The morning carried no auguries of what was to come. Outside the Belkin team bus on Tours' Rue de Tanneurs before the start of stage 13 of the Tour de France, Bauke Mollema wore the relaxed air of a man anticipating a transitional day as the race slowly edges back towards the mountains.
"I'm just hoping to do my best next week, where every stage is going to be hard," Mollema told Cyclingnews, almost as if the race for the podium places had been suspended until the Alps.
Certainly, there was nothing to Mollema's words or demeanour that suggested what his Belkin squad would unleash on the peloton after it left the banks of the Loire, and no indication that he would finish the day in second place overall after regaining over a minute on yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky).
The brush of a crosswind has the tendency to quicken Dutch pulses, however, a tradition that stretches back beyond the halcyon days of Peter Post's TI-Raleigh squad. When word filtered through that there was enough strength in the afternoon's westerly breeze to make things interesting, the dynamic of Belkin and Mollema's stage altered immediately.
Shortly after swinging right at Nouans-les-Fontaines after 55 kilometres, Belkin surged to the front of the peloton and almost immediately, they found a very powerful ally of circumstance in Omega Pharma-QuickStep, who were working for Mark Cavendish to distance Marcel Kittel.
"We knew the first 55 kilometres was in a forest but then after that, there was a crosswind and we knew that we had to go there," Belkin directeur sportif Nico Verhoeven said. "QuickStep had the same idea and so we worked together. At that moment it was lucky for us that Kittel was dropped because that meant QuickStep wanted to go full."
Their combined forcing split the peloton into three groups, although initially all of Mollema's rivals for the podium places were present and correct in front. When second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) stopped to change a wheel with 85 kilometres to go, however, there was suddenly scope to move Mollema up a spot on general classification.
While yellow jersey Chris Froome admitted his unease at Belkin's decision not to reduce their speed at the head of the bunch, Verhoeven was of the view that the sharp end of an echelon is no place for the wringing of hands over issues of morality.
"We couldn't wait. Remember there were a lot of crashes last year and nobody waited for us," Verhoeven said. "This is the Tour de France and I heard always that the Tour waits for no-one and that's the same for Valverde, eh? I'm really sorry for him that he got a puncture but we were racing at that moment."
Tracking the Saxo attack
The end result was that Valverde reached the finish at Saint-Amand-Montrond almost 10 minutes down and Mollema moved from third to second place overall, but the Dutchman's day of surprise gains did not end there.
When Alberto Contador and five Saxo-Tinkoff teammates jumped at the front of the bunch with 30 kilometres to race, Mollema and his teammate Laurens Ten Dam were among the happy few alert to the danger. A powerful fourteen-man group formed, and with Sky unable to control matters in the crosswind behind, they quickly gained a lead of a minute and held their advantage all the way to the finish, where Cavendish won the stage.
"In the final, we were there when Saxo went full, and I think the result is really nice," a smiling Mollema said as he was swarmed by reporters at the finish. "Everybody had the same goal and that was to go as fast as possible to the finish and the guys from Saxo were pulling really hard. There were behind us when we were pulling all day, so they were still fresh. We were happy they were riding so fast."
The beleaguered bunch came home 1:09 down and Mollema lies 2:28 down on Froome in second place overall, while Ten Dam has moved back up to 5th overall, just over three minutes behind the Sky rider.
"No, for sure I wasn't expecting this," Mollema said. "It was a really hard day from start to finish and there was a lot of stress. I'm really happy with this result of course and I think as a team we did a great job."
"As Dutch riders we know that wind can have a big effect on a race, and it went well for us," said Ten Dam, although he insisted that the maillot jaune remained on another level to the rest of the field. "We took our chance today but I think Froome is still the strongest."
Belkin directeur sportif Verhoeven concurred, although Sky's flagging efforts in the finale contrasted sharply with the collective strength of Belkin and Saxo-Tinkoff, and he refused to be drawn on whether second place would be the summit of Mollema's ambition.
"I think Froome is still the best rider but today again his team was not that strong in the crosswinds," he said. "Froome had to work very much alone and that's really hard for him."
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