A spectre is haunting Visma-Lease a Bike - the spectre of Primož Roglič.
The Dutch team, formerly Jumbo-Visma, have undergone more than a name change this winter, thanks to the departure of their former star rider, the three-time Vuelta a España victor and reigning Giro d'Italia champion, Roglič.
The Slovenian won 55 WorldTour races for the Dutch outfit over his eight seasons with the squad, with those Grand Tour wins the highlight, but countless others. Arguably, the 34-year-old has been the best stage racer of his generation, picking up wins at all sorts of week-long events, from Tirreno-Adriatico to Itzulia Basque Country. His loss, as a result of his off-season move to Bora-Hansgrohe, will be felt keenly.
Visma-Lease a Bike are not pretending to be bullish about the hole that Roglič will leave - far from it, in fact. The team which won all three Grand Tours in 2023 will be weaker this year, and they know it. Everyone knows it.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly at in Australia, Visma stalwart Robert Gesink, in his 18th and final season with the squad, explained that it's "definitely going to be a loss".
"We're totally aware that now Primož has gone that we're not going to be winning as much as we did last year, because Primož was just insane," the 37-year-old said. "Every race he started he basically won, so that's going to definitely be a loss in terms of the amount of victories we will get...
"Primož, and guys like that, I mean, there's only a few of them in the world. So it's not as easy as copying that. With Primož, you were sure that you could go to a race and have a guy for the victory. With other guys you might need a few years to get to that point."
The Dutchman has been through Visma in all its iterations, from the late days of Rabobank, through its re-emergence as LottoNL-Jumbo, to all-conquering Jumbo-Visma, and now Visma-Lease a Bike.
While it did not technically end 2023 as the best team, according to the UCI - that honour went to UAE Team Emirates - it felt like the best team, with all three Grand Tours in the bag. It will be a hard act to follow, one which has proved difficult for other teams. Ineos Grenadiers, for example, once the top team in the world, are now looking to reinvigorate themselves, rather than seeing off all.
That's something Visma is trying not to repeat as it sets a new course as a team to be beaten, rather than trying to beat others. There's only one place at the top of the slippery pole of cycling.
"The team is trying to try to learn from that," Gesink said. "From their mistakes perhaps, or do better. The idea of the team has changed from we are chasing the first to now to being chased.
"With bigger budgets coming in that's not always easy, in the future either. But for now, I think we have a really strong group of riders and also some young guys with great potential to work with."
Visma-Lease a Bike remain at the top, with Jonas Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert yet to unleash their power this season. With Cian Uijtdebroeks and Johannes Staune-Mittet coming through, they should be more than fine, but Roglič will certainly leave a hole, and his spectre will continue to worry the Dutch team.
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