Kelderman after finishing third at the recent Circuito de Getxo. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Wilco Kelderman, the overlooked Grand Tour podium contender

The Dutchman has three top-10 finishes at the Vuelta. Could he get his first podium this time around?

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Wilco Kelderman starts his 14th Grand Tour on Friday. This year’s Vuelta a España starts out as a home race for the 31-year-old Dutchman who grew up not far from Utrecht. His best result in the Vuelta was a fourth place in 2017 but after a successful preparation in the north of Spain, Kelderman feels that a podium place is within reach. “When everything falls into place, yes I am confident,” he says.

Kelderman stormed onto the scene in 2013 with a 17th place in his first Grand Tour: the Giro d’Italia. He was only 22 years old and a promising talent. In his junior years he had already showed his climbing and time trial skills and as an U23 he continued that streak with the Rabobank Development Team, taking 10th in the Tour de l’Avenir when he was just 19, and 12th place against the pros in the Tour de l’Ain that same year. 

It was clear from the beginning that stage racing was his forte. Kelderman is a strong climber and a fast time triallist, even a former national champion against the clock. He is also the kind of rider who progresses towards week three of a Grand Tour. In short, he ticks all the boxes as a Grand Tour contender. He finished in the top 10 of the general classification in almost half the Grand Tours he’s started with a third place in the Giro in 2020 as his career highlight so far.

Kelderman (right) after finishing third at the 2020 Giro behind Tao Geoghegan Hart and teammate Jai Hindley. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Kelderman’s Vuelta stats are impressive with a 14th, 10th, seventh, and a fourth place and therefore it’s remarkable he always flies under the radar before any Grand Tour when the predictions are published.

“I don’t know if the Vuelta suits me best out of the Grand Tours,” Kelderman says. “This year is a different Vuelta because there are fewer steep, short ramps. The Giro usually has the longer climbs and the longer stages that I like but for one reason or the other I always do well in the Vuelta. It’s a hard race with lots of elevation and hard stages. In the end the strongest will always prevail.”

Bora-Hansgrohe, the team Kelderman has been part of since 2021, has three aces in the race. As one of those leaders Jai Hindley said, they are relaxed about who will be the leader in the end.

“We are a relaxed team with multiple captains,” Kelderman says, echoing the words of his teammate. “Sergio [Higuita], Jai, and me will focus on the general classification. In a Grand Tour it’s always hard to predict and decide beforehand who will lead the team because many things can happen. If someone crashes or gets ill you need a plan B. It’s always better to bet on different horses.

“We are a relaxed and down-to-earth group of riders but most of all we are realistic. It will become clear towards the end who will play which role and then we will act upon that and help the one in the best position to go for a result.” 

Kelderman riding in support of Hindley at the 2022 Giro. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The Vuelta starts with an inner-city team time trial in Utrecht on Friday. The team had a practice run on the straight and flat roads of the Dutch polders to prepare for this increasingly rare discipline.

“Those long roads are not really comparable to the course we will have in Utrecht but we will see that later this week,” he says. “We hardly do team time trials anymore so there is only so much you can practice in a short time. Today we focused on formation and communication but also on intensity. We have some guys with a bigger engine who need to lead certain parts of the course. You need to tell each other when they go fast and when slow and who rides where.

“But we are not the favorites here. For us it’s about limiting the losses against teams like Ineos or Jumbo-Visma. We will do the best we can and try to get through as best as possible.” 

The three stages in the Netherlands are only the beginning. After a rest day the race moves to the Basque Country where Kelderman came in third in the Circuito de Getxo two weeks ago. With that result in his back pocket, he is quietly confident about his prospects over the next three weeks.

“A podium in this Vuelta? Yeah, why not,” he says without an ounce of arrogance in his voice. “I do know that I have it in me and how the preparation has been. I know I am good and feel great on the bike but you only really know when the race progresses as you also grow into a race. It’s also about the competition and the battle ahead.

“There are many factors that come into play but when everything is going well it’s a possibility. Every day is an important day. I will see day by day and then the outcome will be what it is.”

Kelderman is strong against the clock and will hope that a couple of strong TTs at the upcoming Vuelta will put him in good stead. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Kelderman has come a long way since his training rides around the provinces of Utrecht and Gelderland with his childhood teams WV Eemland in Amersfoort and UWTC De Volharding in Utrecht. He has grown up as a rider and as a person. His demeanor is relaxed and laid-back despite the fact the Vuelta is just around the corner.

“What I learned since that first Giro when I was 22 seems simple but it’s that a three-week Grand Tour is three weeks long,” he says with a smile. “You have to take it stage by stage and not be too nervous. It’s OK to lose 15 seconds. That’s not the end. You need to save energy when you can and strike on the days when it matters. It’s a big thing to ride a Grand Tour but I was more nervous as a younger rider. 

“In the end it’s like any other race where you need to focus and keep calm. There are things you learn when doing many Grand Tours. You learn when and what to eat, how much you need to drink, and how your body copes with the weather. You are more confident in your body because you have that experience.”

Kelderman crashing in the Benelux Tour 2021.

If Kelderman is on form he is a rider to reckon with but there is that one thing that seems to stick to him like glue. Crashes. He has broken collarbones, vertebrae, fingers.

“The love for the sport keeps me going,” he says about the mental aspect of crashing. “If you love something so much you don’t want to leave that behind. Of course, there is the pain and the disappointment but then you feel that tingle, that urge again to start riding. That motivation makes you return. If you see this as a job it won’t work. Then you won’t last and you don’t want to sacrifice so much and suffer so often.

“The setbacks are what makes the achievements so much better,” Kelderman continues. “I am therefore so proud of that third place in the Giro. There were so many crashes and injuries in the years before. I tried to get the best out of myself and trained so hard to get back. It was a victory in itself having overcome these setbacks.”

It’s clear that Kelderman is in a good place mentally. He is happily married to former cyclist Rebecca Talen and they have a daughter together. He has a stable home base and he clearly values that.

“I just love this sport,” he says. “I love my training, my preparation. That makes it a great way to spend my career now. It’s been like that since the beginning. I like the game, the tactics, but also the freedom. You are getting places and see a lot of things. I didn’t want to be in an indoor sports arena and not see anything.

“When you have an injury, you see again how small the world is. Without riding a bike, the world is a just different place.”

The 2022 Vuelta a España starts on Friday. If past performances are anything to go by, we’ll be seeing plenty of Kelderman right near the top of the general classification as the race unfolds. Perhaps, if everything goes to plan, he might even be on the podium come Madrid.

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