They say a picture speaks a thousand words. I say 500 is a more accurate figure:
To fully appreciate this photo from 2017 – three Giro rivals finishing a minute after the stage winner – you have to understand a little about the 2015 Vuelta. It also helps to know the personalities of the men in the picture. On the right is the swashbuckling defending champion, owner of one of the peloton’s most fiery temperaments. The rider on the left is stubborn and quiet. In the middle is Tom Dumoulin. He’s wearing the Maglia Rosa but beginning to feel as though the Grand Tour Gods are conspiring against him. A few corners earlier, the three had ground a halt and refused to turn a pedal in earnest.
Let’s rewind. Dumoulin started the 2015 Vuelta as a promising powerhouse but ended a GC leader with a massive future. He was the rider of the race yet came only sixth. He wore the leader’s jersey for six days, but blew up on the Puerto de la Morcuera and lost four minutes. He turned us into believers, then let a stunning Grand Tour victory fall through his hands.
Dumoulin marked the 2017 Giro as the end of his transition to Grand Tour contender. Sunweb teammate Laurens ten Dam had called him after the route reveal and urged him to make it his target.
Stage 9 to Blockhaus was the first test of mettle for the favourites; Nairo Quintana danced to a twenty-four second victory, Vincenzo Nibali chased hard before cracking, and Dumoulin paced himself to an impressive third place. ‘Big Tom’ would mash his rivals on the following time-trial and again on the finish in Oropa. He held pink by nearly three minutes.
Dumoulin found stage 16 to Bormio much less fun. He suffered bad stomach cramps and stopped to relieve himself. Nobody waited and he lost over two minutes. Though a chunk of time was lost for his personal pit stop, Dumoulin also struggled on the final ascent. A war of words ensued but Nibali (who won stage 16) refused to show any remorse. Quintana acted oblivious but had also benefited greatly and was now just thirty seconds behind.
The photo is from the end of stage 18, after five major obstacles had been tackled. Dumoulin was tested throughout but pulled things together for the final climb. When fourth-placed Thibault Pinot launched a big attack everybody looked to Dumoulin, but the Maglia Rosa refused to be bullied. The top three began to soft-pedal and exchanged long stares. Nibali and Quintana were Grand Tour winners and believed the younger Dumoulin would eventually blink. One by one the remaining GC riders attacked, eager to profit from the stand-off occurring behind. Dumoulin refused to respond.
The three rolled home to moderate and unnecessary losses but Dumoulin had rattled his closest rivals. In the immediate aftermath, Nibali was furious by Dumoulin’s arrogance and supposed disrespect of the Maglia Rosa. He questioned why it was his job to carry Dumoulin ‘in an armchair to Milan’. Dumoulin – fuelled by the events of Bormio – had happily joined the table for a game of chess. Perhaps now ‘The Shark’ would acknowledge the strategy as something he would have done if roles were reversed.
Dumoulin continued to struggle from isolation in the final stages and fell to a close fourth by the start of the time-trial in Milan. But this Dumoulin was a calm and confident beast. He delivered the required performance and took his first Grand Tour victory.