There will still be the traditional sea of orange on Alpe-d’Huez on Thursday afternoon but the Dutch Corner’s hopes of seeing one of their own on the podium of the Tour de France for the first time in 23 years were dealt a significant blow when Bauke Mollema (Belkin) slipped to fourth overall following the stage 17 time trial to Chorges.
Mollema began the day second overall, 4:14 off the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky) and within the Belkin camp there was quiet confidence that the form lines from last Wednesday’s flat time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel would hold true to the undulating and technical test in the Alps in the final week.
If Froome was the only reference point, such a belief would not have been entirely misplaced: Mollema lost 1:53 to the yellow jersey over 33 kilometres in Normandy last week and 2:09 over a similar distance on Wednesday.
The problem for Mollema was that Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger have each displayed very distinct improvement since action resumed after the second rest day. They placed 2nd and 4th on the stage respectively, 9 seconds and 23 seconds down on Froome, but they each made significant gains on Mollema to relegate him to 4th on the overall standings.
“That’s a lot of time, it’s more than I expected,” a disappointed Mollema said after a swirl of Dutch television stations – ‘Mollemania’ has brightened summer in the Netherlands – had engulfed him on crossing the line.
As soon as they rolled down the start ramp in Embrun, riders faced into the sharp climb of the Côte de Puy-Sanières, and Mollema immediately felt the effects of the previous two and half weeks in his legs. He came through the first time check at the top in a sluggish 38th place, already 1:10 down, and although he steadied the ship thereafter, he could only manage 11th on the stage.
"I had weak legs on the first climb, but I did well on the descent and then the second climb went better,” said Mollema. “I was switched bikes at the top of that climb, which was the best choice because you really felt the benefit in the last twelve kilometres.”
As he scrambled down into Chorges in a vain attempt to salvage his place on the provisional podium, Mollema overshot a right-hand bend in the closing kilometres and crashed against the barriers. The Dutchman showed sleight of foot and speed of mind to stay upright and he reported no injuries at the finish, but the incident was illustrative of his outing. It was just that kind of afternoon.
“I went a bit fast into that corner and my brakes were not working well after it had started to rain and I lost confidence,” Mollema said. “I just went too late into the corner but I think it’s not a big problem, it wasn’t even a real crash. Maybe it cost me 5 seconds, but nothing more.”
After battling gamely for over two weeks, Mollema has found his Tour transformed in the space of 32 kilometres, and ahead of three decisive days in the Alps, he is now all of 6:23 behind the leader Froome and 1:32 off the third-placed Kreuziger.
As he warmed down on the rollers outside the Belkin camper van near the finish line, Mollema was at least able to share his disappointment with teammate Laurens ten Dam, who dropped to 7th place overall after he finished 16th on the stage.
The Belkin duo, so impressive on the opening summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines, appear to be tiring as the Tour reaches its endgame, while Contador and Kreuziger seem in possession of an extremely robust second wind in this third week.
“Bauke has had the same gap to Froome in this stage as he did in the first flat time trial, so I’m not surprised about that gap,” Belkin directeur sportif Nico Verhoeven told Cyclingnews. “But you saw yesterday that Contador and Kreuziger are better than a week ago. That gap was big but that not so big that I’m surprised about it.”
Verhoeven was cautious about the prospect of Mollema going on the offensive on the road to Alpe-d’Huez – “It’s a stage where you can lose minutes. You don’t want to go on the attack and then end up losing ten minutes” – and he is well aware that overhauling the Saxo-Tinkoff tandem on this form will prove an arduous task
“If they’re still in the same condition in the next three days as they are now, it will be hard to beat Contador and Kreuziger because they’re still getting better,” he said. “I saw the shape they had yesterday and today, so I would be surprised if they were worse than that tomorrow. But it’s cycling and you never know.”