For some, Bauke Mollema may not be an obvious selection as a future Grand Tour winner but, save for a stage 19 crash during the 2016 Tour de France, he may well have finished on the podium in Paris. The Dutchman has a greater self-belief than before and is aiming for victory in the 2017 Giro d’Italia. Longer-term, chasing yellow in France remains his big ambition.
Bauke Mollema is hunched over his Trek Madone, hands draped on the brake hoods and elbows locked at 90 degrees. He begins to turn the pedals and then gathers speed, increasing the force applied until he reaches approximately 200 watts. He remains there for several seconds, churning the gear around while keeping his upper body as still as possible.
Mollema is concentrating hard but he’s not going anywhere. Literally speaking, that is. He’s on an indoor trainer in the basement of a plush hotel in Albir, Spain, and is churning out effort while his bike is at a standstill.
In another sense, though, he’s covering a lot of ground. He was one of the strongest riders in this year’s Tour de France and if the scrutiny being carried out this evening in the Trek-Segafredo team hotel pays off, he’ll gain time and speed in 2017 and beyond.
The aim of the exercise is to find any available improvements and, to that goal, he and Trek-Segafredo’s Paraic McGlynn are fully committed.
Data gathered by the equipment pointed at Mollema, McGlynn tells the Dutchman to change his position. “Switch,” he says, raising his voice so he is heard over the noise of the trainer. Mollema drops to the bottom of the handlebars, changing the angle between his forearm and bicep in extending his arms.
“Switch,” McGlynn says again, prompting Mollema to return to the initial arm position.
A camera has been trained on the rider the whole time, recording him in the two different positions. The duo then view the footage on one of two laptops set side by side.
The Dutchman tells McGlynn he found the lower position more comfortable for his arms. That point is acknowledged, but the response puts things in context: “It’s all about which is more aero.”
Sure enough, the camera image reveals the difference. His frontal area is smaller when his arms are on the hoods. In addition to that, any side-to-side movement of his head and shoulders is less. The first position is quicker, and any further position tweaks will work from that conclusion.
‘We are always looking for improvement’
Later that evening Mollema sits down with CyclingTips, draping himself on a leather chair close to the reception of the hotel. He’s relaxed and down to earth, opening up about his career results and future trajectory, and elaborating on his work with McGlynn at this point of the year.
“I think this is the moment when if you want to change something, you do it. Whether it’s the TT bike or the road bike, you don’t want to change your position in the middle of the season,” he says, a slight Netherlands accent audible amid his fluent English.
“Last week I went to a track in Valencia to have a look at my TT position. We made a few changes there. And this week now I made some changes to my Madone road bike.
“Usually I ride the Emonda, that’s the climbing bike. But there’s some road bike-only TTs where I will use the Madone, and also some cobble stages. We had a look at that to make it as aero as possible. I think we saw some interesting things.”
Mollema has been a professional since 2008 and at this point in time, any changes are refinements rather than revolutions. Still, in such a difficult sport the difference between winning and losing can be miniscule. Because of that, every gain must be searched for.
He doesn’t require any convincing about this point. On September 4 he won a 12.1 kilometre time trial in Edmonton, Canada, during the Tour of Alberta. He beat Holowesco-Citadel duo Andzs Flaksis and Robin Carpenter by nine and 16 seconds respectively.
The win was appreciated, but also carried a small tinge of regret. The margin of success left him one second shy of Carpenter in the general classification, and the American retained this advantage on the following day’s final stage.
Taking second overall was a strong showing by Mollema, but finishing just a shade off the overall race win stung. It’s a very strong reminder that every second counts in the sport.
“Winning the time trial was big for me,” he says. “I never won a TT before so that was a nice experience. Of course I hoped to win the GC too, which I lost only by one second.
“I think there is still some room for improvement. I never did a check like this on the Madone, just for aerodynamics. There are some small changes too on the TT bike. My TT last year was pretty good, especially in the Tour, but it can always be better. We are always looking for improvement.”
Mollema may not have taken victory against the clock prior to that, but he showed his worth during the 2016 Tour de France’s first TT. He placed sixth in the stage 13 time trial to Le Caverne de Pont d’Arc. The showing moved him up to second place overall, slotting in behind race leader Chris Froome (Sky).
He then remained there for almost a week, beginning stage 19 some 24 seconds ahead of third-placed Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and 45 up on Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
“The Tour went really well until two days before Paris,” he says now, looking back. “It was my biggest goal and physically I was at a really good level, right where I wanted to be. That was really positive.
“Of course, I had bad luck in the end. I crashed at a really bad moment and dropped from second to 10th position. That was really disappointing, but that’s cycling, sometimes.”
Mollema’s fall came in wet conditions on the descent of La Montée de Bisanne. He wasn’t seriously hurt but was delayed, losing time to the other main contenders. He chased hard but was still adrift starting the final climb and, valuable energy expended, blew up between there and the line. He dropped to 10th as a result.
Is he confident that he would have otherwise been on the podium?
“You never know,” he answers. “I think that it’s really hard to say. On that day I felt pretty good. In the days before I lost some time some time, but at the moment I crashed I was in second position of the peloton on a descent.
“I was quite confident there, even in the wet, but you never know. I had a good chance to finish on the podium. At the very least, in the top five. That would have been pretty sure, I think.”
Bouncing back in style
It is often said that the mark of a champion is not just how they forge success, but also how they deal with adversity. Sport is seldom plain sailing – well, certainly not cycling – and all the big guns have had to recover from setbacks.
Mollema’s response to his Tour disappointment showed how mentally tough he is.
Six days after he raced into Paris in 11th place overall, far further back than he had anticipated pre-crash, he lined out in the Clasica San Sebastian.
He rode strongly there and attacked hard on the final climb to get a gap. He put the head down and hammered it from there to the finish, crossing the line 17 seconds ahead of the next riders and scooping a major success.
Winning the WorldTour race was important for his palmares, but it also showed his resilience.
“I’m happy I could bounce back in San Sebastian, even after the disappointments,” he says. “In cycling you just have to keep going and then look towards the next goals. I think that’s what I have to do also for next year.
“The day after I lost time in the Tour was really difficult, especially because we still had one stage to do to Morzine. It was not really my best day as my morale was really low. I even got dropped halfway, but I think that was more mentally than physically, and I came back.
“That was of course a hard time. But after a few days I realized that San Sebastian is a race I always liked. It is one I was always good at. In the last three, four years I always finished up to the top six or seven there. I knew it was a chance for me and that the form was still good.
“I also wanted to go for it because the Olympics was one week later and so I could focus really quickly on those races. That was maybe also good to forget the Tour a little bit faster.”
Hitting the line first was the upswing in what had been a real rollercoaster period. Any win feels good, but coming back from deep disappointment makes it all the sweeter.
“It was a really great feeling,” he smiles. “I think that was maybe my biggest win, and it was also in a race I really like. Coming so close after the Tour, it was special. I think it’s a memory I will remember my whole career.”
The win was important in itself but it also gave him a much-needed morale boost. He rode solidly in the Olympic road race and then, almost a month later, won the time trial in the Tour of Alberta and netted second overall.
He had proof his time trial work was paying off, while Trek-Segafredo got a further reminder of his stage race ability.
Yielding to Contador, but seeing benefits
Mollema is now 30 years of age but there is reason to believe he could keep improving for at least another couple of years. Unlike many of his fellow pro riders, he didn’t take up the sport until he was 18 years of age.
They had a head start on him in terms of honing the body and gaining experience. Conversely, they have also accumulated more wear and tear on the system as a result.
Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena is one who believes this could be a factor in future seasons.
“We should not forget that Bauke started his professional career really late,” he told CyclingTips at the same training camp. “Essentially he started really late to ride. He was 18. So we think he still has a lot of potential to show.”
Mollema agrees. “I think last year the Tour was probably my best Tour. Now I just turned 30, but I feel like I have many years ahead,” he states. “I feel I feel fresh. In the beginning, of course, when I started cycling, it was a disadvantage to start this late. But I think now it can be an advantage.”
The plan, therefore, is to give him time to develop. At the same time it wants to win the Tour de France as soon as possible, and is opting to put double Tour champion Alberto Contador into the driving seat next July, with Mollema riding backup.
The idea has several merits: Guercilena believes that Contador has still got what it takes to win the sport’s biggest race, giving reasons why Trek-Segafredo could get more out of him than Tinkoff did. He also feels that Mollema has more to learn, and that giving him an alternative race programme as a team leader will be beneficial.
As a result of this, the Giro d’Italia rather than the Tour de France will be his prime target in 2017.
“The idea for Bauke to go to the Giro is that he can be really competitive to win the overall, just as he was trying to do in the 2016 Tour de France,” Guercilena explains.
“We think that it will also be the last piece of the puzzle for him to turn to then into a real GC rider for the three weeks.”
Were Mollema not so level-headed, he might feel slighted by the change in plans. Okay, he didn’t finish on the podium in 2016, yet he knows without his crash he might have been in the top three in Paris.
No matter. He accepts Contador’s past history is better than his own, and insists he is fine with an alternative race programme in the months ahead.
“I knew already it was coming,” he states. “In the beginning of the year I think the team was also talking to guys like Nibali. Because of that, I knew there was another GC rider on the way. I’m happy with Alberto in the team. I think he’s a great champion.
“For me, of course, it changes my programme but I think it’s also opportunity to go for the Giro now. I will be back in the Tour to fight for the GC next year or the year after. So I think it’s positive. And hopefully I can also learn from him too. I think he has a lot of experience. Next season, helping him in the Tour and observing how he handles everything can also help me.”
Mollema has been training for five weeks and is satisfied with how things are going thus far. He will begin his season in January in the Vuelta de San Juan in Argentina, then continue building for Tirreno-Adriatico. That will likely be his first goal and will be a good indicator of how he is fixed for the Giro d’Italia.
“A few years ago my first Grand Tour was the Giro in 2010. So now I’m going back to Italy. I’m really motivated for that,” he says.
“I think the route looks good. I don’t know the roads in Italy so well because I only raced the Giro once. But I will definitely watch some stages beforehand. And luckily we have a lot of Italian guys in the team.
“In addition to that Ivan Basso knows the roads in Italy everywhere, and we have an Italian director. It’s nice to have an experience of those people.
“I think the route looks quite nice to me. There are a lot of uphill finishes. That’s what I like, of course. And two TTs, including one long one. I think in general it is a nice parcours for me.”
If things go to plan Mollema will be fighting for the pink in Italy and will then start the Tour de France on a confidence high. He’ll ride for Contador next July, but knows it is all part of a bigger picture.
Winning the 2017 race is important for the team, while building experience is crucial for him personally.
“I always dreamed of the Tour,” he states. “For me is the biggest race there is. I will definitely go back to the Tour in the future to fight for the GC and, hopefully, finish on the podium.
“I think that that’s something I was close to this year. I’m looking forward to riding with Alberto there next season, and then hopefully I can come back in the next years to really be up there…”