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Throughout the Tour de France, former VeloNews editor John Wilcockson is profiling the unlucky riders who are forced to abandon, either due to injury, exhaustion, or bad luck. In this column, from Tuesday’s stage 4, Wilcockson writes about Dutch rider Robert Gesink.
The photo of Robert Gesink sitting on a low wall overlooking the inlet at Trinité-sur-Mer on Monday afternoon resembled that of a tourist enjoying one of southern Brittany’s more scenic locations. But a closer look showed that the 35-year-old Dutchman was dazed, staring blankly at the arms crossed over his knees. He’d just crashed during stage 3 of the 2021 Tour de France, wrecking his bike and his spare Cervélo was propped against the wall next to him.
But he wouldn’t be using it.
Gesink was the umpteenth victim of another day of crashes at the Tour de France. This one was not created by a spectator but by a speed hump that former Tour winner Geraint Thomas hit when one of his hands was not on the bars. The Welshman tumbled, banging into the pavement and dislocating his shoulder. “He was across the width of the road, like a goalkeeper lying in his goal. His bike was on the left, he on the right. I had nowhere to go,” Gesink told Dutch radio on Tuesday morning. “I tried to jump over him, but I couldn’t. I flipped over and broke the tip of my collarbone.”
For the fourth time in 10 Tours, Gesink had to abandon the race.
This wasn’t his best of days. Already, like most Dutch citizens, he was disheartened by the Netherlands being eliminated from the European football championships the night before. It didn’t help that he was wearing the fated No. 13 bib at this Tour. And later in the stage he’d learn that his Jumbo-Visma team leader Primož Roglič crashed heavily and lost more than a minute to the other GC favorites.
Losing Gesink was perhaps as much a blow to the team as the Slovenian’s lost minute. That’s because in the past few years the Dutch rider has been transformed into a super-domestique for Roglič, using his climbing strength to help set up his leader for two victories in the Vuelta a España and hoping to guide his leader to a Tour de France win after his late loss to Tadej Pogačar last year.
When he re-upped his contract for two more years with Jumbo-Visma this spring, Gesink told Algemeen Dagblad: “I have the feeling I’ll be around for a while. I’m not thinking of stopping yet. I enjoy training, the races, other people’s results. I want to do that for a few more years—especially the way it is now. Come on, that madman [Roglič] has now won the Vuelta twice, later he will win the Tour. I would be mad if I left now.”
Gesink, who once was the team leader of Rabobank (the team’s early incarnation) and winning races like the 2012 Tour of California, is now well aware of his lower place in the team’s pecking order. When it was pointed out that he was barely mentioned in the documentary about the Jumbo-Visma team’s 2020 Tour de France, he responded: “Let’s be honest: there were stories that were more interesting than Robert Gesink.”
But he did have insights into that dramatic ending to last year’s Tour when Roglič lost the yellow jersey to Pogačar of Team UAE Emirates in the stage 20 time trial. “The day after the time trial,” Gesink said, “I remember that we entered Paris behind the UAE train. They hadn’t done anything the entire Tour, but they did ride onto the Champs-Élysées as champions. That really hurt. I almost had tears in my eyes. The realization that we were so close.
“That Tour was a huge downer and I think it will still be a bad feeling for Primož to think about that. But I’ve been doing this for about 15 years now and I’ve learned that you have to have a selective memory, that you have to hold on to the things that do work.”
Reflecting on his decade and a half as a professional, Gesink said, “If there is one sport that changes at lightning speed, it is cycling. I went on altitude training and trained with wattages at a young age. That was not normal back then. Nowadays, it is. There are more youngsters and lighter riders; the watts per kilo have increased somewhat. I am 71 kilos [156 pounds] at my sharpest. You could get away with that before, but now you’re on the heavy side. And when I hear what power numbers [teammate] Tom [Dumoulin] produces with about the same weight: I can’t.”
Asked about doping that was rife at the start of his career, Gesink said he was tempted but never did cheat. “I once had a year that I thought: Why does he win and I don’t? I don’t want to think like that. I am definitely more Zen than I was ten years ago.” He said that when he finally retires from racing he wants to cycle across Japan, from north to south, visit Oregon and go to Patagonia. Maybe those were among the things he was contemplating when he was sitting on that wall on Monday.
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The latest Lost Boys: As on the opening day, three riders were forced to abandon the race on stage 3: Gesink and two Australian team leaders, Jack Haig of Bahrain Victorious and Caleb Ewen of Lotto-Soudal (all with broken collarbones). Spaniard Marc Soler of the Movistar Team could not start stage 2 after bravely finishing stage 1 (with two fractured elbows). And the three who quit the race on stage 1 were Lithuanian Ignatus Konovalovas of Groupama-FDJ (concussion); Frenchman Cyril Lemoine of B&B Hotels-KTM (four broken ribs, cut behind the right ear and a collapsed lung); and German Jasha Sütterlin of Team DSM (severe contusion of the right wrist).
As a result, the Tour’s starting field of 184 has now been reduced to 177 riders.