From zeroes to heroes: how Intermarché became the WorldTour’s giantkillers
Despite the smallest budget in the WorldTour, this team of underdogs has become a fan favourite.
Despite the smallest budget in the WorldTour, this team of underdogs has become a fan favourite.
A few summers ago, you could guarantee three things in life: death, taxes and a Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider involved in a valiant, doomed breakaway at the Tour de France.
In a matter of seasons, the team’s name, way of racing and reputation has transformed. Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux have had quite the glow-up, especially in 2022. There’s been that Ghent-Wevelgem victory and a Giro d’Italia stage for dazzling talent Biniam Girmay. Plus sixth and eighth overall at the corsa rosa for Jan Hirt and Domenico Pozzovivo, with a stage win for the Czech rider. It’s one of 13 team wins this season, already surpassing last year’s total. All for a team that, at €11 million, possesses the lowest budget in the WorldTour.
Against the odds, they are not only surviving in the sport’s top tier, they are thriving – and it’s no happy accident. This is the inside story of all the factors that have gone into their acts of giantkilling: everything from game-changing nutrition and how they poached Girmay to games of poker with Taco van der Hoorn.
All of this would have been impossible to imagine for their general manager Jean-François Bourlart. When he joined in 2001, it was a modest under-23 Belgian amateur team. The team moved up to UCI Continental status in 2007, then Pro Continental in 2011. Over the last two decades, his judicious financial management of the team has been integral to its success too.
In 2014, construction firm Wanty became primary sponsor and Hilaire van der Schueren – a street-smart, veteran directeur sportif – joined. The team was full of tough Belgian racers who raced hard and often: anyone healthy would be entered into kermesses for the start money. At some races, their riders would sprint against each other for victory. Such tactics got a few tongues wagging in the cycling circus but the tactic meant more top tens and a move into the higher reaches of the Europe Tour. Wanty-Groupe Gobert won ten races that season, more than the previous three seasons combined.
Over the next years, they recruited smartly, seeing the potential in riders like Marco Marcato, Guillaume Martin and Enrico Gasparotto. “We always had guys who struggled for a contract here and there. There was a hunger in the team that created results,” says Briton Mark McNally, who rode for the team between 2016 and 2018.
His first season with the team would offer more turning points. March 27 is a black day that everyone close to the squad will never forget: the death of Antoine Demoitié after a crash at Ghent-Wevelgem. Three weeks later, with the young Belgian firmly on their minds, they had a first WorldTour victory, as Enrico Gasparotto stunned the stars at the Amstel Gold Race. “As cliched as it sounds, I think we had that extra per cent to fight a bit longer for him,” McNally says. “We were a bunch of misfits with a little bit of a chance, we rode as a team and we got it right that day.” Riding for Antoine remains a driving force for the contemporary team.
At the year’s conclusion, they narrowly won the Europe Tour for the first time and earned a wildcard to the 2017 Tour de France. They were the likeable, lively underdogs there. (One of their number, Frederik Backaert, was a part-time farmer, for heaven’s sake.) All eight riders finished, after spending a lot of time in breakaways, and that was deemed a success.
Their clever juggling of a small budget, points-scoring riders and a heavy schedule continued, gaining more WorldTour wildcards, getting in escapes galore and winning the Europe Tour for two more years. But once they officially joined the WorldTour at the end of 2020, taking over CCC’s license, a sea change was required if they wanted to make waves rather than ripples.
It’s the day after the Tour of Norway and Intermarché’s eleventh win of the season, courtesy of Alexander Kristoff. Performance director Aike Visbeek is shopping at his local supermarket (not a branch of Intermarché, that would have been too perfect) when he answers my call.
A semi-pro cyclist whose career was curtailed by knee problems, he became a directeur sportif at the age of 24. He started out on club and Continental teams, moving to Argos-Shimano and SEG Racing. Since joining in the winter of 2020, the Dutchman has been a key shaper of their philosophy and success. “They wanted to modernise the team and have a more scientific approach,” he says of his appointment.
One of the first changes he implemented was cultural, changing from a month-by-month plan to working over an entire year, so that 90 per cent of riders knew their programme for the whole season. He also involved trainers heavily in the selection process, aligning preparation with goals; beforehand, that had been the domain of sport directors.
Then there were big nutrition gains. “Nothing was really organised for that,” Visbeek says. “Some riders, like Jan Bakelants, had good knowledge, but the bulk of them were training without eating. They were really not up to date. That’s where I started to make the biggest changes.” He targeted a gradual, simple approach around feeding and training, hiring nutritionist Jana Camphens and, later, Adam Plucinski. “That was a really big game changer for us. Every intake per hour in the race was really low and it’s very different now.”
Equipment development mattered too. “We didn’t have somebody working on that enough,” Visbeek says. They collaborated with Cube to develop a climbing bike and made the most of their kit. Taco van der Hoorn and Biniam Girmay did position and aero testing on the track in Amsterdam in February 2022, seeing which helmets and suits were fastest.
One other essential element was adapting the way they raced. Previously, their two or three leaders were each assigned a helper, and once he was used up, the captain was on his own. Now, they are better organised as a unit, going deep into finales together, and the team’s early-season work on a lead-out with Kristoff and team stalwart Andrea Pasqualon has borne a lot of points and confidence.
The UCI’s WorldTour relegation system was firmly on Visbeek’s mind in his approach to racing too. Judged across the 2020, 2021 and 2022 seasons, only the top 18 teams will be assured a place in the sport’s top division. Ten riders’ results on each team are taken into account, and given the weighting of points, scoring heavily outside of the WorldTour appears to be a better tactic – an approach that is basically already woven into the team’s DNA. This year, Visbeek focused on March and May, months where there are many points available in counting races close to their Belgian base. “That really worked. Points are not an issue anymore, we are 3,000 ahead of relegation,” he says.
He also tweaked the team’s attack-happy tactics. “This was a sensitive point,” Visbeek says. “When I joined, I said to the team that at the end of a race, you need to have the feeling you did something as a team or a rider that counts. That could be a lead-out, an early break for TV time or positioning your team-mate.”
“What I changed was I said ‘we can do it [a breakaway] on a day when we feel we don’t have a chance or we need TV time, or there is a serious opportunity to make it to the finish. But the goal is not to attack, the goal is: does it meet our goals in the race?’” The 2021 Tour de France was the transition moment, from opportunism to intelligent offence, focusing on bunch sprints if there was no need to attack.
All these changes are nothing without the buy-in and belief of the riders. How did he get them to understand what he was trying to achieve? “Well, we were the outsider with the smallest budget, seen as not WorldTour-worthy. And I used the points situation to underline that if we manage to stay within the best 18 teams, we had to pull off a really strong season,” Visbeek says. “But by achieving that, we’d do something a lot of the outside world would see as almost impossible. And creating that feeling that we as a small team can do something big – if we follow a good strategy and are there for the races that suit us and the important periods in the season – was something that united us.”
Smart recruitment with their limited budget has been a cornerstone of their success. Biniam Girmay, Jan Hirt, Alexander Kristoff and Domenico Pozzovivo have all joined in the last two years and added a lot of ranking points.
But it was the more unheralded Taco van der Hoorn who set the ball rolling. Out of contract at Jumbo-Visma at the end of 2020 and facing a return to the sport’s third division, Intermarché’s offer came as an early Christmas present.
In return, the popular breakaway whisperer – initially on a minimum wage deal – won a Giro d’Italia stage, another at the Benelux Tour and Omloop van het Houtland last year. His Italian triumph kickstarted their 2021 season too after a “bleak spring”, in Visbeek’s words, where they were winless. As we’ve seen, a lot can change in the space of twelve months in pro cycling.
Van der Hoorn’s career trajectory exemplifies Intermarché’s status as a team for comeback men and late bloomers, where many riders experience a second lease of pro cycling life. “The thing I like the most about the team is there is not too much contact,” Van der Hoorn says. “I have responsibility to do everything, they trust me to train and race well. In that way, they don’t control too much.” On the other hand, they provide the tools for success: Van der Hoorn was talking to me from an 18-day altitude camp in Andorra with his fellow Tour de France hopefuls.
The 28-year-old enjoys the professional, but open atmosphere of the team too. A graduate with a degree in human movement sciences, he adds that they can talk openly and their tactical or tech opinions are taken on board. “There’s a safe environment and they give you trust. Everybody feels really responsible for his own success, and really wants to do it for himself and the team. I hope that continues in the next years,” he says.
He also loves the team’s familial atmosphere, but there’s nothing particularly radical behind it: a matter of enjoying Belgian beers and bonhomie with their sponsors or shooting pool at winter camps. “And every evening on our [Andorra] camp, we were playing poker,” Van der Hoorn adds. No prizes for guessing who was best: the Dutchman is not a man to mess with, in a breakaway or a casino.
Aike Visbeek had opted for Van der Hoorn over some Belgian riders for his professionalism and intelligence. “It’s very easy to see the power profile or look at results and draw conclusions. But I look much more at what’s missing, what we need,” Visbeek says.
Another good example is Domenico Pozzovivo. This winter, he was teamless, approaching his 40th birthday and had endured 16 surgeries since a 2019 training accident. Rather than discounting him, Visbeek recognised that the team needed a climber and noticed he was extremely motivated to prove his worth. Eighth place in the Giro d’Italia is a nice payback for their faith.
Their work riding as a unit also caught the attention of Alexander Kristoff last year, who signed with them. “He already saw in the spring Classics that by the time he was alone and fighting for position, we still had two or three guys together,” Visbeek says. “And we are a team of opportunities. You don’t come to us for a big contract. If you want to win races, or slowly build up your career rather than end up in a support role in a big team, those guys have chances.”
This is where Biniam Girmay comes in. At the other end of his career to Kristoff and Pozzovivo, Intermarché could conceivably build the entire team around the Eritrean prodigy. He took his opportunity to lead at several spring Classics with aplomb, wins at the Trofeo Alcudia, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Giro underlining his promise.
Signing the then-21-year-old was a coup. Visbeek had noticed another problem on his arrival at Intermarché: there were no young, up and coming riders. He made a list of realistic targets, which the Eritrean topped. In April 2021, when Girmay’s second-tier Delko team suffered budgetary problems and his race schedule was cut, he swooped. “This is a chance we won’t get very often,” the Dutchman told his bosses.
They approached Girmay’s manager with a plan about his development over three years, in terms of WorldTour targets and results. According to the Dutchman, the only other team that made an offer was UAE Team Emirates. The underdog squad won the battle, with Girmay officially coming on board in early August. “He’s very coachable: it takes time to win his confidence, but when you do, he listens and follows what you want him to learn,” Visbeek says. “That’s why he could grow so fast – we won his trust.”
Girmay is one of 21 riders who have joined in the last two seasons. Amid this considerable rider turnover, there is still a sense of continuity. Kevin Van Melsen has ridden with them since 2008, when the team were Continental nobodies, while Andrea Pasqualon has gone from strength to strength since being in their debut Tour de France team. “It’s nice that after six years, I’m still here and they believe in me,” Pasqualon says. “You can take the world’s best riders, but I like the philosophy of Intermarché: good riders, but not the biggest, and they grow up with the team.”
No longer the misfits, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux have hit the mainstream, and the WorldTour’s best are taking note. “There’s a lot of riders interested who definitely would not have been two years ago,” Visbeek says.
On the other hand, they will have to battle to keep riders who have impressed, such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège runner-up Quinten Hermans and Biniam Girmay, despite his contract running to the end of 2026.
It’s a nice problem to have after the best twelve months in their history. Relegation from the WorldTour will surely be averted and they are already close to their internal objective of 15 victories for the season. There will be no resting on laurels though: the Tour de France approaches and five years on from their debut, the target is a maiden stage victory. Glory on stage six, which starts in Wanty’s home city of Binche, is the dream outcome.
Aike Visbeek wants to use this season as another springboard for more success. “When we look back in five years’ time on this year, how will we rate it? Will it be normal to win 11 races by the time June comes? Will it be normal to win Classics?”
“I said [to the other managers here], I think this is a premier cru season. It’s the bottle you put in your basement for another ten years, pick it up and think ‘it’s a nice one.’ But it’s only June and with the Tour de France, I think we can still make a vintage out of it.”