The Slow Death of Dutch Cycling

The other day, I was watching a DVD of the 2010 Giro d’Italia for a research project, and the narrator made the claim that in the prologue city of Amsterdam, there are around 700,000 citizens, and over 2 million bikes. That almost three bikes per person. I’m lucky enough to have family in the Netherlands, and so have popped over every so often, and always marvel at how everything is set up so well for cyclists – off set cycle lanes from the roads, lanes around speed bumps, plentiful bicycle parking, and of course the lovely European attitude that cyclists are actually people, rather then the UK attitude in which cyclists are a nuisance getting in the way of selfish people’s no doubt very important existences.

However, I then went back and tried to find the last Dutchman to win a Monument classic, Grand Tour, and Grand tour stage. Of course, the Grand Tour was easy: Jan Janssen and Joop Zoetemelk won the Vuelta in 1967 and 1979 respectively, as well as the Tour in 1968 and 1980, making it 32 years since they last won a Grand Tour – a longer wait then the French. Grand Tour stage wins are tricky to find though:  they haven’t won a Tour stage since 2005, when Pieter Weening won stage eight in a photo finish with Andreas Kloden, and you have to go back ten years till 2002 to find multiple Dutch stage wins through Karsten Kroon and Michael Boogerd.Weening also took the last Dutch Giro win in 2011, the day after the death of Wouter Weylandt, and with it the last time a Dutchman has held a leaders jersey by my reckoning, but the last one before that was in 1999, when Jeroen Blijlevens took a stage. At the Vuelta, Lars Boom took a stage in 2009, but the long gap is back to 2005 and Discovery Channel’s Max van Heeswijk for the last previous win. In other words, the Dutch seem impotent in the Grand Tours. What about the Classics?

The Dutch have won Milan San-Remo just three times: Hennie Kupier in 1985, Jan Raas in 1977 and Arie den Hartog in 1965. They have had more success in their neigbouring France and Belgium’s ‘Hard man’ races, with nine victories at the Tour of Flanders, Ardi Van der Poel in 1986 being the most recent, and five at Paris-Roubaix, with Servais Knaven’s suprise win in 2001. Liege’s hilly parcours have resulted in just three Dutch victories, again from van de Poel most recently in ’88, whilst the Tour of Lombardy is another one most recently won by Kupier in 1981 as the last of three win for the Orange nation. When compared to their neighbouring France and Belgium, or even to tiny Luxembourg, these results aren’t exactly encouraging, and neither are the huge spans of time since the last victory. But how on earth can a nation so strong in cycling infrastructure and stuck between two cycling mad countries not manage better results?

Geography is of course one obvious issue that could be cited. Holland is notoriously flat (A common joke when cycling with family is that we’ve just crossed Holland’s mountains every time we go over a speed bump), and so isn’t really suited to producing Grand Tour champions, although the same could arguably be said about Belgium – whilst notoriously hilly, it has none of the Alpine passes that define a Tour, and yet they produced Eddy Merckx. More recently, they’ve managed to produce Thomas de Gendt, who was third in the Giro, Jurgen Van den Broeck, 4th in the Tour twice, and Jelle Vanendert to boot. Even the Dutch can’t complain: when Gesink gets a clean run at a Grand Tour, he is oft in the top 10, and has a 5th at the 2010 Tour.

That’s not to say the Dutch don’t believe geography is holding them back – they currently have plans to build a 270 billion euro artifical mountain to climb on (no, seriously), but the concerns over it affecting climate and where to put the thing have delayed it. But the more likely problem is that Holland is simply more interested in football. Even after that, sports like hockey and speed skating are more popular, so cycling is relegated down the standings for appeal. With all the strong athletes going to other sports, the Dutch have a problem maintaining a good intake of riders. But there is still hope.

The Rabobank development team, unlike the stagnating and somewhat scandal hit ProTeam (supposedly allowing doping, Menchov and Boogerd’s blood plasma allegations, Thomas Dekker, Rasmussen in yellow etc), has consistently churned out talent and is the envy of other nations. Out of this team has come Gesink, Steven Kruijswick and Bauke Mollema, the nation’s big GC hopes, as well as Wilco Kelderman, the 20 year old ex-darts player who looks frighteningly good for the future. The Dutch do have a good core of young riders for the future emerging who can challenge when you look closely: the aforementioned mountain men as well as Lars Boom, Niki Terpstra, Wouet Poels, Liewe Westra, and even Theo Bos. Whether or not these men can step up a level and take the victories the nation could desperately do with is uncertain.

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