Wilco Kelderman was perhaps as surprised as everyone else when he learned that his Sunweb teammate Tom Dumoulin would return to the Giro d'Italia in 2018. Kelderman, after all, had himself been mulling over a tilt at the corsa rosa this season. Instead he has postponed his own Grand Tour podium attempt until August and the Vuelta a España.
"For me it was a bit of a surprise too, but I also know the team a bit, and the team doesn't always just look to the biggest race, or think 'he's won the Giro, so now he has to do the Tour,'" Kelderman said in Berlin last week. "They're always thinking out of the box and they think of what's best for the rider, so I was not really surprised. I think it's good for him."
What's good for Dumoulin should, in theory, be good for Kelderman. When Kelderman arrived at Sunweb a year ago, it was assumed that he had been signed primarily as a deluxe domestique for his fellow countryman. He duly lined up in that role at the Giro, though he would be forced out by a crash at the foot of the Blockhaus on stage 9, and he instead finished the season by re-stating his own credentials as a Grand Tour contender after placing a fine 4th at the Vuelta a España.
In 2018, Kelderman's programme will not be tethered so closely to that of Dumoulin. Rather than serve as Dumoulin's wingman at the Giro, he will instead ride the Tour and the Vuelta, though he insisted that he will target the general classification only in the Spanish race – a hint, perhaps, that Dumoulin may yet attempt a Giro-Tour double.
"I'll do the Vuelta as the GC leader and the Tour in more like a free role. I'll go for stage wins, maybe help Michael [Matthews] in the flat stages, and ride it more as the build-up for the Vuelta," said Kelderman, who added that his ambitions in July will not change even if Dumoulin is absent.
"It doesn't make any difference. The bigger goal is the Vuelta so the Tour is ahead of it and also very close so you have to make a choice about what you want to do. The Vuelta is a bigger goal for me. The Tour is before that so I'll be in a free role there."
Kelderman will begin the season alongside Dumoulin at the Abu Dhabi Tour in late February, but their paths will diverge thereafter. The Volta a Catalunya, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Tour de Romandie all feature on Kelderman's spring schedule, while his final tune-up before the Tour will come at the Tour de Suisse in June. It reads like the programme of a man aiming to peak in July, but Kelderman is adamant that he will approach the Tour with a relaxed outlook.
"I think it's right to be patient," he said. "I don't really feel ready to do the Tour as a GC leader. I want to do the Vuelta again as a GC leader to grow also. I think it's a really good plan."
Renaissance at Sunweb
Still only 26, Kelderman is a year younger than Dumoulin and, unlike his near contemporary, has been heralded as a potential Grand Tour winner from his very first season as a professional with Rabobank, when he caught the eye with an assured showing at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He continued to progress in the years that followed, placing 17th in his Grand Tour debut at the 2013 Giro d'Italia and improving to seventh at the corsa rosa a year later.
Kelderman's final two years at the team, by then rebranded as LottoNL-Jumbo, were dogged by ill fortune at the Tour de France and, by own admission, a tendency to overthink his preparation. By the end of 2016, Kelderman's status as the great hope of Dutch stage racing had been superseded by both Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk, and the time felt right for a change. Signing on to help Dumoulin at Sunweb lowered external expectations, though Kelderman continued to nurture ambitions of his own.
"When I came to this team, Iwan [Spenkenbrink] gave me a lot of confidence that I was still a talent and a good rider," Kelderman. "I also wanted to step back a little bit and help Tom and work in a helper role. I wanted to get back to the basics, train normally and see what happened. But they also gave me confidence that I was a good rider and I still could go for GC in big races, so that was always in my mind. It really went pretty good, and it was always the plan."
During Thursday's team presentation in Berlin, it was revealed that Kelderman had signed a two-year contract extension with Sunweb that will keep him at the team until the end of the 2020 campaign. If and when Dumoulin takes aim at the Tour, Kelderman will have a crucial role in his supporting cast, but the leading man's Giro victory last May – the first Grand Tour win by a rider from the Netherlands since Joop Zoetemelk in 1980 – has only encouraged his fellow Dutchmen.
"I think it's inspired riders. We now have a few good GC riders with me, Tom, Kruijswijk, and Sam [Oomen] who is coming also," Kelderman said. "The pressure is always there, and they're expecting more, they're expecting that in a few years Tom will win the Tour. But I think all the Dutch riders are growing a little bit now and thinking 'maybe I can do that also,' so that's also good for Dutch cycling."