After rising through the ranks at Rabobank and Belkin, Bauke Mollema has made the boldest and biggest step of his career in moving to Trek Factory Racing. He leaves behind the comfort zone of split leadership and home comforts for the chance to be the sole leader of a WorldTour team at the Tour de France for the first time.
At 28, and with the full backing of his new team, Mollema has set his sights on delivering a top five place in the Tour. It's a lofty ambition for almost any rider but with a favourable parcours, a new-found motivation and the confidence of Trek's Luca Guercilena moving him forward, Mollema believes that he’s made one of the best decisions of his cycling life.
"It's a big change for me," he tells Cyclingnews at the start of year, having already spent time immersing himself in his new team at a December training camp.
"I've always been in the same Dutch team so when I arrived at Trek I didn't know what to expect, if I'm honest. The team were welcoming and of course I knew some of the riders from the past and from racing but I couldn't be happier with things so far. The change seemed big to start with but after a few days it seemed relatively small. That's down to how they've helped me fit in."
Mollema was one of the most sought after riders in the transfer market due to his recent Tour performances and consistency in last year's Classics. From the start of 2014 a number of WorldTour teams began to court him – including his then-employers Belkin, who sought to extend his stay – but Guercilena won the day, appealing to Mollema's need for a new challenge and offering the Dutchman what he had craved but never had during his time in Holland: total leadership and support at the Tour de France in July. Even Belkin, with Laurens ten Dam, Robert Gesink and the ever-improving Wilco Kelderman, couldn't compete with such an offer and after a short period of negotiation, Guercilena could tick off the biggest transfer target from his shopping list.
"In Belkin and Rabobank there were many times when we started a Grand Tour or an important race when we had two or more leaders. For me, personally, I don't think that's the best way of racing. I think it's best to start with one leader and then move to plan B if you need to later," Mollema says.
"I'm not sure what would have happened if I had stayed on the team but when I spoke to Luca I felt as though he had a lot of confidence in me. That was key in my move. Immediately I felt like I had his confidence and that he wanted me.
"Once I spoke to Luca my decision was made up. It seemed like the perfect team for me in terms of my role as a stage race leader and rider for the Classics."
Guercilena inherited a team that had been pieced together by several different managers at Leopard and Trek but over the last two years he has begun to mould and shape a team so reliant on Fabian Cancellara into a solid outfit. Mollema, it seems, is his man, his leader for the Tour de France, and the Italian's management has already had an effect on his new recruit.
"I needed that new challenge and new people around me. This move to Trek is a new step in my career and in the last few years maybe it just didn't feel like I was improving in the way that I wanted and perhaps I needed a new motivation and environment to make that next step."
Not just the Tour
The Tour de France will be the centrepiece of Mollema's season but his entire year will not be judged solely on his performance in July. The Classics will be crucial too and with top fifteen placings in all of the Ardennes last year, Mollema will be gunning for success when April comes around.
As he talks about his season's objectives, it is clear that his relaxed demeanour and dry sense of humour can help him handle and deflect expectation. But then again, pressure is a simple fact of life in the white of the Tour, when the world's glare fixates on every pedal stroke and gear shift for three weeks.
To alleviate such thoughts of pressure, Mollema is keen to start the year on the front foot at some of the more minor races that will form part of his Spring campaign.
"I will start in Mallorca and then I'll do Murcia, Ruta del Sol, Tirreno, Pais Vasco and then the Classics. After that there might be a break and then we'll work towards the Tour de France. Of course, the Classics are a big goal next year too. I want to hit top form in the Spring. Last year I had some top tens in the Ardennes and I'm aiming at the top five. I'm a year older, with a year of more experience and that really helps in those races because you know the roads and you become more used to the distance. We've got a strong team too with [Fränk] Schleck and [Julian] Arredondo, guys who can either get a good result or help me," he tells Cyclingnews.
"Of course I have the will to race and the team expect me to do well in the biggest races and the Classics. At the first races of the year there's not that much pressure from the team but for me they're important, races like Mallorca and Murcia, because it would be nice to get a result after the hard training I've done this winter. This is the best winter I've had on the bike and I expect that good shape to pay off."
Should Mollema's early season plans come to fruition, he will line up at Utrecht for the start of the Tour de France as Trek Factory Racing's leader. With Fränk Schleck in a super domestique role and the possibility of Fabian Cancellara to lead him through the first week and the team time trial, Mollema could indeed find himself battling for a top five finish in Paris.
"Normally that's the plan but we have riders who can ride for GC in a Grand Tour, like Zubeldia, who has been in the top ten five times, and Fränk Schleck, who has been on the podium," he says when discussing the role of team leader for the Tour.
"It's not just me and I'm sure that I can still learn a lot from those guys, not just in the Tour but in a lot of big races. I'm at the age where I'm still improving and if I look to my results from last year, I hope to make another step up. I want to be the leader of the team but I have to prove that I'm ready and that's another reason why it's important to gain a few results in the first part of the season. My level has to be good if I want to lead."
The 2015 Tour de France route is one that certainly suits Mollema's characteristics with its sprinkling of Ardennes terrain in the first week and a mountain-packed second half.
"It's one for the climbers. Maybe it would have been nicer with some more time trials because I'll go better on this new bike. There's the team time trial and the first week finish on the Mur de Huy are good for me. It's important, as ever, to stay healthy and upright in that first week and then see from there.
"I hope so with the top five. It's always hard to predict and my focus now is to start well at the first few races of the year and improve the level from last year. From there I can start to focus on a Tour position. I've been sixth and tenth in the last two years so my goal is to be a top five rider in the next few years. I'm at an age where I'm getting better."