So often things went wrong that Wilco Kelderman began to doubt whether he would ever be in the position to win another big round. All setbacks had eroded his confidence. Yes, he could do better, but win? He didn’t dare to think about it. Now, with six more stages to go, the Giro victory is within reach.
‘This year it is developing in my favor’, Kelderman states diplomatically during a digital press conference on the second rest day of the Giro. This time it is not he who has to contend with bad luck, but it happens to others. Geraint Thomas, for example, who slipped over a water bottle and had to give up. Or Steven Kruijswijk, who turned out to be infected with corona, just like that other favorite Simon Yates.
Yes, João Almeida is still in the lead in the standings, but in Sunday’s mountain stage, the Portuguese had to give up more than half a minute. Kelderman is therefore only 15 seconds from the pink leader’s jersey. The other pretenders for the pink jersey have been wearing their cycling shorts for minutes.
Fate may still be favorable to him, the 29-year-old leader of Sunweb remains cautious as he looks ahead to the final stages of the round. You can’t blame him. If anyone knows that something can always go wrong, it is him.
“My body has been hit,” is his own summary of his thick patient file. It’s an understatement. Just take the bones he broke: about five times his collarbone, twice his finger and last year his cervical vertebra. He had to wear a brace for weeks. “If I fall, I immediately break something,” he said earlier. “I’d like to have only scrapes.”
Almost every year since his breakthrough as a classification rider in 2014, when he was able to compete with the best in the Giro and finished seventh, has been disrupted by trouble. If it was not physical in nature, there was something else, such as the material breakdown that cost him a lot of time in the Vuelta of 2018, in which he finished tenth.
He has learned to race by the day. “Thinking too far ahead makes you nervous.” So he focuses on Tuesday’s ride from Udine to San Daniele del Friuli: 225 kilometers long with a few smaller climbs along the way. Not a ride to drive Almeida out of the pink. “It’s not difficult enough for that.”
‘We want to take the pink, but we don’t know exactly on which stage. But you don’t just drive off Almeida. ‘ The only 22-year-old classification leader had to release in Sunday’s stage, but had managed to limit the loss of time.
Then there are the riders who wasted expensive minutes on Sunday and are aiming for their way back up in the rankings. Vincenzo Nibali for example. The Italian knows how to strike in the final days. He won the Giro in 2016 in which Kruijswijk lost his pink jersey in a snow wall. Kelderman, who will move to Bora-Hansgrohe after this season: ‘I have the advantage of a very strong team that can control and put things right.
On Sunday he looked down on the final climb from behind the backs of his teammates in a hairpin bend. He saw the damage his helpers were doing and at the same time experienced how fresh his own legs still felt. ‘Then you see riders unloading and you notice that you yourself are super fine.’ It was a wonderful experience.
He is happy in Italy anyway, does not worry about anything. Not because of the snow that can threaten free passage over the Alpine Cols in this autumn edition of the Giro. ‘If it’s really bad, they take out those climbs. We’ll see.’ And not about the threat of corona in the peloton. “You have no control over it.”
His teammate Michael Matthews had to leave the round last week after a positive test, but no new contamination has been detected in his team since then. ‘We have been tested almost every day for the past week.’ In addition to the extra checks from the race organization, Sunweb also tested itself. “So it’s not that exciting anymore.”
What about that dreaded third week, with almost only rides of more than 200 kilometers and three times uphill finish? That doesn’t frighten him either. He is no longer the rider who in 2017 in the Tour of Spain in the penultimate stage, to the Angliru, was knocked out of the final podium. He is stronger, his legs more reliable. “I’m feeling really good, recovering really well and I’ve never had a really bad last week in the last few years.”
Moreover, the effect of its carefree run-up should not be underestimated. While the corona pandemic turned cycling as a whole upside down, Kelderman finally experienced a year without all kinds of misery. ‘I never really had the time to prepare well for a grand tour. Now it all goes well for a season. That results in a better level than I have ever shown. ‘
All signals are green or pink, but will he really win the Giro? Kelderman laughs when he is asked that question without ado. After the laugh comes his cautious answer: “If you call again next week, I can tell you.”