The 26-year-old Dutchman was third in the Vuelta entering Friday's stage 19, 12 seconds ahead of his closest competitor.
Wilco Kelderman does not want to say it, but the Vuelta a España, ending Sunday in Madrid, could be a critical point in his career.
The 26-year-old Dutchman, at 2:17 minutes back, is third overall behind Chris Froome (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) with two important days to come.
When asked about a possible podium finish, Kelderman prefers to say he is taking this 2017 Vuelta a España “day by day.” Pressed for more, he said, “Ending on the podium in Madrid would be a dream come true if it happens.”
Kelderman must deal with Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), who is breathing down his neck just 12 seconds behind him in fourth overall. He also needs to watch out for long-range attacks from other riders like Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo).
Never before has Kelderman fought for a grand tour podium. He placed seventh in the 2014 Giro d’Italia at age 23, his best finish in a three-week race to date.
“I’ve never been on this level in my whole career. It’s a bit of a surprise that I’ve done so well,” he said.
“I didn’t know what I was capable of. I did all the hard work for it, but there was always something before, some crash or something, and it never came out like I wanted to.”
Kelderman crashed and broke the same finger twice in two separate races this spring, the first in Strade Bianche and the second in the Giro d’Italia’s Blockhaus motorbike incident that took down Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa.
He abandoned the Giro, but team leader Tom Dumoulin went on to become the first Dutchman to win the Italian race. Kelderman may have found inspiration from Dumoulin’s victory or his new team Sunweb, which he joined this year.
“When Wilco joined the team in the winter, we saw he was a little shy and timid,” Sunweb sport director Marc Reef said. “As the months went on, he was saying what he wanted. We could see that he was developing more as a leader.”
This 2017 Vuelta a España is one of the most grueling in years, with nine summit finishes. Kelderman has been riding alongside those established names — and newer ones like Zakarin, Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), and Miguel Angel López. And on some climbs, like Wednesday’s Machucos finish, he has left them behind.
The 27-year-old Zakarin is at a critical point in his career, too. A third or fourth place would back up his fifth place in the Giro d’Italia and establish him as a bonafide leader for 2018. Team Katusha is beefing up its team, partly around the Russian talent, with guns like Ian Boswell and Alex Dowsett.
Contador will retire at the conclusion of this Vuelta. Froome, 32, could continue dominating for two or three years. Kelderman, Zakarin, and others like Chaves will form the next grand tour wave.
“What’s going on in this Vuelta is very good for Wilco’s learning process, also for his confidence,” Reef continued. “He didn’t have the confidence before because he never showed this level in a grand tour. We saw in this Vuelta here that he held his ground and didn’t attack as much, he’s still afraid to explode when he tries something. He explored what’s possible, what he can do with the best riders in the world.”
Kelderman will plan his 2018 schedule with team Sunweb and Dumoulin in the next two months, after the grand tour routes are unveiled. Depending on the route, Dumoulin could race to win the Tour de France for the first time in his career. Kelderman could either lead the Giro team or start the Tour as Sunweb’s Plan B.