When the Tour de France opened its gates in Mont Saint-Michel a little over two weeks ago, few had Bauke Mollema in the list of those who would pose the biggest threat to Chris Froome’s title defence. Now, the Trek-Segafredo rider on the verge of a career-best result, just four days away from a potential podium place in Paris. Sitting less than two minutes behind Froome, Mollema says he’s ready to exploit any chinks in the Sky rider’s armour.
“They (Team Sky) look really strong; Froome attacked on the descent, he attacked in the wind last week. He’s riding aggressive and trying to take time everywhere, but we will see,” Mollema said during his rest day press conference.
“Froome is the big favourite; He has already won the Tour de France twice. He is almost two minutes ahead of me. He has all the pressure. They have a great team also and, for them, it would be disappointing with a team like that and with their budget if they don’t win the Tour. I hope to continue with the legs that I’ve got, and if there are opportunities, then I will go for it. If I see any weaknesses with Froome, then I will attack.”
This year’s Tour de France has been one of the closest in recent years. On the first rest day Mollema was just 44 seconds back but was down in seventh place. He’s looked consistently strong in the mountains and lost only a few seconds during the windy stage 11 to Montpellier. He was the only one of the GC contenders to get within a minute of Froome in the time trial, putting in the performance of his life.
Mollema says that he will attack Froome’s weaknesses, but does he believe that he could take the yellow jersey into Paris?
“You never know,” he said. “Of course, I’m dreaming of that, but I want to look at it day by day. A two-minute gap to Froome is big. I can’t remember a time that I took two minutes from him in a TT or a mountain stage, but I am in the form of my life.”
A week makes a world of difference and when Trek-Segafredo convened for their press conference on the opening day in Andorra he was met by just a handful of Dutch press. Eight days later and in the thick of a serious GC challenge, a pack descends on the American Embassy in Bern to hear what the Dutchman has to say.
It’s a new experience for Mollema, although he has been here before. In 2013, Mollema went into the rest day in second place overall behind the race leader Froome. The gap was four minutes then, and it was the first time that he had been a serious GC challenger at the Tour de France. He would eventually run out of steam and end the race in sixth.
“I think it is different because at that moment it was new to me and I was younger than I am no. I know what to expect now with all these sorts of things. It’s not only cycling; there are the things with the media at this moment so maybe I’m more experienced,” Mollema explained.
“My own level is better than it was three years ago. Three years ago I did one mountain stage in the Pyrenees and I did a good stage in the echelons. For the rest uphill, I was not as good as I was this year.”
Mollema will not only have to look ahead but also behind, with a whole hoard of riders waiting to exploit any of his own weaknesses and move past him into the podium spots. But he is thinking of offence rather than defence in the coming days, with Adam Yates, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde all looming behind him.
Now 29, Mollema was a much later arrival to the sport of cycling than many of his rivals. His native Netherlands is bike crazy but his family was not, and the man from Groningen only began riding as a teenager, using it to get him to and from school. Mollema’s first race bike came at the age of 16, and it wasn’t until two years later that he entered his first race. In 2008, he made his professional debut with the Rabobank team and completed his first Grand Tour two years later taking 12th in the Giro d’Italia.
Mollema says that his later start could give him an edge over some of the longer-standing members of the peloton.
“Maybe that gives me an advantage over riders who are longer in the sport,” he suggested. “I think for the mind, it keeps me fresh. I’m still discovering new things; I still feel I’m progressing. I think that is important, especially at my age, I think I can still continue at this level or get better over the next few years, and that’s something to look out for.”