different. Some need a kick up the arse, others require an arm around the shoulder. Knowing your riders is crucial to getting the best out of them. Zeeman certainly got the best out of his riders in 2016.

“The biggest satisfaction was the unbelievable great performance of Steven Kruijswijk, in the Giro. He had an exceptional level, better then ever. We worked very intensely the last 4 years and seeing him growing and getting better is, for all the people in our team, a big reward. Another highlight was the superb victory of Robert Gesink in the Vuelta. Coming back after so much bad luck. Big respect for him. Last but not least, the Eneco Tour victory of Dylan Groenewegen was awesome.

Of course the biggest disappointment was the crash of Steve and losing the pink. It was a nightmare. The worst day of my life to be honest.”

That really was such a horrible day for the team and the rider. Kruijswijk had enjoyed a faultless Giro campaign. By the end of stage 18 he had a 3 minute advantage over Esteban Chaves and 4:43 over Vincenzo Nibali. He looked unstoppable, but that would all change in a moment. A big crash descending off Colle dell’Agnello, put an end to his hopes of the pink jersey. Make no mistake, this is as tough as cycling gets. Recovering from such a moment is very difficult, in fact, some riders would never recover.

“To be honest, Steven made the click sooner then I did. After coming home he started focusing on the Vuelta already. It’s impressive how he deals with setbacks. Of course I followed in that and together we made the route to the Vuelta.
The disappointment is still there a bit, but I put it in place to be more motivated then ever to coach him towards his and our big goals.”

The development of Dylan Groenewegen really has been one of the stories of the season. He joined the team at the start of the year, after a successful season with Roompot. Back in 2015, he won two races and certainly showed some promise as a sprinter. However, no one would have expected such a jump in his level. Having a talented sprinter is just one part of sprinting, his sprint train is just as important. This is something that the staff at Lotto-Jumbo have been working very hard on.

“What I also like about this season is that we wanted to develop a sprint train and we are doing really well in that, I think. We just started but we made progress.

Of course I make mistakes as well. A part of the sprint train project did not succeed. I thought that some riders would fit in, but in the end it didn’t work. That’s a shame of course.

One of the key elements of the progression of Dylan is his sprint train. The guys are so motivated and so dedicated to this project. It really makes me proud. Of course lots of progression needs to be made, but we will. Some moments it worked out already really good and that is the level we want to see in 2017. We have smart guys like Wagner and Leezer, but also big engines like Timo Roosen and Maarten Wijnants. I think a very good combination.

The most important quality is the mental quality to be in the moment. Despite the hectic and danger, stay calm in the head and act in the smart way. So choosing the right moment and execute the plan. Besides this, of course, we need guys with power and explosiveness in 30seconds till 2 minutes.”

And what about their fast man?

“The development of Groenewegen is incredible. 11 wins is far beyond expectation. He is such a great guy to work with. He develops as a rider but also as a person. He becomes a leader now. By getting older he will be getting better and more experienced. On the training side we have some progression to make. He still has some inbalance after his 2015 crash. We will solve that this winter and it will make him stronger.”

It’s great to see that after such a great season, there isn’t even a hint of taking it easy. The coaches want to push Groenewegen, and his sprint train, to new levels. They are serious about competing with the very best sprinters in the world. Will they do it? I think they will.

Teams love to have more than one sprinter and Lotto-Jumbo took everyone by surprise by signing JJ Lobato. The Spaniard is something of an enigma, a rider capable of so much but one that rarely delivers. In the world of cycling, he is often mocked about his poor positioning, something that infuriates his fans. Do Lotto-Jumbo think that they can get more out of him?

“We believe in Lobato. He has a big potential. I think we can improve his sprinting itself, but also his positioning in the finale. We want to bring him in situations where he can fight for the win. He has a unique character, that he can climb pretty good, but that he is also very fast. I am confident we will see a very good Lobato in 2017.”

You could say that his signing is a gamble, but one that is well worth it. If Merijn is right and they can actually make him faster and put him into winning positions, there is no doubt, Lobato has the class to be a very successful rider. Before that happens, there might have to be a few honest conversations!

The other massive improvement made by the squad, over the last two seasons, has been in the world of the TT. Once an average TT squad, the Lotto-Jumbo boys are now one of the best in the world. Much has been made of the Bianchi TT bike, but it has to be more than just the bike.

“The TT performances are really good and I want to give the credit to Mathieu Heijboer. He is really passionate about time trialing. Together with Bianchi, Shimano and the people from the team he took it to another level. He put energy in it and got rewards!”

One of those TT stars was Primoz Roglic. Before the start of 2016, only the educated cycling  fan had heard of the man from Slovenia. After 3 good years with Adria Mobil, he was transported to the World Tour. If you look at his results, there was no hint of what TT talent he had. The former ski jumper was about to take the world by storm.

“The progress of Primoz Roglic was very nice to see. We scouted him and tested him before signing. We saw he had a big engine, but that he was this good in TT, we could not imagine. Together with his coach, Marc Lamberts, he developed really well and his best has yet to come, I believe.”

Winning a grand tour stage in your first season as a pro is pretty special. In Roglic, Lotto-Jumbo, have really struck gold. They have managed to find a rider capable of challenging for wins in the grand tours, bringing with it prestige and World Tour points!

Winter is a time for rest, but not too much. Whilst the riders are away enjoying a well earned break, what about the coaches?

“In the winter times I always prepare the new season. Lots of talks, planning, making programs, setting goals and think about creating a legacy for our team. Of course, I am more at home and enjoying spending time with my family. My son is 5 and my daughter is 3 months.”

Looking ahead, which of their young stars does Merijn think we should keep an eye on in 2017?

“In 2017 I believe that Timo Roosen, George Bennett and Primoz Roglic will continue their development and that they will come closer to the world top level. That is their big ambition and I think they have the engine for that.

A promising young rider will hopefully be Daan Olivier. He was out of cycling for 2 years, but he has a huge potential and his motivation is really high!”

Olivier is a really interesting one. Still just 23 years old, the Dutch rider was with the Rabobank development squad for many years. He then signed for Giant Shimano, but quit pro cycling half way through 2015. These guys that take a break from cycling always seem to come back with a fire in their belly. A rider of undoubted talent, I will be watching him with interest.

To end with, I got Merijn to name his top 5 moments of 2016.

“Performance of Kruijswijk in the Giro.

Win of Gesink on the Aubisque.

Stage win Eneco Tour Groenewegen.

Dutch Championship Groenewegen.

Stage win Giro Primoz Roglic.”

Can’t really argue with that!

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading about one of the best coaches in the business, I know I loved interviewing him.

David Hunter

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