A miscue atop the Colle dell'Agnello may have cost Steven Kruijswijk overall victory at last year's Giro d'Italia, but it did not undo the value of the work that had brought him to the brink of becoming the first Dutch Grand Tour winner since Joop Zoetemelk claimed the 1980 Tour de France.
When Kruijswijk sat down ahead of 2017 and steeled himself to begin all over again, he charted a path to the Giro that closely mirrored his build-up to the corsa in each of the past two seasons. After racing Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya in March, Kruijswijk spent much of April training at altitude in Tenerife, and, for the third year in succession, the LottoNL-Jumbo man has slotted the Tour de Yorkshire into his schedule ahead of the Giro.
"This is the last bit of racing, getting into the mix of racing before I start again," Kruijswijk told Cyclingnews in Bridlington ahead of the opening stage of the Tour de Yorkshire." After a block of one month of training, it's good to do just before the start of the Giro. It helps build a bit of rhythm and maybe brings some confidence as well."
While Tour de France contenders can afford to reach a peak of sorts in the spring and then relent before building back up towards July, the Giro's place on the calendar typically requires a steadier period of preparation. In keeping with the tenor of the past two springs, Kruijswijk's early outings were solid rather than spectacular, but seventh overall at the Volta a Catalunya was a welcome confirmation of progress.
"It's possible to get results early in the year even when you're preparing for the Giro and I tried to, but the main goal was always the Giro," Kruijswijk said. "I tried to focus and stay healthy, and then I had to do a lot of preparation in the last month in Tenerife. I think that is the most important thing of the spring."
In each of the past two editions of the Giro, Kruijswijk has seemed to hold firm in the final week just as those around him are beginning to flag. Despite the distinctive, broad-shouldered riding style that earned him the nickname of De Kleerhanger – 'the clothes hanger' – this is not merely a visual impression. In 2015, Kruijswijk impressed Alberto Contador with his display on the Mortirolo stage en route to seventh overall, while a year ago, the Dutchman showed few signs of weakness right up to his crash on the Agnello.
With the bulk of the Giro's climbing once again shoehorned into the final week of racing, Kruijswijk will hope his powers of recovery can carry him to the podium in Milan, though he will be mindful, too, of potential pitfalls during the early skirmishes. In 2015, after all, a disastrous afternoon en route to La Spezia meant that a place in the top 10 was the summit of ambition come the final week.
"The Giro is going to be decided in the last week, of course, but when you look at the course, there's an uphill finish already on stage 4, up on Mount Etna. That's a pretty hard one," Kruijswijk said. "And then there are always stages that you have to be careful of, even on Sardinia, it's not as easy as it looks, so you have to be good from the start. It's really hard to say if you can grow into form during the Giro, but in my experience, I've been able to get better and better in the third week."
Kruijswijk's eventual fourth-place finish at last year's Giro was no consolation at all after he had defended the maglia rosa with such assurance through the final week. Even so, the trying final day and a half in the mountains did nothing to diminish Kruijswijk's belief that he can win the Giro.
"I didn't lose it because I wasn't good enough, I lost it because of a crash," Kruijswijk said. "I'm confident I can be up there again this year and compete with the guys who are up there."
Like many, Kruijswijk identifies Nairo Quintana (Movistar) as the man most likely to claim overall victory this time out – "Seeing his history of winning grand tours, I think he is the big favourite," he said – but the Dutchman is part of an elite group of riders with the ability to finish on the podium – or even claim pink – at this Giro. In a break from Dutch cycling's usual, Tour-centric view of the world, two of Kruijswijk's fellow countrymen, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) approach the corsa rosa with similar ambition.
"They're just the same rivals as the other ones," Kruijswijk said. "I won't help them and they won't help me. We'll be riding our own races."