'It will be a big war': Mollema challenging Froome at Tour

BERN, Switzerland (AP) Bauke Mollema has been in this position before: Second in the Tour de France on the second and final rest day.

The difference from three years ago, when Mollema faded over the final week due to illness, is experience.

''Now I know a little bit what to expect with all this kind of things,'' Mollema told a packed news conference on Tuesday. ''It's not only cycling. Also, my level is better than it was three years ago.''

While he's still largely unknown outside his native Netherlands and cycling circles, Mollema is shaping up as the top challenger to defending champion and race leader Chris Froome.

Two-time Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana was supposed to be Froome's top rival but the Colombian sits fourth, behind by 2 minutes, 59 seconds.

Mollema was 1:47 behind in second, with Adam Yates of Britain third, 2:45 back.

Flying under the radar was fine with Mollema, a father of two from Zuidhorn in the northern part of the Netherlands, where much of the land is below sea level.

There is a Dutch saying, ''Doe maar gewoon, dat is gek genoeg,'' which translates as ''Act normal. That's crazy enough.'' It applies especially to people from the north, who are usually considered more down to earth than their southern counterparts. The saying fits perfectly with Mollema, who came late to cycling and didn't enter his first race until he was 18.

''I always did a lot of sports – football, tennis, running. We were always a sports family but my family was not into cycling,'' Mollema explained. ''I rode my bike to school, 12 kilometers (7 1/2 miles) every day up and down, and that's when I started to like riding my bike.

''My first years as a pro it was a disadvantage, especially technically, but now it's more than 10 years later so maybe I'm more fresh compared to other riders.''

Mollema has been able to stay with Froome in the mountains, and moved up to second with an exceptional time trial in Stage 13.

The race resumes on Wednesday with four grueling stages in the Alps before the mostly ceremonial finish in Paris on Sunday.

''I still have something to prove,'' Mollema said. ''I'm happy where I am right now but in the end I will only be happy with a good result in Paris.''

Mollema's top support riders on the Trek-Segafredo team are Haimar Zubeldia of Spain and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg. Froome, meanwhile, has been able to rely on four or five lieutenants up the climbs with Team Sky.

''Froome is, of course, the big favorite. He has all the pressure,'' Mollema said. ''For them, it would be disappointing with a team like that and the budget they have if they don't win the Tour.''

Stage 17 on Wednesday should particularly suit Mollema, with the beyond-category uphill finish to Finhaut-Emosson.

''If there's opportunities I will go for it. That's for sure. If I see any weaknesses with Froome for sure I will attack,'' said Mollema, who prefers uphill to downhill finishes. ''In the last years, he always had a bad day in the Alps or the Pyrenees, where he lost some time, so it can also happen this year.

''It will be a big war until the end.''

Mollema might have been leading at this point if Froome hadn't been allowed to keep the yellow jersey after the chaotic climb up Mont Ventoux in Stage 12.

''We were in disagreement with how the rules were applied but we need to turn the page and focus on what's next,'' Trek general manager Luca Guercilena said.

Guercilena extended Mollema's contract before the Tour to keep him through 2018.

''We gave him total confidence,'' Guercilena said.

While cycling is a passion across the Netherlands, only two Dutchmen have won the Tour: Jan Janssen in 1968 and Joop Zoetemelk in 1980.

Yet, Mollema is part of a generation of outstanding Dutch cylists.

Countryman Tom Dumoulin won two stages in this Tour, and is also considered a future overall contender, as is Steven Kruijswijk, who finished fourth in this year's Giro d'Italia after losing the lead two stages from the end. Robert Gesink has finished in the top 10 of several major races, and Wilco Kelderman is another rising star.

''This is the results of a school, a methodology that is in Holland for some years,'' said Guercilena, who is Italian. ''They let them ride more easy and relaxed when they are young. … In some other countries, Italy included, very often there's so much pressure and so much attention on the junior and the under-23 levels that it makes them explode when they turn pro.''

Mollema has finished in the top 10 on the Tour in each of the past three years.

Now he wants to see if he can take the next step.

Associated Press writer Peter Dejong contributed to this report.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf