Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) turned 35 three weeks ago, but the Dutchman still feels he has many years and victories left in him, even in light of a new generation that he says has raised the bar and forced him to narrow his focus.
Mollema, a top-10 finisher at all three Grand Tours, notes that there are now an abundance of riders who can do the same, which is why he’s definitively pivoting away from general classification ambitions in favour of stage hunting and one-day races.
Mollema finished on the podium of the 2011 Vuelta a España, before a run of three straight top-10s at the Tour de France between 2013 and 2015, and later 7th and 5th places at the Giro d’Italia in 2017 and 2019. However, in those later years, his single-day results began to develop as well, with a stage win at the 2017 Tour, plus victories at GP Burno Beghelli in 2018, then Il Lombardia and Japan Cup in 2019.
After his 2020 Tour de France campaign was derailed by a crash, Mollema went out for the Giro-Tour double in 2021, with only the most tentative aspirations for GC. In reality, he was stage hunting, and while the Giro was fruitless, he pulled off a memorable solo win in the Tour. Having won Trofeo Laigueuglia earlier in the year, before placing 8th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and 4th at the Olympics road race, it confirmed his direction for 2022 and beyond.
"The stage hunting will be more my goal, at least for next year," Mollema told reporters during Trek-Segafredo’s training camp in Spain this week.
"Maybe for Grand Tours and stage races it’s a bit harder now to really compete for GC. The level there is super high. There are a lot of guys able to finish top-10 in a Grand Tour, and even more who can do it in a week-long race.
"In one-day races I’ve been super competitive in the last few years - I maybe feel even better there than I did five years ago. That’s also something I’d like to focus on more and more next year and the years after."
Mollema subscribes to the notion of a generational shift in the sport, but resists the temptation to credit just a small segment of star names that have burst onto the scene recently, such as Tadej Pogacar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Remo Evenepoel.
"Those guys have only been there for two or three years, but cycling has already been slowly changing over the last 10 years, I would say," Mollema said.
"The speed has maybe slowly gone up, and aerodynamics are so much more important now. The bikes and clothing and everything have improved a lot. It’s not just those riders who made a big difference; the level in general has gone up. More are working much more professionally now, and more guys are able to produce really good values and do good results. There are no easy races anymore nowadays."
The areas where Mollema feels he can still excel became increasingly clear to him this year, which is why he’ll pretty much mimic his race programme in 2022, which will be built around the Ardennes Classics, the Giro and Tour, then the late-season one-day races, including the World Championships.
He will start out in February at the GP La Marseillaise, before riding short French stage races in the form of Etoile de Besseges and Tour du Var and then defending his title at Laigueglia. He’ll ride either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico in March, followed by a break and an altitude camp to get him closer to top form.
He’ll skip Amstel Gold Race given it’s in the earlier slot usually reserved for Paris-Roubaix, but will ride La Flèche Wallonne and make a target of Liège, where he has now been top-10 on three occasions. He will ride the Giro for stage wins and will do the same at the Tour, noting that he often finds good form in his second Grand Tour of a season.
"The Giro and Tour are on the schedule for next year, and I like that combo. I did it already three times - in 2017, 2019, and last year - and I always feel good with it. Twice I won a stage in the Tour after doing the Giro," he said.
"I’m motivated for that, and it’s also a role that suits me well. I like it because you can also take a long break after the Tour, around six weeks, recover well, then step it up for the last month or so of the season with the run of one-day races."
Mollema is set to race the Clásica San Sebastián - which he won in 2016 - after the Tour, followed later by the World Championships - even if he acknowledges that Van der Poel will lead the Dutch squad - and finally the late-season Italian Classics, including Il Lombardia.
"I’ve got the experience now of doing a lot of one-day races. I know all the courses really well and I’ve been in that position in the final a lot of times," he said.
"It’s a different kind of effort, where it’s important to have really good three or five-minute power, and that’s the kind of effort that suits me really well. I like to train on those kind of efforts as well."
For that reason, Mollema believes he can be competitive for years to come. With so many young riders making such big impacts in their first few years as professionals, late 30s is looking more and more like a twilight zone for a professional cyclist, but he says he has plenty of life left in him yet.
"I don’t think this will be my last year, certainly not," he said when asked about the fact his current contract is set to end in 12 months. "Soon we will meet with the team to extend the contract. Right now I have the idea that I can ride at this level for another five years."
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