Over five years have passed since Wilco Kelderman last won a bike race, but the Dutchman is now six days – and 15 seconds – away from overall victory at the Giro d'Italia. An unpredictable Giro now has an unexpected favourite thanks to Team Sunweb's show of force at Piancavallo on stage 15. On Monday's rest day, Kelderman was reluctant to cast his mind ahead to wearing pink in Milan just yet.
"I want to get the pink jersey, but still there is a hard week in front of us. I look day by day and I don't want to think forward too much. That works well for me and it makes you less nervous as well," said Kelderman, who sliced the overall lead of João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) to 15 seconds this weekend.
He also has more than three minutes in hand on Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), who struggled on Sunday.
"[Almeida] is strong and you won't lose him just like that, he has shown that. The rest are at quite a distance, but I still have to pay attention to riders like Nibali and Majka in the hard mountain stages that will come," added Kelderman.
On the toughest mountain stage of the race thus far, Kelderman's Sunweb team made all of the running, with Chris Hamilton catching the eye at the base of Piancavallo before Jai Hindley took over with 7km to go, never relenting until the summit. Only Kelderman and stage winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) could stay with the Australian, who himself moved up to third overall in the process.
The Sunweb offensive had been quietly advertised the previous day, when men like Chad Haga soft-pedalled through the Valdobbiadene time trial, but it had been planned for more than a week. Directeur Sportif Luke Roberts told Cyclingnews on Monday that the team had considered a similar effort at Roccaraso on stage 9 but decided against it, reasoning that carrying the overall lead through a treacherous second week would have cost too much energy for the third.
"There were a lot of intermediate stages last week where you could be caught riding on the front if other teams weren't interested in controlling the break, so holding the pink jersey there could have been quite taxing," Roberts said.
"We'd looked at a possible opportunity to try to take the jersey at Roccaraso, but we targeted Piancavallo instead to try to make a difference there, as it was coming straight after the time trial for the GC competitors. And after the time trial, we also needed to take 56 seconds on the pink jersey, so we needed to make a move yesterday. We got back a piece of that time, but the tougher stages are still ahead of us."
The 29-year-old Kelderman has been touted as a three-week contender since he turned professional, but his relationship with the Grand Tours has been beset by ill fortune over the years. Although he placed fourth overall at the 2017 Vuelta a España, Kelderman could acknowledge that he was not listed among the top tier of favourites for this Giro before the outset.
"My preparation for this Giro was very good and I am in better shape than ever," said Kelderman. "But I realise also that it's to my advantage that [Steven] Kruijswijk, [Geraint] Thomas and [Simon] Yates already left the Giro."
Two of that trio abandoned the Giro after returning positive tests for COVID-19, and Kelderman's own race was at risk when teammate Michael Matthews also tested positive for the coronavirus on the first rest day.
Unlike Jumbo-Visma, Sunweb opted to remain in the Giro and the team's riders and staff faced repeated testing during the second week. For the second rest day, they underwent further, mandatory PCR tests along with the entire Giro bubble.
"With Sunweb the last week, we've been tested every day and I think the situation is under control," Kelderman said. "I have a lot of confidence that I can continue the Giro."
Whenever and however it ends, the Giro will be Kelderman's final race as a Sunweb rider before his transfer to Bora-Hansgrohe in 2021. The corsa rosa had been on his schedule before the coronavirus pandemic forced the revision of the calendar and before his departure was confirmed, and despite those changes, it remained the centrepiece of his season.
"We stuck with that after the change of dates and regardless of his change of teams at the end of the season. It's important to us that we can work together in a professional way," added Roberts. "That's showing in Wilco's performance."
While Kelderman's days with the team are numbered, the 24-year-old Hindley forms a key part of Sunweb's future. The third-year professional was handed the freedom to chase a high overall finish on this Giro and he has responded accordingly. Six days from the finish, he lies third overall, 2:56 off Almeida.
"Jai's a very handy bike racer, put it that way," Robert said. "He's a good climber, he can handle himself in a bunch and he has a good finish on him as well. He's progressing well, but he's at a development stage with the team. He was second at the Tour de Pologne last year, he won the Sun Tour this year, and this is the next step in that development."
Thus far, Hindley's work on behalf of Kelderman has helped rather than hindered his own general classification ambitions, though it remains to be seen if that balance will still be possible in the brutally tough final week – assuming, of course, that weather conditions allow of the mountain passes to be scaled as planned.
"We have to see how things shape up in the last week to see what we have to do to secure a podium position and also manage tactical moves to try to win the race as well," said Roberts, who warned that Sunweb have more rivals beyond the man 15 seconds in front of Kelderman on GC.
"There are riders who are three minutes back, which sounds a lot at the moment, but not when you consider some of the stages still to come."
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