At what point in this year’s Giro d’Italia did Tom Dumoulin become the favourite? He certainly looked a threat on Blockhaus, catching and passing Vincenzo Nibali before piling forty seconds into the reigning champion. He immediately looked every bit as strong a climber as his compatriots Bauke Mollema and Steven Kruijswijk (the latter having a particularly bad day). He received big praise for his typically measured ride but we all wondered if his time trialling prowess had taken a hit as a result of his leaner build. By the time he handed everybody a thorough beating in Montefalco these concerns had been swept away. The transition was almost complete.
Up until the 2015 Vuelta, Dumoulin’s talent had been well hidden. The previous year had ended with a strong showing at the Eneco Tour, a trip to the podium and a cowboy hat at the Tour of Alberta and a very impressive third it the World Championship time trial. I remember being asked to write about Bradley Wiggins’ victory at the Worlds and managed to squeeze in a mention of the 23-year old Dutchman in third place.
Fast forward a year and Dumoulin had a whole new momentum. After disappointing the orange masses when the Tour started in Utrecht, he was forced to abandon and headed to the Vuelta. He moved up to second in the GC after an entertaining battle with Esteban Chaves and by the time he stomped past Chris Froome he was the new race leader. The climbs kept coming but Dumoulin swatted them away to create the most captivating Grand Tour story of the year. He was set to become the Vuelta champion when breaking down in the very last act. He lost nearly five minutes, the race lead and even his podium spot. In return he received a huge new following.
The next stepping stone was the 2016 Tour de France and the Andorra Arcalis climb. In appalling conditions, Dumoulin comfortably out-climbed Rui Costa, Rafal Majka and Thibaut Pinot on a HC categorised summit finish. It was something that fellow time traillists Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin had never thought of attempting. Comparisons had also been drawn between Dumoulin and Wiggins but the Brit had never shown an appetite for solo mountain breaks.
I’d love to know the moment Dumoulin first seriously considered himself a future Grand Tour winner. The Amstel Gold Race had inspired Dumoulin to get on a bike and he worked tirelessly in Marcel Kittel’s leadout train during his formative years at Shimano. When Dumoulin and current teammate Simon Geschke helped deliver Kittel to his first Tour stage in Bastia in 2013, did they ever expect to be hauling themselves up the Dolomites defending the Maglia Rosa less than four years later? It’s an outstanding story.
Laurens ten Dam revealed in an interview he had called Dumoulin when this year’s Giro profiles were released and encouraged him to ride. This thought was mirrored by fans; if Dumoulin was ever going to win a Grand Tour then the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia could be the one.
It’s true that this year there was 70km of time trialling for Big Tom to get stuck into but this wasn’t grossly beyond the norm. Last year there was over 50 kilometres of flat time trials plus one up a mountain for good measure. In 2015 there was a mammoth 59.5km time trial and the year before that had an equally taxing 40km slog. There’s always going to be an ITT and you can guarantee the Giro organisers will have a leveller up their sleeve in the form of a leg-numbing Dolomites concoction. This wasn’t a flat Giro d’Italia – just ask any of the 161 finishers.
The final week was a collection of wonderfully written chapters. Dumoulin appeared to be going from strength to strength as he hauled back a broken Nairo Quintana on the slopes of Oropa and bossed his way into the final kilometre.
However, in a twist reminiscent of Kruijswijk’s crash a year earlier, Dumoulin’s near-three minute advantage was dumped at the side of the road as his rivals capitalized – in one way or another – on a natural break. With awful timing, Dumoulin stripped off on the Queen Stage just metres before a second ascent of the Stelvio. We’re all well-versed in what happened next. The GC riders didn’t attack but nor did they wait. They might as well have whistled as they attempted to stay ignorant to the situation. There was nothing damning about the way they reacted to the bizarre turn of events but it was a lucky break and they knew it.
Momentum had swung but Dumoulin was defiant. He lost time on the ascent of the Umbrail pass and the Maglia Rosa was prised from his shoulders on Piancavallo. However, these were days where he really won the Giro d’Italia. He rode kilometre after kilometre on the cusp of cracking but never blew up. With every pedal stroke his form seemed to teeter from justified race favourite to Vuelta-style meltdown. Nevertheless, he was patient, measured and rarely rattled. He admitted his bad days and took confidence from the good ones. He even baited Nibali and Quintana when Thibaut Pinot zipped up the road and back into podium contention. Dumoulin was in a war but found himself a more than adequate fighter.
In the end, it all came down to the Milan time trial. On paper Dumoulin had the Giro in his grasp but he had dropped from second to fourth on Stage 20 and looked exhausted as he rolled across the line without mustering a sprint. That day he had denied his rivals the opportunity to distance him and crawled up the mountain behind them casting a looming presence. He also owed a lot to the brilliant Bob Jungels who broke a theme of this year’s race by doing some work that benefitted Dumoulin’s cause.
There was more than a whiff of unpredictability about this Giro and there was every chance the final time trial would throw one last curve ball. Dumoulin needed to take 53 seconds back from Quintana in 29km and there was plenty of evidence to suggest this would happen. As far back as the 2011 Tour de L’Avenir Dumoulin had been underlining his time trial superiority over Quintana. On a flat 6.6km French course a 20 year-old Dumoulin had taken 23 seconds from the Colombian.
Appearing far calmer than most of his fanbase, Dumoulin did the business and won the Giro d’Italia by 31 seconds. Pinot and Quintana looked empty on the final day and it was their shortcomings – as much as Dumoulin’s brilliance – which decided the race.
It isn’t just our race winner who deserves credit for this excellent Giro d’Italia. The likes of Nibali and Ilnur Zakarin brought a dose of old school aggression and were the perfect pantomime villains in the Dumoulin story.
A month ago we were talking about the likelihood of Dumoulin winning a Grand Tour in his lifetime; now we’re talking about how many.