Van Hummel's Tour, a lonely struggle against time cuts

Kenny van Hummel after finishing last in the 16th stage in the Tour de France.
By Maarten Scholten

Given the lack of Dutch success, all eyes are focused on Kenny van Hummel in the Tour de France. The last rider in the placing hopes to become stronger in the future.

On Tuesday, Kenny van Hummel (26) was again the very last cyclist to cross the finish line in a mountainous stage of the Tour de France. At 34 minutes and 43 seconds after the winner Mikel Astarloa. “Kenny Vanumèlle,” announced the speaker, and the public cheered louder than for all 160 riders who preceded him.

“I was on my own after 40 kilometres,” said the rider of the Skil-Shimano team, who is last in the general placing at 3.5 hours after the leader Alberto Contador and three-quarters of an hour behind the rider ahead of him. In contrast to previous mountain stages, he still seemed quite lively. “I have since learned not to panic and to keep to my own tempo.”

With no Dutch top results in this years Tour, attention is focused on Van Hummel. As the sole Dutch rider, he regularly appears in the French sport magazine L’Equipe with his lonely battle against the time limits. The New York Times reported that the man who "earns respect from his peers simply by hanging in there" has potential as a sprinter. On the rest day, his Japanese teammate Fumiyuki Beppu twittered: “I have a great deal of respect for Kenny van Hummel. He is a superman.” The great Lance Armstrong replied: “Agreed.”

Lanterne Rouge attraction

Being the attraction as the Lanterne Rouge is not new in the Tour media circus. Dutchmen Janus Hellemons (1938), Frits Hogerheide (1970), Aad van den Hoek (1976), Matthieu Hermans (1989), Rob Harmeling (1991) and John Talen (1994) entered the history books as last in Paris.

They are famous for hilarious stories about waiting in unlit tunnels, to arrive at the end after a long gap. “Kenny cannot permit himself that luxury,” said Iwan Spekenbrink, managing director of Skil-Shimano, with a smile. “He must cycle fast through those tunnels so that he doesn't arrive too late.” There is a time cut in every stage, measured as a percentage of the winning time.

Van Hummel is not only last in the placing, he is also a rewarding subject for the media due to his spontaneity. “Giving up is not an option,” he called out bravely at the start on Tuesday in front of the Belgian television. “They will have to shoot me off the bike to get me home,” resounded in another microphone. His swearing and tears at the finish have become familiar after he excelled at the Dutch championship and came in second.

Tour is over for Van Hummel

Kenny van Hummel fell during a descent in Wednesday's Tour de France stage and was taken to a hospital. Skil-Shimano team manager Merijn Zeeman told reporters that the last rider in the race suffered a deep cut in his knee and was taken away in an ambulance.

"It is very sad that he had to leave the Tour like this," Zeeman said.

Public's favourite

“He could soon be the public's favourite in the criteriums [post-Tour events],” said sport consultant Orlando van den Bosch on Monday. “The less successful the Dutch are in the Tour, the more budget is available for Kenny. He is not only last in the placing, he has already come in seventh in a final sprint. Thus, he understands perfectly well that alongside performance, the presentation is also important.”

The Skil-Shimano team management said it will not give in to the commercial value of Van Hummel. “We are a sport team,” said manager Merijn Zeeman. “The sportive aspect always has top priority for us. We are not putting any pressure on Kenny to keep going to Paris. We have to stay responsible. But Kenny would like to do it. He's pushing his boundaries. You only find out if you can do something when you try it. Ultimately, Kenny will have to make his own choices.”

Reaching Paris

Although he understands the publicity is a bonus, Van Hummel aims higher than the Lanterne Rouge. This season he won five races in a final sprint. Even top sprinter Mark Cavendish knows his name, as became apparent when he falsely accused the Dutchman of pushing him in the second stage. Some day he wants to win a stage in the Tour as a sprinter.

By reaching Paris, Van Hummel hopes to become stronger as a cyclist. “I want to gain as much experience as possible. Finishing the race means more power in the future.” In the second Alps stage on Tuesday, he rode 110 kilometres on his own. The time limit was, in contrast to Sunday, never a problem. Paris? “With a little hard work, we'll make it.”

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