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Climbing the invisible hill: Dutch wind makes mountain goats of flatlanders

Battling the Dutch winds helps turn flatlanders into mountain goats, say Bauke Mollema and Tom-Jelte Slagter

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MARMOT BASIN, Alberta (VN) — Dutch cyclists succeed in a sport in which climbing makes or breaks riders. Yet the Netherlands is short on mountains.

How does that work?

The latest example of Netherlanders excelling in the mountains is apparent at the top of the Tour of Alberta standings.

Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Garmin) claimed consecutive stages as the third-year event made its first foray into the Canadian Rockies the past two days. Compatriot Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) has held the race lead for three of its four days.

Trek won the opening team time trial, pushing the top-10 Tour de France finisher the past three years into the race lead. Mollema lost the jersey after stage 2, when Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) sprinted to the stage win. But he’s now finished just behind his countryman, in second, in both mountain stages.

Following stage 4, Slagter and Mollema were both asked about their climbing prowess and the success of Dutch riders in general despite their native country’s flat landscape. Both chuckled and delivered quick answers — like they’ve been asked the question before.

“There’s lot of wind in Holland,” said Mollema, smiling. “I think when you ride in the wind, it helps you become a better climber.”

Slagter concurred: “I agree with Bauke. You train in headwinds, it help your climbing.”

The riders who are first and in third the general classification at the Tour of Alberta are current additions to a long list of great Dutch climbers. Robert Gesink has finished fourth and sixth in the Tour de France and won the 2012 Amgen Tour of California. Gesink and Mollema finished sixth and seventh in the Tour de France in July.

Dutch riders didn’t compete in the Tour de France until 1936 when Theo Middelkamp won a stage. Wim van East was the first Dutchman to wear the yellow jersey in 1951. Joop Zoetemelk is among the most famous riders in the sport.

Slagter and Mollema joined the Dutch climbers’ fraternity early in their respective careers. For Slagter, the only thing new is when his success has occurred — this year, it came late in the season.

“It’s been completely different the past two years,” said Slagter, whose consecutive wins this week are his first since last year’s Paris-Nice. “I was always good at the start of the season. And in past years I was also good in this period.

“But this year, I wasn’t good in the spring. I had some problems with my knee in the winter and it cost me some time. It took some effort to get 100 percent again. Since June or July, I am feeling 100 percent again. I can do whatever I want for training and racing and it’s paid off.”