Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) may insist that he is as surprised as everyone else to find himself leading the Giro d’Italia by more than two minutes as the race enters its final week, but he didn’t seem remotely fazed by his new status when he met with reporters during Monday’s rest day.
A week ago in Tuscany, Kruijswijk’s rest day press conference was a low-key affair, attended primarily by a handful of Dutch reporters on their way to see Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). Seven days on, a rather more eclectic spread of media outlets descended upon the mountain town of Natz – still in Italy, albeit German-speaking South Tyrol – to hear the maglia rosa’s thoughts.
This Giro, certainly, is speaking a different language to one anticipated beforehand. Rather than a straight battle between home favourite Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Spanish challengers Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Mikel Landa (Sky), it is Kruijswijk who holds a commanding lead in the overall standings.
After moving into the pink jersey thanks to his attack over the top of the Passo Valparola during Saturday’s mammoth leg to Corvara, Kruijswijk padded his lead by placing second on Sunday’s mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi. Kruijswijk’s balance sheet after the Dolomite weekend sees him 2:12 clear of Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and 2:51 up on Nibali.
“I didn’t expect to be in the leading position at all actually. For me, it’s all new,” Kruijswijk said in a drawing room of the Flötscherhof hotel. “Of course, I wanted to be as high on general classification at the end as possible. I’m a little bit surprised I’m in the lead now. I feel really strong after this weekend and hopefully I can hold it.”
Kruijswijk set out from his native Netherlands two weeks ago as a decent outside bet for a place on the podium, given his back catalogue at the Giro. Eighth overall as a youngster in 2011, he placed seventh last year after coughing up eight minutes in the opening week but then rubbing shoulders with Messrs. Contador, Aru and Landa as the race reached its denouement in the high mountains.
“I saw last year that I put more into the Giro than the seventh place I got out of it,” Kruijswijk said. “I was aiming for top five here because last year I saw I could go with the guys from the podium like Landa, Aru and Contador. I knew it was possible to end up high on the GC, but I wasn’t thinking about the pink jersey in the first place.
“Coming in to the Giro, I knew my level was good and I’d only get better during the race. I said that if I saw an opportunity to attack, I’d try to take it. On Saturday [on the Passo Valparola – ed.] there was an opportunity and I took it.”
Twelve months ago, Kruijswijk entered the second half of the Giro committed to going on the offensive as he sought to peg back the time he conceded early on. This time around, he has the relative luxury of being able to follow the moves, though his LottoNL-Jumbo team is lacking the climbing strength of some of its rivals.
“If I can gain more time, of course I will try to attack,” he said. “When there’s an opportunity I will take it but I’ll see what the competition will be in the next stages.
“Chaves is in second position behind me. I think he’s the most dangerous guy for me to watch. He made a great impression on Saturday. He’s still dangerous.”
Rabobank and injury
A native of Nuenen, where Van Gogh’s father was a pastor, Kruijswijk’s was a relatively late vocation, as he began cycling at the age of 16. Like most of the top Dutch talents of his generation, he served his apprenticeship with the Rabobank under-23 team, before turning professional with the same outfit in 2010.
At the end of his third year at WorldTour level, Rabobank announced the cessation of its 17-year sponsorship following revelations that a systematic doping programme had been in place on the team up to 2007. The winter of 2012 marked a period of turmoil for Dutch cycling, with the federation opening an inquiry into the doping culture of the sport.
“No, of course I never worked with Doctor Leinders [the former Rabobank and Sky doctor who received a life ban by USADA – ed.] and it’s all before I turned professional with Rabobank so there’s nothing I can say about this. I never saw something, I never did something,” Kruijswijk said, adding of the Dutch federation’s investigation: “For me, I didn’t know anything. For me, the question was have I ever doped? And of course the answer was no.”
Kruijswijk’s early promise as a Grand Tour rider stalled in 2012 and 2013, due to the narrowing of a femoral artery, which required corrective surgery in the Autumn of 2013. It was the second time in six years that he had undergone such surgery, and it was midway through 2014 before the Dutchman began to recover the vim of old.
“It took a while before I knew what the problem was. To find out what the problem is you have to visit a lot of hospitals, and then I had the operation,” he said. “It took me one year to get back at the level to try to get back in the rhythm in the racing, and to be confident again that I had the level of before. I think it was maybe two years that I was out of the level of racing that I was used to.”
Now 28 years of age and two minutes clear of the rest at the Giro d’Italia, Kruijswijk’s career is decidedly back on track, and at the right time, too. Asked if he had a contract for 2017, Kruijswijk was succinct: “No.”