Rabobankâ€™s endured a bit of a tough season so far.Â In fact, Rabobank (the company) admitted that it hesitated before renewing its sponsorship agreement with the squad. But success at the Tour de France has a funny way of healing all wounds and Rabobank comes to this yearâ€™s race with several riders capable of at least some measure of it.
Robert Gesinkâ€™s performance at Mayâ€™s Tour of California might have saved his captaincy at the Tour de France after a 2011 ruined by bad luck, injury, and poor form. If all goes as planned, a mountain stage win and a possible top-5 finish are well within the Dutchmanâ€™s grasp. The polka dot jersey is a realistic possibility as well.
What has been most impressive about Gesinkâ€™s return to form has been his improvement against the clock. He finished fourth in the Bakersfield time trial at the Tour of Californiaâ€”only 39 seconds behind TT-specialist David Zabriskieâ€”and then fifth in the long time trial at the Tour de Suisseâ€”only 27 seconds off the winnerâ€™s pace and 25 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara. So clearly, heâ€™s improvedâ€”and just in time for a Tour de France that emphasizes it.
Bauke Mollema and Steven Kruijswijk, two young Dutchmen who have displayed grand tour potential of their own in recent seasons, join Gesink at the Tour. Mollema rode his first Tour de France last year, the highlight of which was his second-place finish in Stage 17 from Gap to Pinerolo. But the youngster followed his Tour de France with a stunning fourth-place finish at the Vuelta a Espana and a victory in the Spanish grand tourâ€™s points competition. Itâ€™s likely that Mollema rode last yearâ€™s Tour simply to get a taste for it. This year he returns to make a bigger impact: first by helping Gesink in the mountains; second by winning a stage; and last but not least, by becoming a GC candidate himself should Gesink falter.
As for Kruijswijk, he rides his first Tour de France this year following two impressive rides at the Giro dâ€™Italia. Only 25-years-old, Kruijswijk is likely to follow the same progression as Gesink and Mollema, which means heâ€™s riding this yearâ€™s Tour to learn, to help, and to try and win a stage. Heâ€™s certainly old enough and experienced enough to become a dark horse GC contender in his own right, but with not one but two riders ahead of him in the Rabobank food chain, a lot would need to happen for him to find himself as captain of the squad.
Aside from these Drie Musketeers (excuse the pun), Rabobank will be looking to place Mark Renshaw in field sprints and Luis Leon Sanchez in breakaways, with the latter being a better bet to grab a stage win than the former.
Man of the Hour
Robert Gesink finished sixth in the 2010 Tour de France and looks ready to contend for a similar result this year. If he really has improved his time trialing, he has a better than average chance at landing himself on the final podium in Paris.
Bauke Mollema and Stephen Kruiswijk are perhaps a year or two away from contending for the overall title at the Tour de France, with Mollema being a year older and a year closer to it than his younger teammate. That said, several stages in this yearâ€™s race suit the Dutchmen; losing a bit of time early might give them the leashes they need to take a prestigious victory.
On the Hot Seat
Thank goodness that Mark Renshaw was relatively quiet about his signing with Rabobank. Had he shot his mouth off like others might have, his lack of results this season would have looked all the more embarrassing. He was indeed the finest lead-out man in the world, but was foolishly convinced into thinking that he could also be one of the best sprinters as well. Itâ€™s a shame to see riders convinced they are something they are not.
Laurens Ten Dam will forever be remembered as the rider who crashed on his face, almost had his nose ripped off, but got back on his bike to finish the stage. Incredible!
Follow Whit on Twitter at @whityost