Steven Kruijswijk returned to Italy for the first time since his painful final week of May's Giro d'Italia in which he crashed on stage 19 and lost his pink jersey. The Dutchman suffered a fractured rib in the crash.
Kruijswijk and LottoNL-Jumbo team manager Richard Plugge spent Tuesday morning at the Bianchi Cafè & Cycles Milano with the 29-year-old explaining his fourth place finish has given him the confidence he can be a Grand Tour podium contender in the years to come.
"I have never been in a top five of Grand Tour but after last year in the Giro especially I was one of the better riders I think. I knew I could be in the top five if everything was going alright," said Kruijswijk of his seventh place in 2015. "I felt really good from the start in Holland and I was really focused to not make the same mistake from last year when I lost a lot of time in the first week. I was always in the front and felt good the first time we were going uphill. Then I was feeling ok. After the first week I was already standing in the top ten, I could grow into the race but of course I never expected to take the pink jersey and even to extend my lead because after the time trial I was two and a half minutes [ahead]. After the rest day, I took more time again on my competitors so I never expected to be so good."
Kruijswijk's stage 19 crash put his overall aspirations to bed and prolonged the Dutch wait for a Grand Tour to at least this summer's Tour de France. His 13th place on the final mountain stage to Sant'Anna di Vinadio a day later then saw Kruijswijk drop off the podium into fourth place. While he was disappointed to have lost the race and his place on the podium, Kruijswijk explained that he believed he proved himself to be the strongest rider in the race on several occasions.
"I felt really good on the last few stages on that particular stage I was following the best riders of the race, [Vincenzo] Nibali and [Esteban] Chaves, and I was in a good position but I made a mistake," he said. "I misjudged a corner on the downhill and that’s why I crashed. Without a crash, I had a big gap on the GC behind me and I think I was really close to winning the Giro but you never know. I had confidence and still felt pretty good but after the crash it was impossible.
"I think I showed on some stages I was better than guys like Nibali, [Alejandro] Valverde… Otherwise I wouldn’t be in the pink jersey of course. In the uphill time trial I got second but [I was] in front of all the guys so I showed I was one of the stronger guys in the race. Over the years, I really had to grow to the level I am now. I had some injuries a few years ago and to get myself in this position in the team, I have to have confidence. I am a little bit later maybe in age to come to this result but now I have trust and confidence [that] in the future I can play a role."
At 29, Kruijswijk is coming into his peak years as an athlete with a Grand Tour podium, and possibly victory, within his reach. Since his 18th place on his Grand Tour debut at the 2010 Giro d'Italia, he has shown his progression and recovered from several injuries and set backs. The experience of leading a Grand Tour for the first time at the Giro will bode well for his future as he explained, with the 2016 Vuelta a Espana his next target race.
"Maybe not physically, but the experience was the first time in the position of defending the leader’s position. You have all that, not stress, but extras after the race of ceremonies, with the press, everything," he said of how he can improve and the lessons learned as a maglia rosa. "There is more attention…the team was in a new situation so was an all-new experience for me. I think I can learn from this year and can take this experience to the Vuelta in August and try and be there again.
"It was during the years in the first times of doing the Grand Tours," he added of when he first believed in his potential as a GC rider. "The first grand tour, I was a first year pro and I was 18th in the Giro. Next year I was in the top-10, I tried to improve every year then I got the injury, so go down a little bit again and you make your way up. Last year I was seventh but you see for me it’s a process of growing over the years. It’s not that I came from the U23 as the new rider for the Grand Tours who will wear a leader’s jersey one day, so it’s a slow process but I think I am now at the age I can be at my best."
With his contact set to end this season, Kruijswijk is weighing up his options for the future that will allow him to pursue his ambition of winning a Grand Tour. The Dutchman is set to head to altitude in Andorra with Clásica de San Sebastián and the Rio Olympic Games his next two races before aiming for the overall at the Vuelta a Espana. By the Vuelta's start in August, Kruijswijk's future for the next few seasons should be finalised and secure, but he is unsure with which team it will be.
"We have to see now, my contract ends this year so we have to talk with the team and what we can see for the future," he said. "Hopefully we can find a solution but other teams are interested of course, since I was close in the Giro. I have to see for myself what’s the best for me as I really want to win a Grand Tour in the future or be a podium contender, so I have to be in the best situation for me to get this result.
"I don’t know yet, my feelings say yes but also with which team I am with and what the goals are. Now I was so close I was to win the Giro I want to come back of course," he added of the likelihood of returning for the 2017 Giro.
There was little support from LottoNL-Jumbo in the high mountains for Kruijswijk and should the Dutch team recruit mountain domestiques, it could go some way to announcing its intention to back his bid for overall Grand Tour glory. However, Kruijswijk is well aware his current teams lacks the financial power of the big WorldTour squads.
"I think the team also sees that when you are in this position, and I showed that I can be in this position, you have to have a stronger team. Especially when it comes to the harder stages when it goes uphill," he reflected. "It’s a big difference with teams like Sky, Astana, Movistar. They only focus on the GC and maybe next time we only have to focus on the GC and having riders for this. It’s hard for our team to get riders who are doing the work for Nibali like Scarponi, Fuglsang, Kangert. They are really big names in the peloton and it’s also a case of budget so we have to be smart. Maybe with two or three more climbers in the team with the experience would be better for me."
While Kruijswijk speaks of the experience he gained wearing the maglia rosa, he described that he is now a better respected rider in the peloton and is looking forward to being considered as a grand tour contender. Starting with the Vuelta in August.
"For example now in the Vuelta they will see me as a contender for the podium of course," he said. "In the Giro they saw I can really play a role and I think they respected me in the race and liked how I did the race, and I never underestimated my competitors as well. It’s a good thing if they see me a dangerous guy for the GC."