Rabobank won the Giro d'Italia last year with Denis Menchov, but the Dutch team is starting the Italian Grand Tour on Saturday with no rider expected to contend for the pink jersey. Menchov is not returning to defend his title, and the team's hopes to shine on home soil in the race, which begins in Amsterdam, were dashed recently when sprinter Oscar Freire withdrew due to sinus trouble just two days ago.
Rabobank is the only Dutch team selected for the Giro d'Italia. In Menchov's absence, the team's management is looking to two riders for chances of glory: Bauke Mollema and Rick Flens.
"It's very special to be here with this enthusiastic atmosphere, I like it", said Mollema on the eve of stage one. As the winner of the 2007 Tour de l'Avenir, Mollema is expected to be the Netherlands' next Grand Tour rider after Robert Gesink, who has already made the top 10 in various stage races including the Vuelta a España.
This Giro d'Italia will be Mollema's first attempt at a Grand Tour, but he is already designated as a protected rider at Rabobank in the absence of Menchov. "Menchov doubled the Giro and Tour last year but realised he wasn't at 100 percent of his capacities at the Tour, so we agreed that he'd focus only on the Tour de France this year," team spokesman Luuc Eisenga told Cyclingnews.
Mollema's coming of age in the pro peloton was delayed by the Pfeiffer disease (also called mononucleosis - Ed.). As a result, he wasn't able to start the Vuelta a España, but he finished last season on a positive note at the Giro di Lombardia and aims to continue his Italian success at the Giro this year.
Some already consider Mollema a talent. "I've climbed with the 15 best at the Tour of Romandie, and I hope to be a little bit better at the Giro as the race will go on," the young man from Groningen said prior to the riders' presentation in the theatre Beurs van Berlage. "The last week will be really hard. I'm sort of a team captain but not like Menchov last year. We don't have a guy for the top five. Maybe one of us will make the top 20."
"For the overall classification, we have Mollema, who is having his first Grand Tour experience and [Peter] Weening who has experience and does well in stage races," said Eisenga. "They have total freedom in the race. We'll race without pressure. It's our aim to develop young talents."
If Mollema finds the right rhythm in the mountains, he may be a contender for the best young rider competition alongside Belgian Jan Bakelandts, who won the Tour de l'Avenir in 2008 one year after Mollemma, and Irish climber Dan Martin from Garmin-Transitions.
As for doing without its ace sprinter, Rabobank has a backup plan. "It's bad luck that we have to start the Giro without Freire, but we'll try to do well in the sprints with Graeme Brown."
For stage one, Rabobank is hoping for a good ride from Flens. His fifth place at the prologue of the Tour of Romandie augurs a potentially good showing on the streets of Amsterdam.
"This is my first Grand Tour, and I'm amazed by the number of media that are here and the attention we get," Flens said. His teammate Bauke Mollema expressed the same feeling after being asked for many interviews.
"Some Rabobank riders, like Dimitry Kozontchuk, are used to riding for Menchov, but now they can take their own chances during this Giro," said Flens, pointing out the advantage of not having an established Grand Tour contender on his team.