A new batch of young riders working their way into the elite pro ranks are giving scandal-weary Dutch fans something to cheer about.
Perhaps no country beyond the United States suffered more fallout in aftermath of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into the Lance Armstrong era than The Netherlands.
In the wake of the salacious headlines in the fall of 2012, longtime sponsor Rabobank hastily pulled the plug on nearly two decades of backing the sport, delivering a potential death blow to Dutch cycling.
A generation of top riders who raced during the EPO era, including superstar Michael Boogerd, have been forced to admit that they were on the fast gas during the 1990s and 2000s.
Rabobank, however, has continued to back its under-23 development team, a platform that continues to deliver quality talent into the peloton.
A crop of young riders, including Dutch sprinter Moreno Hofland (Belkin), winner of Monday’s second stage at Paris-Nice, are helping to push the negative headlines off the front pages.
“Moreno is a big talent. The way he sprinted today shows how good he is,” said Belkin sport director Merijn Zeeman. “He’s not a pure sprinter, but can win hard races out of small groups. He has a big future ahead of him.”
Other young riders looking at big futures include Wilco Kelderman, also Belkin, and last year’s winner of the Santos Tour Down Under, Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp).
Slagter, 24, will focus on the hilly classics this season while Kelderman is expected to step up his GC ambitions. Also 22, Kelderman won the Tour of Denmark last year and rode to 17th in the Giro d’Italia in his grand tour debut. He leads Belkin’s hopes in the overall at Paris-Nice this week.
“We do not know how far he can go. He can climb well for a tall rider, and his time trialing is very good,” said Belkin sport director Erik Dekker of Kelderman. “We will see if he can develop into a grand tour rider. We don’t want to put too much pressure, because he is young, but he’s also very good.”
The demise of the Dutch-based Vacansoleil-DCM team at the end of 2013 means there are fewer pathways for the Dutch into the elite peloton, but quality Dutch riders are finding homes on other teams.
Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing), 20, won stage 1 at the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen (Three Days of West Flanders) over the weekend, and was the youngest pro in last year’s Tour de France, at the ripe age of 19. His older brother Boy, 25, also races for Trek.
Raymond Kreder is part of Garmin’s growing Dutch stable that also includes neo-pro Dylan Van Baarle, winner of last year’s Olympia Tour.
Hofland’s hot start
It’s the 22-year-old Hofland, whose ex-pro father named him after Moreno Argentin, who is attracting attention right now with an impressive start to the 2014 season.
After winning a stage at the Tour de l’Avenir and the Dutch U23 championship in 2012, he turned pro last year with Belkin, winning three stages and the overall at the Tour of Hainan late last season.
A year’s experience and hard work over the winter have clearly paid off. He snatched a stage at the Ruta del Sol earlier this season and nearly came around Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), finishing second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in Belgium on March 2.
“The last couple of weeks were pretty good for me and I’m hoping to hold this form as long as possible,” Hofland said Monday. “I improved a lot in the last seasons and I made tests in the winter showing how fast I could go, but I was not expecting to peak so fast. My objective this season is to take part in the classics and keep learning. There’s a great new generation of sprinters coming up, and it’s very exciting.”
Belkin officials insist Hofland is not a pure sprinter, but rather a rider who has can pounce out of reduced groups in harder, selective races, or stages with steeper, more demanding profiles. Monday’s uphill sprint in Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche, France, fit the bill and Hofland took advantage.
Established pros, such as Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema, and Lars Boom (all Belkin), are carrying Dutch colors right now. Riders like Kelderman and Hofland are waiting in the wings, and that’s only good news for scandal-weary Dutch fans.