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Words by Shane Stokes | Photos by Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
If anyone had said before the Giro d’Italia that Tom Dumoulin would drop Nairo Quintana and beat some of the world’s best climbers to win the Oropa stage, the claim would have been met with incredulity. The odds on him winning overall were better but, in truth, he was a second-tier favourite behind the likes of Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali and Steven Kruijswijk.
That Dumoulin went on to take the race, despite losing over two minutes to Quintana and Nibali due to stomach problems, marks him out as a major GC favourite for the future. Still only 26 years of age, he should, and likely does, have several more years of progression ahead.
If he does improve, it seems conceivable that he could fight for Tour de France titles in future seasons.
But what does the 2017 Giro tell us about Dumoulin? In a bid to look beyond the headlines and get a better insight into the Dutchman’s character and the team’s campaign, we spoke to three people from his Sunweb team. They gave their personal perspective on the man behind the maglia rosa, gave insights into what happened over the three-week race, offered their thoughts on him as a person and spoke about what they believe he can do in the future.
Like Tom Dumoulin, Laurens Ten Dam is also Dutch. He has been a teammate for the past two seasons and had a core role as team captain in the Giro campaign. He is regarded as one of the most influential teammates in the Giro victory.
“Tom is a smart guy,” he says of the rider he helped to take pink. “He knows what he wants. But to win a race like he did you also have to be a little bit of an Alpha male.
“He likes to win, he likes to be better than his opponents. That it is also something that you need to be a real champion. And I think he is…”
In cycling, many champions have had a drive to succeed from a very young age. Curiously, though, Dumoulin didn’t always want a top-level sporting career. His original ambition was to study medicine and become a doctor, but he was unable to get into the required course.
He tried Health Sciences instead, but never settled in. Disillusioned with college, he decided to put his energy full time into cycling for a year and see where he ended up. That turned out to be a good decision.
Early success came in 2010 when he rode the Troféu Cidade Da Guarda-gp Nations Cup under 23 race in Portugal. He was second on stage one, ninth on stage two and went into the concluding time trial close to the race leader.
He had never ridden a TT bike beforehand but was lent one. He went on to win the test, beating current Movistar rider Nelson Oliveira by four seconds, and taking the race overall.
Three months later he topped the podium again in the time trial at the Baby Giro. There he beat Winner Anacona – another current Movistar rider – by 11 seconds. This led to an offer from the Cervélo Test Team, but that squad subsequently folded. Instead, he competed in 2011 for the Rabobank Continental Team.
Thanks to results such as overall victory in Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux, third in both the Royal Smilde Olympias Tour and the Internationale Thüringen-Rundfahrt plus third in the prologue of the Tour de l’Avenir, he received an offer to turn pro with Argos-Shimano in 2012.
The squad was the forerunner of the current Team Sunweb, and his contract signing began what has been a six-year partnership with the team.
“He is, first of all, a big talent. That is for sure. And if you look at his personality, he is a perfectionist.” – Iwan Spekenbrink, Sunweb CEO
Iwan Spekenbrink is the long-term CEO of the squad, and has thus had a long working relationship with Dumoulin. He knows him well, both as a rider and as a person.
“He is, first of all, a big talent,” he told CyclingTips this week. “That is for sure. And if you look at his personality, he is a perfectionist.”
That description is echoed by the American Chad Haga. He has been part of the team since the 2014 season, and was the only other rider to do the full altitude training block with Dumoulin in Sierra Nevada and Tenerife. He too knows him well.
“Perfectionism is certainly part of Tom’s character,” he tells CyclingTips. “He wants every aspect to be the best possible. That’s in terms of himself, his teammates, the staff…he wants everything to be running tip-top. And then we have seen what can happen, what does happen.”
So, what is behind the perfectionism? “I think he has seen what he is capable of doing,” Haga answers. “He knows that he is not so talented that he can just be sloppy about it and still perform that way.”
In seeking perfectionism, Dumoulin has a shared attribute with many other Grand Tour winners. Being meticulous helps to get the best out of themselves. To find the percentages which can make the difference between first and second, winning and losing.
But, as Spekenbrink notes, it is crucial to be able to apply that meticulousness in a constructive way.
“Of course he became stronger and stronger over the years. Aside from that, he has learned how to use his perfectionism in a good way, so that he benefits from it,” he says.
“What he has learned is that there are moments when you have to make big plans, detailed plans. But once a plan is ready, there are moments when you have to trust others – your teammates, our staff, our scientists, our coaches. That everybody does his share of the plan, while he focuses on tactics. How to tackle the race.”
Spekenbrink doesn’t spell it out, but his mention of controlled perfectionism immediately creates the mental image of the alternative: having an athlete who is so obsessed with tiny details that he stresses himself and others out. Of someone being so OCD that it creates tension.
Switching on and switching off is crucial. And so too trusting others.
“[Doing that] makes it very nice to work with Tom,” Spekenbrink continues. “How it works in the team is, first, in phase one, make a really good plan. Have your influence. Have your ideas. Speak about it. Try to make a better plan than your competition has.
“Then, once the plan is ready, realise that you cannot control everything by yourself because you are a bike rider and trust it to the people around you. They all want to be world champions in their own field of the plan – they want to make better training, better coaching, better motivation of the teammates, the better nutrition, etcetera etcetera. So, then, in the race, Tom has to focus on where his influence is.”
Clearly, being able to let go of the uncontrollable is vital. “Tom is an athlete and he is a perfectionist,” Spekenbrink reiterates. “And the development over the years is how to deal with both of those characteristics in the best possible way. I am proud of the development he has made, really.”
If there was one clear sign of the physical development Dumoulin has made, it came on stage 14 of the Giro d’Italia. Four days earlier he dominated the stage 10 time trial, scooping the pink jersey in the process. He took two minutes 53 seconds out of Quintana, who was determined to respond on his terrain.
On the road to Oropa he seized his chance. The Colombian attacked hard with four kilometres to go and got a gap. He drew clear while Dumoulin lost ground. However the Dutchman gradually increased his pace, reeling in those between he and Quintana, and then getting back up to the former Giro winner himself.
He then dug deeper in the finale, following Ilnur Zakarin when the Katusha-Alpecin rider attacked, and then coming around him for the win.
Taking the mountain stage was impressive, and so too cracking Quintana, who finished 14 seconds back.
Ten Dam says that Dumoulin’s ability going uphill was what impressed him most about the Giro campaign. “Tom surprised me on the climbs,” he says. “I knew he was a good TT rider, he can do a TT … the guy was second in the Olympics. But the way he was climbing on Oropa and Blockhaus, beating Quintana or staying close …”
Haga was similarly impressed. “Everybody expected that [he might lose time]. On Blockhaus he lost some time to the climbers. We thought, this race is just about limiting losses on the climbs and then he will take time in the time trials.
“He had taken the lead in that time trial, and we expected, okay, Oropa, we will try to get him a good climb and then just see how much he loses. But he won, took time and also the time bonus. It was then we thought, ‘okay, this could go really well …’
That boosted team morale and helped those riding for him to really believe that the podium – or, even, the maglia rosa – was possible in Milan.
And yet Spekenbrink says that wasn’t the only hint of what was to come. “There were a lot of marquee points,” he said. “The Oropa win was for sure important because it gives confidence. The moment you win is the best feeling you can have, it gives spirit. So in that perspective, it gave that extra energy to the team.
“But maybe there were some other points in the race that were maybe even more key. The first was the stage to Blockhaus. It was initially a very negative one where we lost Wilco Kelderman. If we had Wilco there, the team would have had quite a dominant character in the mountains as he was in really good shape.
“We knew that Tom would do really well, but if you have a second guy who can stay very, very long with the best riders, that would be a tremendous added value for the team. So it was kind of a big blow. But on the same stage, Tom confirmed that his level was good. He finished third, he finished with [Thibaut] Pinot, and then he took time on other contenders. So that was an important day.
“Then two days later the time trial … that was a very important day. He did a really good time trial. You could see the time he took on the other contenders. That was an important step, obviously.”
However the most dramatic moment of the Giro was yet to occur. Following the time trial win plus the Oropa victory, Dumoulin’s confidence was on a high. Momentum was on his side and he was well clear of his rivals. Starting stage 16, the race’s queen stage, he had two minutes 41 seconds in hand over second-placed Quintana, with Pinot 40 seconds further back and Nibali at 3:40.
However trouble was on the horizon. Just before the start of the final climb of Umbrailpass, he wheeled to a halt. To the astonishment of those watching the coverage, he ran to the side of the road, removed his pink jersey, then undid the bibs of his shorts.
Out of camera shot – fortunately – he opened his bowels, clearing his system of whatever it was that had caused him stomach problems during the stage.
Ahead, his rivals pushed onwards, forgetting or disregarding the unwritten rule of not profiting from a problem suffered by a race leader. Dumoulin mounted a furious chase and despite riding the remainder of the stage almost completely unassisted, he lost just over two minutes and kept pink. That would prove crucial to his final victory in the race.
Spekenbrink correctly remembers it as a pivotal moment. “This was the queen stage where everybody knew that the big guys would attack the pink jersey. So you are a very young guy, the whole world is watching you, cameras all around you, and then you have to go from your bike for this natural break.
“That does a lot to a human, especially when you are so young. It is kind of an awkward situation, it is something you don’t wish to happen … and then exactly on that day it happens.”
A lesser rider might have given up on pink. Spekenbrink says it is a reflection of Dumoulin’s character that he didn’t, and also that he limited his losses so well.
“Many people would mentally lose ground on such a moment. But we had very good coaches, and also Tom was able to get himself together. He really did a good ride – he made it a long time trial up the mountain, down the mountain and over the Umbrailpass. Effectively he was riding alone while the favourites all started from the group. He lost only a little time to them.
“They had the protection of the group and they even attacked near the summit. Tom was just by himself and effectively losing so little time. He was the fifth-fastest guy up the mountain that day.”
“To be honest, I thought, ‘Oh fuck, we are losing the Giro here, maybe he will lose five minutes.’” – Laurens Ten Dam, Team Sunweb
Speaking after the finish, Dumoulin was frustrated and a little angry, yet seemed able to shrug off any embarrassment about what happened.
According to Haga, he took the attitude that what was done was done and he had to look forward. “It was an embarrassing thing, but there was nothing he could have done about it,” he says. “He had to go, and he just took care of it. He was mostly disappointed that he had to throw away the greatest proportion of his lead.
“Afterwards, we just had to convince him that yes, it was a blow to his chances overall, but we showed him…‘look, you did a 35 or a 40 kilometre solo time trial after that, and still went just as fast as those guys. So stomach problems aside, you have race-winning legs here.’
“Perhaps the person who was most important in that was Laurens [Ten Dam]. He was our team captain. He is so experienced – he is great with tactics and morale and perspective. He tried to knock the bad thoughts out of Tom’s head, in a way.”
Ten Dam initially downplays his role in keeping Dumoulin motivated and focussed, saying that the Giro winner is the person who should talk about whether he helped or not. But, pushed on the stomach trouble incident, he gives his perspective.
“What was really impressive to me was how Tom handled it so well. He just turned on riding again,” he says. “To be honest, I thought, ‘Oh fuck, we are losing the Giro here, maybe he will lose five minutes.’ But in the end it was only two and a half minutes. After he got off the bike, he didn’t actually lose so much time.
“He handled the situation pretty well. Obviously, as you say, it is an embarrassing situation, doing that in the pink jersey in front of the whole world. But he handled it really well. I was impressed by that.”
So too Spekenbrink. “To mentally get yourself together like that and just stay focussed on your goal and not get distracted from all the unfortunate things that happened that day … that made a big impression. It showed that he was physically okay, not much worse than the rest, and also that he was very strong.
“He was still in the lead, other guys still had to take time on him. After that day, we really did believe that he can win the Giro.”
“Toiletgate” wasn’t the only incident in the final days. There was some back and forth with Nibali and Quintana when Dumoulin felt they weren’t doing their share of riding, including some strong criticism from Nibali, and also a period on stage 19 when he was caught behind a split.
“He was too far behind,” says Ten Dam, not sugar-coating things. “That was also maybe a little bit to do with [efforts of] the day before. He was not focussed like the rest of the Giro, so he nearly paid a big price for that.
“In the end we were so lucky that it didn’t cost us the Giro. We can be happy about that.”
Dumoulin and the team worked hard to get him back to the other GC contenders, but it would exact a price later on. Spekenbrink says it was a day when much was learned.
“Tom was in the wrong position in the peloton. It was a very good move of Bahrain and Movistar, who took the opportunity and broke the peloton in groups.
“It cost our team and also Tom a lot of energy to get back. It was a long, long, long chase. That was a big learning point. In the end we paid for it, for the energy that we spent in the beginning of the stage because he lost time on the final climb.”
Dumoulin lost the jersey as a result, but was still close enough to hope for final victory. He fought hard the following day on the last mountain stage, dropping a few more seconds but still staying close. And then, on stage 21 to Milan, he took second in the final time trial and overhauled Quintana, winning the race.
It was a dramatic end and something which earned him the first-ever Dutch GC victory in the Giro d’Italia.
“He was not focussed like the rest of the Giro, so he nearly paid a big price for that. In the end we were so lucky that it didn’t cost us the Giro.” – Laurens Ten Dam
So, what about the future? Reflecting on Dumoulin’s Giro result, Haga believes it could mark out what lies ahead for his teammate. “Tom has shown that he is a legitimate Grand Tour contender,” he says. “He is not a guy who just tires after two weeks.
“He can go the distance and that makes him a real factor any time he decides to go for GC in a Grand Tour. I think this might not be the only one …”
Perhaps it’s due to cultural differences between English and Dutch, but Ten Dam puts things rather more colourfully. Dumoulin finished 31 seconds ahead of Quintana but, as his teammate notes, that gap doesn’t tell the full story of how strong his performance was.
“If you win the Giro like he did, then for sure there is a possibility that he wins the Tour. But you never know. It is also something that you have to see in the future,” he says, when asked about the future and chasing yellow.
“But if he didn’t have the accident of shitting himself, then he would have won with almost three minutes. And three minutes over Quintana is a big gap.
“To be honest, if he has the same legs in the Tour, then he can also win there …”
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