GAP, France (VN) – That the cycling hopes of a notoriously flat nation have become so intertwined with a single storied mountain in France is one of cycling’s great contradictions, but over the past 30 years, Dutch fans have nevertheless made the hairpins of Alpe d’Huez their sovereign territory.
The famous Dutch Corner on the Alpe is a Tour mainstay, a wall of sound and beer and orange that has seen its collective dreams of Dutch glory go unrewarded for years. But this year, with two ascents of the Alpe on tap for Thursday’s 18th stage and Belkin Dutchmen Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam sitting fourth and seventh on GC, respectively, hopes are riding high for a standout performance – from both the riders and the fans on the mountain.
“Actually, I don’t know what to expect,” Dutch champion Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) said of the corner, a bit of fear in his voice. “It’s actually already a little crazy with all the Dutch people who support and yell to me, so I’m a little bit curious about what the festival is going to be like there.”
The Dutch fascination with the Alpe dates back to the 1970s, when Joop Zoetemelk won on the Tour’s second-ever ascent of the mountain in 1976. Hennie Kuiper took the next two wins for the Netherlands before Portuguese Joachim Agosthino broke the streak in 1979. But lucky for the Dutch, the Tour finished two consecutive stages on the Alpe that year, and Zoetemelk won the second round. Peter Winnen took the growing tradition into the 1980s, winning the 1981 and 1984 honors. At the close of the decade, Steven Rooks and Gert Jan Theunisse both used Alpe wins as building blocks to their king of the mountain titles in 1988 and 1989, respectively.
Since then, it has been slim pickings for the Dutch on the Tour and on the Alpe. The last Dutchman on the Tour’s GC podium was Erik Breukink, who rode to a quiet third in 1990 behind the duel between Greg LeMond and Claudio Chiapucci. Theunisse’s win was the last Dutch victory on the Alpe, and his polka dot jersey was the last for the nation as well. Since then, both Rooks and Theunisse have been associated with doping, Theunisse through a positive test and Rooks via post-retirement confession. More recently, the Rabobank scandal has cast a pall over much of the nation’s contemporary cycling history.
But at this Tour, momentum seems to be building behind Dutch cycling again, pushing it toward stage 18’s double ascent of the Alpe, where the party at the Dutch Corner is already gaining steam. Belkin’s pre-Tour decision to back the former Rabobank team rescued one of the sport’s most storied operations, and the electronics manufacturer’s faith has been instantly rewarded with breakout performances from Mollema and Ten Dam.
Their rides thus far – resilient and determined in the mountains and the time trials, vigilant and opportunistic in Friday’s crosswind ambush – have given Dutch fans reason to dream of Tour glory again. While Chris Froome (Sky) has been untouchable, Mollema stayed closest, at 4:14 adrift, before dropping to fourth, at 6:23, in Wednesday’s tough climbing time trial. Ten Dam sits another two minutes back, at 8:23. They are backed up by a strong team that includes former cyclocross world champion Lars Boom, former top-five finisher Robert Gesink, Sep Vanmarcke, and Bram Tankink. Both of the Belkin leaders have given up spots on the GC early in the race’s toughest week, but both men are riding confidently deep into the Tour.
“I expected it. I think this week, the good climbers, [Alberto] Contador and [Nairo] Quintana will attack on every climb in the final,” said Mollema.
The 26-year old hopes the comfort he felt under pressure from Contador on the Col de Manse on Tuesday will carry over to the 21 hairpins on the Alpe.
“I think it’s going to be really special,” Mollema said of riding through the corner sitting near the top of the GC rankings. “It’s going to be a great day for sure.”
Ten Dam, like Hoogerland, was more wary.
“I hope they’ll be nice on the Dutch Corner!” Ten Dam said of his hoards of assembling countrymen.
Asked what his dream was for this Tour at the start on Tuesday in Vaison La Romaine, Ten Dam’s answer was simple and to the point: “The podium.”
Tonight, 1,800 meters or so up Alpe d’Huez, a few thousand of his biggest supporters are dreaming the same dream.