Now that we know the respective routes of next year’s major grand tours—the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France both have a nice blend of time trials and summit finishes—it’s a good time to start looking at the likely contenders. We know that Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal is going to defend his crown at the Giro, and that one of his main rivals will be Tour champion Brad Wiggins—who says he wants to add the Giro crown to his collection of recent victories and then support Sky teammate Chris Froome at the Tour. Past champ Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff says Froome will be his biggest threat at the Tour, while BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans insists he won’t be too old at 36 to win the Tour a second time.
There are other star riders shooting for the podiums at the Giro and/or Tour, including current world No. 1 Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team and RadioShack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck, along with Italy’s only true GC threats, Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali, now on different teams, respectively Cannondale and Astana. All these riders will likely be among the eventual podium contenders, but there are also a few dark horses who could upset the conventional wisdom. One of them is Robert Gesink—who in 2013 will again be racing for Rabobank, but without the title sponsor’s name on a “white label” jersey because the Dutch mega-bank doesn’t want to be associated with cycling’s current doping-addled image.
Just as few experts predicted that Hesjedal would be a grand tour winner this year, so even fewer are saying that Gesink has the wherewithal to win the Giro or Tour next year. And yet there are definite similarities between the two men. Like Wiggins, both the Canadian and the Dutchman are over 6-foot-2, and both are light enough to climb well and heavy enough to do a solid time trial. Before his Giro win last year, Hesjedal had not finished higher than sixth at a grand tour. That would be the 2010 Tour, and the man who finished one place ahead of him was none other than Gesink!
Since that break-through fifth place at the 2010 Tour, which followed a near-victory at the Tour of Switzerland, Gesink’s career has followed a path that’s contained more potholes than peaks. The peaks were winning the GP de Montréal and Tour of Emilia in late-2010, winning two stages and the GC at the Tour of Oman in early-2011, and winning the Mount Baldy stage and overall at this year’s Amgen Tour of California; and the potholes came at the past two Tours, where nasty crashes in both opening weeks sent his hopes crashing to the tarmac.
But the biggest setback in Gesink’s six years as a pro (and he’s still only 26) came just over a year ago when he broke his leg in a training accident. He talked about that crash when I interviewed him earlier this year.
How did that accident happen, Robert?
I did a last long training ride before the worlds in Copenhagen, and I was going to travel the day after. It was a rainy day, and I already had six hours in my legs. I went through a corner that wasn’t really a corner and just slipped. Both wheels went at the same time and I did a terrible landing. My right hip broke in three or four places. I had a great doctor, so I only have two small incisions here and they put a pin in the bone so the leg is the same length as the other one; that was one thing that did go good at that moment. It was a terrible crash. Basically, you have to learn everything again. I still couldn’t walk in January, three months after the crash.
How did you get back training wise after that?
A lot of work of course with little results…. Coming from zero, you can make big steps, but the last steps are more difficult. Everything feels different at first, it’s like you’re riding with somebody else’s leg in the first months, like riding up hills in small gears. I couldn’t do many races at the beginning of the season because I was still at a lower level. And when you miss Tirreno, or Paris-Nice, it’s like the train has left [the station]. It’s really difficult to get to the same level just with training.
It looks like you’re getting back to the form you had when you won the Montréal race in 2010—that was like a time trial for you the last 10 kilometers.
Yeah, if you look back at it on TV, it’s incredible. I would say, he’s never going to make it. But that moment is one of my best memories in cycling. It was also an incredible period before it. I did a good Tour and in Holland people went incredibly crazy, so I needed some time off. I took my girlfriend to California for a month. We had two weeks in the car, went to Vegas, and I was also cycling a lot, first in the Sequoia National Park and then two weeks of training in Napa Valley before going to San Francisco…and then I Montréal. I have good memories of California. I was relaxed and everything fell together. It was a great period.
Right after that, you won the Emilia classic in Italy, and then your father Dick Gesink died in a mountain bike race. Tell us a little about your father, growing up, and how you got into cycling.
I grew up on a farm…we had a dairy farm in Holland. There was a lot of working and not much time for sports. I think my dad got into cycling, mountain biking, when he was 30 to 35. I went with him a few times and pretty quickly made the step to riding on the road because mountain biking wasn’t that big in Holland, so I got into cycling because of him.I also got a good work [ethic] from my father, and my grandfather before him, on the farm. I had to work a lot, something that comes in handy when you do a job like cycling!
What sort of work did you do on the farm?
I did a bit of everything, helping my dad. In the period of harvesting when I was really young, seven or eight, I was always riding on the tractor. That’s the way it is on your own property. Of course, my dad took care that nothing went wrong. I think it’s one of the best ways to grow up. Dad and Mom were always at home, and you get to spend a lot of time with them. I was really happy to grow up like that. I’ve also got an older sister, so we did a lot together. Now that Dad is gone, my mother still lives at the farm. Looking after the cows was of course too much, so she’s now renting the fields to a bigger farmer. And they’re rebuilding part of the house so my sister will live there too. A lot of things have changed of course…. Actually, in one year, I lost my own dad and I became a dad myself, I have a daughter. And I also broke my leg. So it was a difficult time.
You’re still young and still your country’s best hope of winning a grand tour, but your climbing strength doesn’t seem to have improved much since you won the big mountain stage of the 2010 Tour de Suisse in a solo break.
That was my first victory at the ProTour level. It was only two weeks before the Tour and I beat a lot of the big names, including the Schleck brothers and Lance Armstrong…it was one of the best rides I’ve ever had. Before that race, I was training at altitude in Sierra Nevada in Spain for a long time, and I think I got a big advantage from that. After winning that stage in Switzerland, I was in the race lead, so losing the final time trial was difficult for me. But coming from altitude, I wasn’t prepared to do an hour’s time trial at full speed. I’ve always been a good climber, but I’ve not been so sure about the time trial.
You can be a good time trialist. You did win the time trial at the Tour of Oman last year.
Exactly. When I’m good, time trials are also good and normally the form arrives more or less. I mean, that’s my experience from the last few years. And I’ve done a lot of wind-tunnel testing and training on the time-trial bike. I always work with Louis de la Haye, the trainer in our team. We call each other three or four times a week.
You also do a lot of altitude training, right?
After California this year, I went straight to southern Spain for 17 days of altitude training at Sierra Nevada with Steven Kruijswijk, my trainer and some staff. I’m a rider who reacts very well to that type of training. I bought an expensive machine so I have my own altitude at home. It’s a big chamber in my garage and I can put a compete room in it. So I can sleep and train in there. It works good for me.
Perhaps that training will pay off at one of the grand tours sometime soon—but you’ve had some bad luck with crashes.
Yeah, last year’s Tour was crazy. The team worked hard to keep me in a good position during the first week…and right after a big intermediate sprint, the sprinters fell back and somebody hooped into somebody else. Jani Brajkovic crashed in front of me and I went at full speed over him. But that’s part of cycling; sometimes you need good luck to avoid those crashes.
Gesink managed to finish that 2011 Tour in 33rd place, but when he was again caught in a pileup at this year’s Tour, the tall Dutch rider was forced to abandon. He wasn’t back to his best by the start of the Vuelta a España, but Gesink still managed to take sixth overall, a long way behind winner Contador, but only two minutes slower than fourth-place Froome. Those two riders will again be on his radar in 2013, and with a hopefully injury-free start to the year, who knows how far the Dutch dark horse can advance in his still promising career.