Today at the Tour: The audacity of Steven Kruijswijk

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Who does that?

Who attacks a stacked breakaway group 73km from the finish line on a major mountain stage while sitting sixth overall at the Tour de France? Who rides alone, across two Hors Categorie climbs in the Alps, with the all-star roster of Team Sky chasing behind?

Steven Kruijswijk does that.

The 31-year-old Dutch rider, whose shoulders are so broad he’s been nicknamed “The Clothes Hanger,” went all in on Stage 12 from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Alpe d’Huez, striking out on his own on the Col de la Croix-de-Fer.

Did it succeed? Well, no. Maybe, in some ways. It’s hard to say.

The LottoNL-Jumbo rider hit the base of the 13.8km climb up l’Alpe d’Huez alone with a lead of 4:20. He was caught 3.5km from the line, and finished 53 seconds down on stage winner Geraint Thomas. It’s impossible to know where he might’ve finished had he hit the climb tucked in the main group of GC contenders, as his teammate Primoz Roglic did, but Roglic lost only 13 seconds.

The net result: Kruijswijk dropped two spots on the general classification, from sixth to eighth, and burned a lot of energy. But he also earned the Combativity award, put the LottoNL-Jumbo jersey across TV screens around the world for hours, and won the hearts of cycling fans eager for someone to stand up to Team Sky’s dominance.

Kruijswijk’s solo escapade was just one of several storylines on a day that saw the maillot jaune win atop l’Alpe d’Huez, Vincenzo Nibali knocked down by a race moto, and several riders, including Kruijswijk’s teammate Dylan Groenewegen, winner of two sprint stages, forced to abandon due to injuries.

Kruijswijk was one of several marquee riders to slip away in a 30-rider breakaway on the Col de la Madeleine. Also in the move was Pierre Rolland, Warren Barguil, Alejandro Valverde, Ilnur Zakarin, and LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Robert Gesink. Kruijswijk, however, was highest placed, starting the day 2:40 behind Thomas and riding into the virtual maillot jaune as his gap ultimately extended to six minutes.

“Kruijswijk put a hell of a lot pressure on us,” Thomas said. “We were struggling.”

Prior to the stage, Kruijswijk had told the Tour’s media services that his goal was to win atop l’Alpe, alone.

“It’s nice to ride l’Alpe d’Huez, for the peloton it’s special,” Kruijswijk said. “Sky have quite a strong team, but everybody can have a bad day, and if fatigue is going through them, if we see a weakness, we’ll try to exploit it. My dream? Hopefully to win solo, with a lot of time behind me.”

Prior to Thursday, Kruijswijk was best known by cycling fans as the rider who watched a win at the 2016 Giro d’Italia slide away into a snowbank atop the Coll dell’Agnello. After wearing the maglia rosa for five days, the LottoNL-Jumbo rider ceded the race lead on Stage 19, and finished just off the podium, in fourth. He would have been the first Dutch Grand Tour winner since Joop Zoetemelk won the 1980 Tour de France. Instead, Tom Dumoulin broke the streak one year later, at the Giro d’Italia.

It was a devastating blow, and one Kruijswijk admits still haunts him.

“It was a bit hard to handle the first two weeks home after the Giro, when you thought, ‘Okay, maybe I could’ve been there for the biggest win in my career,’” Kruiswijk told Cycling Weekly in 2017. “I was reminded about it many times and you realize it was a big chance that slipped by. I don’t think it was my only chance. I know now that it is possible.”

Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) wore the maglia rosa for five days at the 2016 Giro d’Italia, but crashed on a descent on Stage 19 and slipped to fourth overall.

On Thursday, Kruijswijk rode as if anything was possible.

Unfortunately for Kruijswijk, Team Sky unleashed21-year-old Colombian sensation Egan Bernal on the lower slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez. After Michal Kwiatkowski peeled off early on the climb, Bernal trimmed down Kruiswijk’s lead by one minute in just 3km. Attacks from Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet only ramped up the pace.

Ultimately it was Chris Froome, chasing down Bardet, who caught Kruijswijk at 3.5km to go. In this Tour marked again by he domination by Team Sky, it was a symbolic moment. For the second day in a row, Sky caught a lone breakaway rider near the summit, and went on to win the stage.

Though he’s been in the top 10 at the Giro d’Italia three times, and once at the Vuelta a España, Kruijswijk has just one professional stage race victory to his name, the 2014 Arctic Race of Norway. It’s one of only two pro victories for the Dutchman, the other a stage win at the 2011 Tour de Suisse — which paints a picture of just how much a stage victory would have meant atop l’Alpe d’Huez.

“It feels pretty painful to lose the stage after such a long breakaway,”Kruijswijk said. “I always knew it would be hard to get the yellow jersey. But this stage was high on my list. I wanted to give it a try. In the end, it wasn’t supposed to be a win. I’m disappointed, but it’s not the biggest disappointment in my career. I’ve been close to a few special moments before.”

Kruijswijk put on a courageous performance, but he was not rewarded for his efforts. One thing is certain, however — he won’t be left wondering what might have been.

“It was worth a try,”Kruijswijk said. “It went very well today, only the last section was too much. I rode alone for a long time and the valley to Alpe d’Huez cost me a lot of power. It is a little disappointing that I did not make it, but it was a beautiful day. Fortunately I did not collapse completely and I am still pretty good in the general classification. It was a daring move, but I like to race like that. I gambled and lost, but I will definitely try again.”

CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.

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