Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil) is the latest in a new generation of Dutch climbers to confirm that the future is very bright for fans from Europe’s flattest country.
Poels, just 23, hung close to the top-10 and scored two second places in mountain-top finishes before losing grip on the hilly stage to Bilbao in stage 19. Poels settled into 17th overall in what was a promising performance to complete a grand tour for the first time.
“Maybe the Vuelta was two days too long for me,” Poels told VeloNews. “I started the Tour de France this year, but after eight days, I was sick. This is the first grand tour that I finished, so I am very satisfied.”
Holland has a long history of climbers, so much so that the Tour de France’s most famous climb at Alpe d’Huez is nicknamed the Dutch Mountain.
Dutch fans haven’t had much to cheer for lately on Europe’s highest roads.
That’s changed over the past few years with the arrival of a new wave of skinny Dutch climbers who promise to be at the forefront of the action in the coming decade.
Robert Gesink has already confirmed his credentials as the leader of the new generation, with sixth overall last year in the Tour and a string of high-profile performances in the biggest mountain stages of the Europe’s most important races.
Gesink’s 2011 Tour was hobbled by a bad back, but he remains the top Dutch rider right now.
This year saw three more promising Dutch riders nudge into the limelight.
At the Giro d’Italia, Steve Kruijswijk, 24, rode to ninth overall and then won a stage and finished on the podium with third at the Tour de Suisse.
Bauke Mollema, also 24, also enjoyed a breakout season. A winner of the Tour de l’Avenir in 2007, Mollema was fifth at the Tour de Suisse, second at the Vuelta a Castilla y León and fourth overall at the Vuelta, a result capped by taking the points jersey on the final day in Madrid.
The youngest of the new crop is Poels, who also made an impression at the Vuelta.
Poels was second at Valdepeñas de Jaén, which ended on a short, punchy summit similar to Fleche Wallonnne, and even more impressive with second up Angliru, arguably Europe’s steepest road.
“With two times second place and the Angliru, so the Vuelta has been a great race for me,” Poels said. “I am more confident now after this Vuelta. I am 23, I am still a young rider.”
Poels hails from Venray, which he described as a “very flat place.” His nickname is “the helicopter,” perhaps for his spinning legs that carry his lithe frame up the climbs.
“I don’t know how I became a climber,” he said. “When you are born, you have the legs for climbing or sprinting or nothing.”
So far, his climbing legs are pretty impressive for a young pro. His said his strong Vuelta ride only fuels his ambitions for the future.
“I think I can do well in a grand tour for the future, that’s my main goal for the coming years,” he said. “I have proved myself in this Vuelta that I could go with the best climbers.”
Poels also told VeloNews he’s confirmed to stay with Vacansoleil for two more seasons.
That means that the new generation of Dutch climbers will be on Dutch-backed teams. Rabobank is the home to Mollema, Gesink and Kruijswijk.
Rabobank sport director Erik Breukink said he’s never seen a better group of young riders come up through the ranks in Holland.
“All these guys have already proven they can ride at the top level. They have all posted good results and won big races, so that says a lot because they are all still very young,” Breukink told VeloNews. “We’ll see if one of them can win a grand tour. Maybe the Giro or Vuelta are more realistic right now for one them to try to win. The Tour remains a challenge. Now they must work harder to get that 1 or 2 percent more they will need. And that will not be easy.”
Poels says he’s happy at Vacansoleil, a Dutch team that doesn’t attract the same media attention and pressure that comes with Rabobank, the long-running marquee Dutch team.
Poels says he will race through the fall Italian classics and “then party!”
For the future, he’s not holding anything back.
“For Dutch cycling, the future will be exciting because we have some nice young riders coming up,” he said. “I hope I can win a stage in the Tour de France and make a top-10 on GC. That’s what I am dreaming of.”
It’s been a long wait, but it seems like the rowdy fans lining the Dutch Corner on Alpe d’Huez will finally have one of their to cheer for once again.