Dutchman Bauke Mollema is having the ride of his life in this year's Tour de France. Pushing out of Tours this morning, team Belkin's captain sits third overall behind Chris Froome (Sky).
Mollema is one five riders that sit between three and four minutes back on Froome. All of them are within striking distance of second place or, should Froome fail, an overall win in the biggest race.
He arrived to this spot - standing in Tours ahead of another flat, yet stressful day - via consistency.
Belkin proved strong through Corsica and though stumbled somewhat in the team time trial, rebounded strongly in the first summit finish to Ax 3 Domaines. He and Laurens Ten Dam lost ground to Sky's Froome and Richie Porte, but put time into almost everyone else.
Mollema strengthened his third place overall in the time trial on Wednesday.
"It was the best time trial of my life," the 26-year-old explained, wiping sweat from his brow.
"I'm not going to beat [World Champion] Tony Martin, I put a lot of time on the climbers. The GC is the most important."
Froome dominates the GC. He leads Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by 3-25 minutes, Mollema by 3-37 and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) by 3-54.
"Maybe six or seven riders can dream about the podium in Paris," Belkin's sports director, Nico Verhoeven told Cycling Weekly yesterday afternoon.
"There will be days when some of them will drop away; Mont Ventoux [on Sunday] will give us a good idea. Ventoux is long, with the final 20 kilometres uphill and perfect for Nario Quintana [Movistar].
"Ventoux's a key point for everyone in the Tour de France, from there you'll see who can seriously challenge for the podium."
Mollema is able to dream for now. The stages today to Saint-Amand-Montrond and tomorrow to Lyon should not shake up the GC. His chances hang on Ventoux and a final, brutal week.
Mollema, even if not this year, showed he is capable of placing on the Tour's podium or winning a Grand Tour in the future.
Sky's principal, David Brailsford explained, "He's always been progressing and is a really impressive rider."
He progressed from nearly nothing. His friend noted his abilities and encouraged him to race. The team's development unit spotted him winning in an amateur race and decided to sign him immediately.
"He was only riding on his bike for 18 months," Verhoeven continue. "In the first year, he had some problems riding in the pack, but showed that he was not afraid."
Mollema finished fourth in the 2011 Vuelta a España. Indicating he was on track this year, he won the Cran-Montana mountain stage and placed second in the Tour of Switzerland.
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