Trek’s Dutchman has quietly built one of the most impressive palmarès in pro cycling. Alasdair Fotheringham asked him how he did it.
Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema picked up his second career stage win at the Tour de France this summer, to add to his triumph at Il Lombardia in 2019. The Dutchman tells us why he broadened his horizons when the trend in cycling was towards specialisation, and how he keeps getting big wins
Breaks have changed somewhat at races like the Tour de France, and so have the riders who are getting into them. Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema is perhaps the new archetype - the Dutchman achieved his second career stage win at this summer’s race, in his second life as an all-rounder. Formerly a GC specialist, Mollema is now a bit of everything - sometimes a GC rider, sometimes a stage hunter and sometimes a one-day racer, with big successes in each field. He’s a monument winner, following his victory in the 2019 edition of Il Lombardia, a grand tour podium finisher and now a Tour stage break specialist. Mollema’s win in Quillan in stage 14 of this year’s Tour was his second at the race, and confirmed his reputation as a quality baroudeur. Steve Cummings, who carved out a similar niche in the mid-2010s, tells Procycling, “He’s gone from strength to strength, and that’s partly because he’s obviously very analytical when working out which days he’s going to try to win. He’s a better all-rounder than many. So he’s got more opportunities for getting in the break on harder starts, and dropping his rivals on harder finales. But above all, you can see how he’s constantly thinking outside the box, catching the opposition out, anticipating every opportunity.”
Mollema agrees. “It’s never just about luck,” he says. “You don’t say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’ll attack and then we’ll see.’”
Mollema tells Procycling that surprise is the key: “You have to search for the exact moment when the others don’t expect you to attack. You have to think about what they are thinking. On the Tour stage this year, I saw there was nobody on my wheel and I knew they’d have to work hard to get organised.”
To catch rivals out, Mollema says, “It’s good if you attack on a small climb. If you go on a big climb, rather than on the flat or downhill, it’s harder to get away.”
Attacking on easier terrain instead of on a tough climb where the opposition would normally be in trouble against a climber like Mollema is counterintuitive. But it fits with Mollema thinking outside the box. And, he recounts, for his first Tour stage win in 2017, necessity proved to be the mother of invention.
“I had to attack on easier roads because I was on the limit,” he says. “I wasn’t feeling good and I’d really suffered to get in the break. The break was enormous, 28 riders, and I’d already realised that the other guys were stronger than me, and would be stronger at the finish.
“When I went it was not planned but I knew it would be a surprise. Once I had a few metres’ advantage, I had no choice but to keep going and give it everything.”
From then, he was on autopilot. “If you can see it’s working, and you’re gapping
them, morale kicks in. You push yourself harder than you thought you could, and the gap gets bigger. Then you’re away.”
Getting a gap when there was a lull and time trialling to the finish played to his strengths and was also his only card for a realistic chance of winning. It worked.
That kind of strategy makes Mollema something of a maverick even when we’re talking about winning from breaks. But so too does his career path. Unlike many baroudeurs, Mollema began winning from moves after years focusing on GC, though he balances the two: he will still sometimes focus on the overall. Witness his fifth place on GC in the 2019 Giro d’Italia, not to mention seven top 10s on grand tour GCs since 2011.
Most riders tend to focus on one thing once they work out what they are good at. But there’s no denying that in recent years, Mollema’s focus has broadened. He had been hitting the goalposts in one-day races and breaks with almost monotonous regularity as far back as the Giro d’Emilia in 2011, where he took second, and then followed that up with top-10 places in all three Ardennes Classics in 2012. But after 2016, when he won Clásica San Sebastián, he has found his niche, or niches.
“He was always doubtful about whether to go for GC or stage wins, and even this year he thought about doing the Giro for stage wins and focusing on the overall in the Tour,” Dutch journalist Raymond Kerckhoffs of Wielerflits tells Procycling. “But I think increasingly he’s started looking out for stage wins and the Classics. It’s a change of emphasis, and he’s done well since 2016. But it’s not like he’s thrown the GC out of the window. He’s always there, sometimes in the shadow of one Dutch racer, sometimes another. But he always pulls wins out of the hat, and almost always when you don’t expect him to do so.”
The two Tour stage wins have made the biggest noise among non-specialist media. But Mollema’s best GC result happened very early in his career, when he took fourth overall (later upgraded to third following Juan José Cobo being scratched from the results for doping) in the 2011 Vuelta aged just 24.
Taking the Vuelta’s points jersey that year was further testament to his consistency. Equally that Vuelta was also witness to the one day, atop the Covatilla climb after stage 9, that Mollema has actually led a three-week stage race.
You could maybe argue that getting so many top-10 results since then in grand tours, but never actually winning one or even making it onto the final podium, was proof Mollema had made a mistake of prioritising GC for so long.
Not so, says Mollema. “I think it was the right choice,” he explains. “You can see that I was good at it, not only from that Vuelta in 2011, but also in 2007
I won the Tour de l’Avenir and the Circuito Montañes, two of the hardest stage races on the U23 circuit. Then I finished third in the Tour de l’Ain when I was still an amateur, but racing against the pros.
“At that point, I was already clear that I was going to focus on being a GC rider. It’s true these last few years I’ve been racing more for breakaways, and I maybe like riding more aggressively and that’s brought me some nice victories. But I wouldn’t swap them for racing for
GC all those years either.”
Mollema’s willingness to change tack isn’t just perceptible in his career targets. “If you look at Dutch pros, very few of them will make changes in their teams,” says Kerckhoffs. “Guys like Michael Boogerd or Erik Dekker in the past, but also Stephen Kruijswijk or Robert Gesink today, they just stick where they are.
“When Bauke switched from Belkin, his lifelong team until then, to Trek in 2015, for sure the financial element was part of it. But Bauke told me he also believed he’d be motivated by being in a new team that was much more international than Belkin was back then.
“He’s always thinking about his career and what would be the best for it, too, but outside the usual points of view. When he was younger he lived in Alicante for a while and when I asked him why, he said he’d looked at the year-long weather forecast and it turned out Alicante had a lot less rain from December to March than a popular place for pros in Spain like Girona. Bauke told me he was living in Spain for his cycling career, not to be in a nice place to live.”
Alicante also had another advantage for the young Mollema. “I lived there back in 2011, and the Vuelta started that year in Benidorm in the Alicante region. So I was already used to the heat when the race began,” Mollema recalls, “and in a really hot autumn, that put me ahead.
“I did okay on the first big climbing stage up to Sierra Nevada in the first week, but then things just got better and better on the really steep finishes, at Valdepeñas de Jaén and then close to Madrid where I got third and fourth.
“But what really made the difference was the Covatilla climb on stage 9.
I really like that climb,” says Mollema. “That day it was so windy it was almost like they had uphill echelons, which was also my kind of racing. I got second behind Dan Martin and my one and only grand tour leader’s jersey so far.”
It’s not widely remembered, but a couple of years later, the Vuelta also saw Mollema claim his first grand tour stage: a late, powerful attack on a flat stage into Burgos. But the overall in grand tours remained as his main field of operations, and probably the highlight of Mollema’s GC bids came in 2016, when he was the only rider capable of bridging across to Chris Froome and Richie Porte on Mont Ventoux that year in the Tour de France.
That performance saw him in second place overall to just three days before Paris, when he crashed on a notoriously tricky Alpine descent in the rain. Some observers argue it was perhaps as a result of losing so much so quickly in the GC battle that day, through no fault of his own, that helped flip the switch about going to breakaways.
way, Mollema says, “It was 2017, when I did the Tour with Alberto Contador and even more in 2018, when I crashed on the cobbled stages so lost time that I got to do more breakaways than ever before. I refocused. I started to realise I liked them and was maybe good at them, too.”
Mollema says that unlike GC racing, breaks are possibly the most forgiving to riders who are getting older. “I actually think you get better, because the perfect break doesn’t exist. No situation is ever the same. Your legs are never the same.
“The perfect break doesn’t exist. No situation is ever the same. Your legs are never the same. So I’m constantly studying what my rivals do”
So rather than thinking I’ve got a winning formula in breakaways, I’m constantly studying what my rivals do and learning from my own mistakes, such as not thinking enough about how to win. Sometimes I’ve just thought that if I finish with these guys in a break, at least I’ll finish on the podium,” he says. And as recently as the Giro this year, he says he suffered from being over enthusiastic on some days and lacking a bit of form on the others. “But I really want to go back there to Italy and try to get a stage. That way I can say I’ve won one in all three grand tours.”
Against Mollema achieving this, levels of performance in cycling are rising across the board, and in that context, breaks are no soft option.
“Before, it would take an hour for the break to form,” he says. “These days it can be as long as two. It’s such a big fight that you only get the best guys in there.”
“And because more and more riders are able to do GC as well, then if they have a crash or whatever in the first week and are running around 15th or 20th, they start going for the breaks in the rest of the race. So the level is much higher than it used to be because of that.”
That heightens the pressure, but Mollema says that thanks to his team, he has added some advantages.
“I get a lot of freedom from the management to choose my days for breakaways,” he says (To decide which stages are best for him, he says, takes a lot of looking at route books and comparing it to Google Maps.)
“The team’s confidence in me makes me much more confident in what I do. I think they know me very well.”
The team’s other objectives in a given race are obviously a factor in those kinds of negotiations. “Doing the Tour this year was quite easy, as we didn’t have a GC rider any more after the Alps. At the Giro, where we had Nibali on GC and I was with Ciccone too, you have to play it a bit smarter. Either way, what’s really important is not the targets, it’s how you communicate with the other guys.”
The other change with time is not so much how Mollema perceives his teammates and the rest of the peloton, but how they see him. Does he feel like he’s a marked man whenever he gets into breaks? The answer to that is a firm no.
“Maybe I’ve done better in the last couple of years with those long solo moves that have worked out in races like Laigueglia and the Tour,” he says. “But like I said, when you get a break these days, the level’s so high just to make it into the break, that everybody’s good. So I don’t think they see me as a natural winner. Not yet, anyway.”
But after three thirds and three second places Tour stages for Trek, it was Mollema who got their first win in cycling’s premier race since 2018. It was also Mollema who ensured that the American squad was one of just eight teams of the 23 in this year’s Tour to win a stage. Furthermore, as Mollema himself says, nobody wins a break by being lucky.
But on top of all that, as he says, there’s another advantage he’s found to being a breakaway racer. “Because each break is always different, you never get bored.” And when it comes to watching Mollema these days in races, too, we could well say the same.