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On Friday, disaster struck a Dutch rider in the mountains, on the final weekend of a Grand Tour, again.
This time, it was Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), sliding from second overall on the general classification to tenth, the result of a late-race crash in the rain on Stage 19 of the Tour de France, followed by a desperate, failed chase back to the front.
Before that it was Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), in May, crashing into a snowbank on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia while wearing the leader’s jersey with two stages remaining. He would ultimately finish the race fourth overall, off the podium.
And before that it was Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), who led the 2015 Vuelta a España heading into the final mountain stage, Stage 20, before he was dropped on the Puerto de la Morcuera, the third of four first-category climbs. The 2015 Vuelta was one climb too many for Dumoulin, as he slid down the GC standings to sixth overall.
And while Mollema was not in position to win this Tour de France, his fall from grace was just salt in the wounds for Dutch fans, made even worse by Dumoulin’s crash, and fractured radius, earlier on Friday’s stage, putting his participation in the Rio Olympics, where he is a heavy favorite for a time-trial medal, into question.
“It’s a huge setback,” Dumoulin said. “After the crash I instantly knew it was bad news. Luckily it is a clean fracture. As a precaution I have a cast but I can’t ride a bike with it. If I need to keep this for two weeks, then my participation in Rio will be difficult.”
Joop Zoetemelk is the last Dutchman to claim the overall title in a Grand Tour by winning the 1980 Tour de France. The Dutch actually finished one-two on that occasion with Hennie Kuiper in second.
At the 2015 Vuelta, Dumoulin was not initially mentioned as a GC contender when the race began, though that would change as the race went on, as he won two stages and wore the leader’s jersey for six days. Dumoulin clipped in to begin the penultimate day of the Vuelta with confidence, holding a slim six-second lead over Fabio Aru (Astana) in the overall standings.
While Dumoulin had shown kinks in his armor, nobody would have predicted his collapse, given the way he had been riding up until that point. Aru and his Astana team rode aggressively on the final mountain stage, and Dumoulin simply had no response, slipping all the way to sixth overall. To make matters worse, the Vuelta had drained him and he would not contend for a medal in the individual time trial at the world championships two weeks later.
Dumoulin stated he would not contend for the general classification in Grand Tours in 2016, instead focusing on the Olympics. But that goal is now in doubt as he hit the ground hard on Friday and abandoned the Tour with a fractured left wrist.
With Dumoulin sitting out the GC landscape in 2016, the door opened for another Dutchman to take the GC spotlight, and Kruijswijk stepped right up. A top-10 finisher at the Giro in 2015, the Dutchman was capable of a high finish, but he dramatically exceeded expectations.
Kruijswijk’s demoralizing downfall came on stage 19 of the Giro when he tumbled head over heels into a snowbank at the beginning of the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) capitalized on the error, and over the rest of the stage and the day that followed, the Shark of Messina gained back time and took home the overall title.
There was no question that Kruijswijk was one of the strongest riders of this year’s Giro; he’d ridden a flawless race up until that point.
On Friday, it was Mollema’s turn to cause anguish in the hearts of Dutch cycling fans. The Trek-Segafredo rider looked to be on a downward trajectory the last few days, but was riding well enough to keep his second position in the overall until the slick descent down Mont Bisanne became his ultimate undoing.
“I was in second position of the peloton as there was a really tricky part coming up,” Mollema said. “I felt good in the descent, and I followed Mikaël Chérel of Ag2r and then my front wheel slid away, and I was on the ground. I was quite fast back on my bike, and then this tricky part was coming up — the same as we did in the TT yesterday — with a lot of corners and there was another crash in front of me.”
As with Kruijswijk, Mollema came into the race with a pedigree as a top-10 GC contender, and an outside shot of the podium. Like Kruijswijk, Mollema was on the form of his career. And like Dumoulin and Kruijswijk, a podium finish slipped from his grasp with the final stage of a Grand Tour on the horizon.
“At the bottom, it had split into groups, and we were behind with a gap,” Mollema added. “Pete [Stetina] pulled on the flat before the climb, but I started with 20 seconds behind the first group, and so I tried to come back quickly. I knew I had to come back there or otherwise it will be more difficult, so I tried to close it as fast as possible. I couldn’t close it, and then I just exploded. I think the GC is gone. Yeah, I am still 10th, but that was not the goal for these last days.”
Two of the three Dutch implosions in the final few days of the latest editions of all of three Grand Tours have been due to crashes with Dumoulin simply running out of gas.
And while a Dutchman has not finished on a Grand Tour podium since 1990, the lowland country has a bright future with stars capable of finishing on the podium or even winning a Grand Tour — just as long as they can make it through the final weekend.