Tom Dumoulin: The Thoughtful Engine
In the past couple seasons, young Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) has emerged as one of the sport’s most promising prospects. His time-trialling ability was already well established, but in the past two Grand Tours — the 2015 Vuelta a España and the recent Giro d’Italia — the 25-year-old has confirmed his potential as a general classification contender.
Spanish journalist Fran Reyes caught up with Dumoulin at an altitude training camp ahead of the Tour de France, to learn more about the talented Dutchman, how he plans to juggle his TT talents and GC ambitions going forward, and what the rest of the season might hold.
In 2015, the Vuelta a España was arguably the best Grand Tour of the season. It had a dramatic script, so usual in the late ’90s, with a strong time triallist struggling in the mountains, trying to keep a pack of climbers away from the leader’s jersey he’d earned in the early stages of the race. Add the fact that the starring rider was a young, up-and-coming talent, and a dramatic resolution where the main character would lose everything in the last 50 kilometres of the race, and the 2015 Vuelta had everything.
Dumoulin would end up sitting in his team car, surrounded by a mob of journalist and fans, mouth shut, eyes blank. As he processed his deep disappointment, others saw only a bright future.
In that Vuelta a España, Tom Dumoulin surprised everyone, including himself and his teammates. His talent to pedal fast on the flat was well known, as was his aptitude for hard racing in one-week stage races such as the Eneco Tour and in Classics such as Milan–San Remo. But his consistency over three weeks and his skill to cope with long, steep climbs … that was news.
“It was a surprise”, admits fellow Giant-Alpecin rider Simon Geschke. “But it was somehow logical. I mean: he has a big engine and a big potential, so this was just a step further on his progression. Maybe it was too early for him to win a GT, but he showed he’ll be a contender in the future”.
When asked to name the best quality of his teammate, the German provides an unexpected answer: “He races in a very clever manner. He can be concentrated for a long period of time. You’ll never see him in the back of the peloton. Without being too aggressive, he is always in good position. That’s his big quality, maybe the biggest”.
Tom Dumoulin doesn’t come from a cycling family – not at all. Sitting in a cozy flat in Sierra Nevada, where he is at an altitude training camp along with teammates Warren Barguil and Albert Timmer ahead of the Tour de France, he mentions that his father is a biologist — “currently doing some lab work on IVF” — and his mother has “a tactical job at a school company.” As a kid, he wasn’t interested in cycling. “Maybe some Tour de France stages here and there, but I definitely wasn’t staying at home to watch it. I preferred soccer.”
But at 15, cycling turned Dumoulin’s life upside down. The Amstel Gold Race came to town.
“It was nice to see. As a kid, I was amazed as the attention built up, with the helicopters coming… It all felt very special that day. After that, I started cycling. Now I’m actually a cycling fan. I’m even starting to enjoy the history of the sport as well as the racing. I finished a book on Gino Bartali two weeks ago. When I was a kid, I would have never read a book like that.”
Even as a young cyclist, Dumoulin wasn’t interested in making the sport his career. Instead he was taking advantage of his intelligence to get notable grades in high school; grades that should have allowed him to study medicine at university.
“I wanted to become a doctor, but in the Netherlands you need both high marks and some good luck to be selected and entitled to sign up for the bachelor you want. And, even if my marks were good, I was unfortunate and wasn’t picked”.
Instead he had to undertake another degree, Health Sciences. “From the minute one I didn’t enjoy the classes.”
At the same time, the Cervélo Test Team had noticed Dumoulin’s potential on the bike and offered him a contract for the 2011 season. While that contract didn’t materialise — the team folded over the winter — the belief shown in Dumoulin acted as something of a catalyst: “That made easier the decision of giving up university and focusing on cycling.”
But the decision to leave his studies behind provoked some discord at home.
“My mother told me to do what I felt. My father was more conservative and explained to me that there were a lot of people that gave up on their studies and relied on their parents’ money while trying to make it as sportsmen. He was afraid I was going to reach 25 years old with no job and no career whatsoever.
“But, when I made a firm decision, they were supportive and never pushed me to do something I didn’t want to.”
After one season of success in the UCI Europe Tour with the Rabobank Continental team, Tom Dumoulin joined the Giant-Alpecin structure, then called Project 1t4i, in 2012.
Simon Geschke was there to see Dumoulin’s debut at the Ruta del Sol: “I was very impressed: he finished sixth and he was only a neo!” It was a hard race, with two summit finishes and a star-studded field. Alejandro Valverde won, with Rein Taaramäe, Jérôme Coppel and Denis Menchov fighting for the podium. World-class riders such as Fränk Schleck or Bauke Mollema placed behind Dumoulin in the GC.
“My first impression was that he was strange,” said Geschke, one of the half-dozen riders that has been part of the Giant-Alpecin team since it was Skil-Shimano and who has therefore been able to watch the full development of Dumoulin as a cyclist. “Not in a bad way, but in the sense that he knew what he wanted despite being only the new guy.”
Dumoulin went on to achieve top GC finishes at several one-week WorldTour races such as the Eneco Tour (second in 2013, third in 2014) or the Tour de Suisse (fifth overall in 2014, third overall in 2015). But, until his breakout ride at the Vuelta, his two most outstanding results were his bronze medal at the ITT World Championships in Ponferrada 2014 and his role as part of Marcel Kittel’s lead-out train during its most successful run.
It was the latter that saw him attract his only known nickname to this date: “The Butterfly from Maastricht”.
“It is not a very cool nickname, if you ask me”, Dumoulin says, laughing. “It started when I did my first Tour de France. I read an article that said I was transforming from nobody to an attractive prospect. In the Netherlands I was ‘the new interesting guy’, the cocoon that had grown into a butterfly during the Tour.
“In the post-Tour critériums, the speaker called me ‘The Butterfly’. I was really not happy about it,” he says, laughing again. “I’d love to have a nickname such as Valverde’s [“Balaverde”, or “The Green Bullet” — ed.] or Nibali’s [“Lo Squalo” or “The Shark” — ed.]. But a nickname; you don’t make it for yourself. It’s others who give it to you.
“If it’s The Butterfly, then I’d accept it. For the moment, I’m just Tom, or Tommy.”
Too many fields
Few riders have prompted as much commentary from the press and fandom as Tom Dumoulin. The Dutch rider has spoken several times publicly about the amount of pressure he feels and how it doesn’t impact him. Yet he admits he’s had to close himself off to an extent, and shelter behind his team to limit his media appearances.
“Two or three years ago I could say ‘yes’ to every request, but that isn’t the case anymore,” Dumoulin says. “It’s difficult, you know? My work has got busier. I train a lot and everything around training has got bigger, so we had to limit my media duties and I’m trying to keep a bit of distance with people because, otherwise, it’d be too much for me.
“And it has happened not only with journalists – with fans as well. Now I have to say ‘No’ to fans sometimes. ‘No, Sorry, I don’t have time for autographs anymore because I have to go sign or something’. It feels like shit.”
If being a star is difficult, being bound to be one can be an even bigger challenge. A young, promising rider has to respond to a wide set of expectations he hasn’t necessarily chosen. Dumoulin, for instance, has been described as “destined for the Grand Tours in the future, especially the Tour” by Astana director sportif Giuseppe Martinelli, advised to “aim for the Tour” by Sky’s head-of-everything Dave Brailsford, and compared to Miguel Indurain by Movistar Team’s manager Eusebio Unzué. Yet not long ago he was just a domestique and a rouleur.
In the press conference after his bronze medal in Ponferrada, he said he wanted to focus on the Classics. Meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins said about him: “He just needs to sign for Team Sky and he’ll go through the roof.”
“The challenge with Tom is that he’s too talented in too many fields”, Giant-Alpecin’s manager Iwan Spekenbrink told Cyclingnews this winter. Time trialling is the discipline he’s best known for, but Dumoulin himself doesn’t believe it’s a discipline he’ll ever become the best in the world in.
“Honestly I don’t think that will happen because I’m heading in two directions going for GC and also for TTs. For instance, Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara never had to choose – they were too heavy to go on the big climbs so they focused fully on time trials. For me the choice will always be difficult.
“I will probably have to be thinner at some points of the season to go for GCs, and more powerful in others to go for TTs, so I won’t win every time trial the whole year. I’m just a different rider”.
From Giro to Rio
This year, Dumoulin’s main aim is clear: winning the time trial at the Rio Olympics.
“My original plan was to make the whole Giro d’Italia, then take some rest, undertake an altitude camp, race the Tour of Poland, maybe have a short altitude camp, and then head to Rio.”
He won the initial time trial of the Giro, wore the pink jersey for two days, handed it to Marcel Kittel and then got it back for another four days. In the meantime, he produced some brilliant racing while asserting time and again he wasn’t going for GC.
“Nobody believed me, but in my mind it was crystal clear,” Dumoulin says. Regardless of this, the idea of going for the ‘maglia rosa’ became more prominent in his mind.
“At some point, I thought I was capable of fighting for it. It happened after that stage where I dropped Nibali while wearing the pink jersey [stage 6 to Roccaraso – ed]. I really surprised myself there by being one of the best on a quite respectable climb. So I thought I could go for the GC.
“In any case, two days later I had a shitty stage and the idea abandoned my mind.”
On stage 11, saddle sores forced Dumoulin to go home and outline a new master plan for the rest of the year; a plan that will take him to the Tour de France after spending three weeks in Sierra Nevada, all with Rio in mind. And he is confident of a good showing come the Olympics in early August.
“I’ve finished the Tour de France twice and both times I’ve been competitive some weeks later at Eneco Tour. I should be fighting for the medals in the Olympic Games as well”.
So what does the future hold for The Thoughtful Engine from Maastricht? He doesn’t believe he will be the best time-triallist in the world, but will he win a Grand Tour?
“Maybe I will never win one. Probably I won’t, actually,” he suggests. “Winning a three-week race is pretty hard, even if I was close to doing it in the Vuelta. This year I didn’t plan to go for GC in any Grand Tour, but I want to do it next year.”
Which one will he pick?
“It will depend on which course suits me better – essentially, which one has more kilometres of time trial. This year, I would have picked the Giro. Next year … I just don’t know. I don’t really have a preference for one of the three.
“I’ll take it as it comes.”
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modelling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF