SAINT-MALO, France (VN) — Bauke Mollema (Belkin) finds himself in a surprising position, third overall after 10 days of racing at the Tour de France.
“I didn’t expect it, no,” the Dutchman explained on Tuesday morning outside Belkin’s bus in Saint Gildas des Bois.
Mollema has been surprising followers for some time. His friend convinced him to try racing at 17 years old, after he saw him riding his bike. After a few races, he caught the attention of Rabobank’s development team, which would not let him out of its sights.
That attention paid off when Mollema won one of the biggest amateur stage races in the world, the Tour de l’Avenir, in 2007. Four years later, he finished the Vuelta a España just one step off the overall podium in fourth.
His Belkin team named him its protected GC rider in the run-up to the Grand Départ last month, and the 26-year-old now sits third overall in the 100th Tour.
“I hope to keep this position as long as possible. I’m glad I’m here and we’ll try to keep it,” Mollema added.
“The next week is not that hard based on the parcours, but tomorrow will an important day for the GC with the time trial and of course on Sunday, the stage to Mont Ventoux.”
The last week has gone well for Mollema and Belkin. Robert Gesink, instead of riding for the overall, is riding for stages and as a super domestique.
He helped Saturday before turning it over to Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam. The duo, initially dropped on the finish climb to Ax 3 Domaines, caught and passed Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). Their effort put Mollema and Ten Dam into fourth and fifth overall, respectively. After Richie Porte (Sky) tumbled down the GC on Sunday, the Dutch tandem rose to third and fourth.
Belkin worked with Saxo, Movistar, and Garmin to isolate overall leader Chris Froome (Sky) and to drop Porte. Movistar’s best young rider, Nairo Quintana, attacked repeatedly on the final climb of the stage and teammate Alejandro Valverde moved to second overall. Mollema said that that was enough for Sunday’s stage, which closed with a 30-kilometer descent.
“You have to have the legs to attack. I was happy to follow the guys on the climb,” Mollema said. “Froome reacted straight away on Nairo Quintana. Alejandro Valverde was not that strong, or at least he said so after the last climb, he said he was having pain or cramps in his legs. It was just a hard day, and with a 30K descent, it wasn’t smart to attack because we wouldn’t be allowed much space.”
Mollema is on the eve of another important test, the 33km time trial to Mont Saint-Michel tomorrow. In the Tour de Suisse, where he finished second overall and won a stage to Crans-Montana, he rode to third in the time trial.
In the 2011 Vuelta, however, part of the reason he was unable to make the podium was that he lost time to time trial specialists Froome and Bradley Wiggins. He expects to lose time to Contador and Froome on Wednesday, but hopes to ride at his top level.
“Time trialing is not my specialty, but if you look at the top 10, Froome is by far the best rider for TTs in the top 10, but there are a lot of climbers in the top 10 and so it can go anyway,” said Mollema. “I feel good; I hope I can do the best TT of my life.”
Mollema isn’t the only one watching the results sheet and he is gaining the attention of his rivals.
“Bauke Mollema did a bloody good rider and is a good reference point,” Sky principal David Brailsford told VeloNews after the finish at Ax 3 Domaines. “He’s always been progressing and is a really impressive rider.”
“In the time trial he can surprise us a lot. He’s in good form and should ride well,” Sky director Nicolas Portal added. “It will be good to have him in the mountain stages coming up because he will ride in our style. He’s not a punchy rider like Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha), who needs to go full gas if they want to make a gap. Plus, he’ll be happy about finishing second or third, so he’ll ride in the wheels.”
Anything is possible for Mollema, who could be The Netherlands’ first podium finisher at the Tour since Erik Breukink in 1990. After all, his entire career has been a surprise so far.