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Low Country Uprising

A single spring Classics season is often a pretty small sample from which to detect major trends, but over the last month I've been sensing a pretty huge development in the sport: the return of Dutch Cycling.

The Netherlands can count itself as an original pillar of the sport, with champions too various to recount here, but in recent years Dutch riders have had little impact. Meanwhile, Belgian champions seem to pop up every year or two, particularly in Flanders, for reasons we've beaten to death here but nonetheless out of proportion with its population. Nearby Denmark has played host to the world's most powerful (if not very Danish) team, CSC. Even tiny Luxembourg, with less than half a million inhabitants, has unleashed a small stable of star riders... all while the Netherlands -- about the size of Belgium, Denmark and Luxembourg combined -- saw its impact shrink far below even these small-country standards.

Not that Dutch Cycling has been nonexistent: props are owed to Erik Dekker, World Cup winner in 2001 and a top rider for the flat classics. Upon Dekker's retirement in 2004, Michael Boogerd became the brightly smiling face of Dutch Cycling, despite a resume of valiant near-misses that would make French fans swoon. Karsten Kroon is a consistent, B-list threat to win a number of classics. No such nation could fail to produce other competent riders, like Max Van Heeswijk, Peter Weening, Steven De Jongh, etc. And of course, throughout these middling years Rabobank, though half-Spanish in character, has remained a pillar of steady, generous sponsorship.

But there was no thrill in any of this, was there? Dutch fans were left rooting for occasional shots at one-day races, and Rabo's stable of foreigners. In 2006, the only Dutch rider to crack the Cycling Quotient top 40 was Boogerd, at #37. By population size and history, the Netherlands should be slugging it out with Belgium for king of the small nations, eclipsing a few larger countries (ahem... Germany) with less history and connection to the sport.

Which makes the change we're seeing now all the more dramatic. The list of young Dutch riders making a sudden impact on the sport has quickly grown from nothing to, well, judge for yourself:

  • Sebastian Langeveld, 23 years old, took 18th at Flanders and 2nd at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this spring. He rode the classics aggressively and looks like someone who can be a useful teammate in a grand tour as well.
  • Bauke Mollema, all of 21, finished third in a stage of the Castilla y Leon tour and sixth overall. On the kids' circuit last year he won the Tour de l'Avenir. A climber, I think?
  • Martijn Maaskant, 24, exploded on the cobbles scene this spring in his very first year riding at the top level, taking an unbelievable 4th at Roubaix, 12th in Flanders, and 4th in Monte Paschi Eroica. He's already Slipstream's designated Flanders rider.
  • Nikki Terpstra, 23, took 14th at de Ronde, 4th at Dreidaagse de Panne, won the DeutschlandTour KOM jersey last year, and has a handful of top-10 time trial performances.
  • Robert Gesink, only 21(!), has been scoring points for almost a year now: 2nd in the '07 Polish Tour, 5th in the DeutschlandTour, 10th at the highly-rated Giro dell'Emilia, 15th at the Giro di Lombardia, leader of the 2008 Paris-Nice before slipping to 4th, and 21st-4th-13th in Ardennes last week. His climbing ability screams "grand tour," though his skills and time trialing will need some polishing before he can challenge the greats. If he pulls that off, the sky is the limit.
  • Thomas Dekker, still only 23 despite four seasons under his belt, is already an undisputed star: defending champion of the Tour de Romandie and 2006 Tirreno-Adriatico winner; a current season that includes 3rd in the Pais Vasco, 3rd Castilla y Leon, and 5th-5th-6th in the Ardennes; and time trialing ability that gives him the look of a Tour de France future winner.

If Dutch fans aren't getting excited, they should be.

My own memories date back to the days when they owned Alpe d'Huez... Gert-Jan Theunisse's win in 1989 made it eight victories in 14 stages of the Tour up the fabled climb, a mind-boggling total for a country known to be below sea level. Theunisse himself made an indelible impression on me, with his long mane and menacing stare, and Dutch ownership of the hallowed climb translated in my brain to a position at the top of the sport.

Those days are long gone, but the new era of Dutch cycling is suddenly barreling down the tracks. I can see Gesink winning on the Alpe as soon as this year; Dekker time-trialing to within reach of the Tour podium; and a slew of challenges at every major one-day race from the flats to the hills. Rabobank will be the big beneficiary, fittingly, but there's enough talent to spread around some. The only element missing is a sprinter... but the Dutch can afford to let the Italians fight it out for those relative crumbs.

[A blank for me: what explains the long lull? No doubt some of our Dutch readers can fill in the void here. Thanks.]