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Tom Dumoulin is arguably the strongest GC rider at this Tour de France. But when will he take the opportunity to prove it?
The final kilometres of Stage 14, finishing at Mende, mirrored what we saw at La Rosière and l’Alpe d’Huez — Dumoulin, along with Team Sky teammates Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are riding at a level above the rest of the field. As Dumoulin said after the stage, they appear to be very evenly matched.
The general classification bears that out it, as they are the top three overall, even with Froome’s 51-second loss on Stage 1, due to a crash, and Dumoulin’s 53-second loss — plus a 20-second time penalty — due to a mechanical just before the uphill finish on the Mûr de Bretagne on Stage 6.
On Saturday, with 2km to go and fourth-place overall Primoz Roglic up the road, Dumoulin took to the front over the steepest part of the climb to Mende, distancing Romain Bardet and Steven Kruijswijk.
Froome countered Dumoulin’s move, and then Thomas followed Froome, slightly distancing Dumoulin before the Sunweb rider clawed back on. Thomas went back to the front, pursuing Roglic, and the three came to the line together. There was no change on the classification between the three; Thomas leads Froome by 1:39, with Dumoulin another 11 seconds back.
“[Dumoulin’s pacing] is impressive,” Thomas said. “He can really pace himself. He’s world time trial champion, he knows exactly how to ride whether it’s a 3km climb like that or 40 minutes up Alpe d’Huez. You don’t know if he’s really suffering or if he’s just pacing himself. Fair play to do that, it takes some balls to do that, especially when you’re on your own.”
It’s interesting to hypothesize that had Dumoulin not had the mechanical on Stage 6, when he and Bardet collided, he would be sitting just 37 seconds behind Thomas, and 1:02 ahead of Froome.
Regardless, barring catastrophe, one of these three men will win this Tour — and the chances are good that man will be wearing a Team Sky logo across his chest.
Why? Because Dumoulin is not demonstrably better on the climbs than either Thomas or Froome, and because the Sky duo will simply attack while the other sits on as he chases. Rinse, lather, repeat, until one Sky rider has gone clear.
So what is Dumoulin to do?
The time trial, of course, is the card up his sleeve. Historically, Dumoulin is superior against the clock than Froome — and even more so against Thomas.
Let’s do some math, and work with the data we have.
AGAINST THE CLOCK: DUMOULIN VS FROOME
Over their career, Dumoulin and Froome have raced TTs against one another 13 times; Dumoulin has won eight of them.
On Stage 1 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, Dumoulin rode the 9.7km course 37 seconds faster than Froome. On Stage 16, Dumoulin rode the 34km course 13 seconds faster than Froome.
At the 2017 world time trial championship in Bergen, Dumoulin rode the 31km course 81 seconds faster than Froome.
At the 2016 Olympic time trial, where Dumoulin took second and Froome took third, Dumoulin rode the 54.6km course 15 seconds faster than Froome.
The 2016 Tour de France had two ITTs, on undulating roads at Pont d’Arc on Stage 13, and uphill to Megève on Stage 18. Dumoulin won Stage 13, riding the 37km course 63 seconds faster than Froome, who finished second. Froome won Stage 18, riding the 17km uphill course 21 seconds ahead of Dumoulin, who was second.
Adding those six most recent TT contests together, Dumoulin holds a 188-second lead over Froome across 183 kilometres, for a time differential of just over 1 second per kilometre.
Extrapolating that out over 31km, Dumoulin would take 31 seconds, enough time to overcome Froome, assuming their time difference on GC stays the same — obviously a big assumption with four days in the Pyrenees on the horizon.
AGAINST THE CLOCK: DUMOULIN VS THOMAS
Dumoulin’s advantage over Thomas in time trials is more profound — but would it be enough to win the Tour if the current time gaps stayed the same?
Over their career, Dumoulin and Thomas have raced TTs against one another 12 times; Dumoulin has won 11 of them. Unlike with Froome, Dumoulin and Thomas have not raced a time trial against one another in 2018.
On Stage 10 of the 2017 Giro d’Italia, Dumoulin rode the 40km course 49 seconds faster than Thomas, who finished second with a dislocated shoulder after he was hit by a motorbike the previous day on the climb to Blockhaus. At the 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico, Thomas rode the 10km course seven seconds faster than Dumoulin.
At the 2016 Olympic time trial, Dumoulin rode the 54.6km course 110 seconds faster than Thomas. On Stage 13 of the 2016 Tour, Dumoulin rode the 37.5km course 120 seconds faster than Thomas, and on Stage 18 he rode the 17km uphill course 108 seconds faster.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that Thomas was riding in support of Froome at the 2016 Tour de France, however Thomas’ seventh-place finish on Stage 13 demonstrates that he was not saving his legs. Thomas finished 23rd on Stage 18, where Dumoulin finished second, and may not have been giving a 100 percent effort.
Adding those five most recent TT contests together, Dumoulin holds a 380-second lead over Thomas across 159 kilometres, for a time differential of 2.4 seconds per kilometre. Extrapolating that out over 31km, Dumoulin would take 74 seconds from Thomas — not enough to win the Tour, assuming their time difference on GC stays the same.
There are many hypotheticals and assumptions here, and this scenario does not take into account time bonuses; it’s a math exercise after 14 stages, and looking to past TT performances as predictive of a future performance. That said, assuming all three riders perform to the mean of past time-trial performances, and using the GC after Stage 14, Thomas would win this Tour, 36 seconds ahead of Dumoulin, with Froome another 20 seconds back.
(Just for fun, if you take away the 73 seconds lost due to Dumoulin’s mechanical and subsequent time penalty, and the 51 seconds lost due to Froome’s crash, Dumoulin would come out on top using this TT prediction by 37 seconds over Froome, with Froome and Thomas separated by just three seconds.)
THE FATIGUE FACTOR
What does all this mean? It means Tom Dumoulin is arguably the strongest GC rider at the Tour to this point, but it also means that he cannot rely on his time-trial strength to take the yellow jersey. He will have to attack to put Thomas into difficulty, and he also must maintain his differential behind Froome.
Thomas has pledged to ride in support of Froome, however that’s a plan that has the potential to backfire given Thomas’ large gap over Dumoulin compared to Froome’s, particularly in the context of Froome’s one, unsuccessful late-race attack on l’Alpe d’Huez.
Backing Froome over Thomas has the potential to lose the Tour for Team Sky, and Dumoulin must find a way to exploit it. The best-case scenario for Dumoulin in the Pyrenees would be that Froome attacks, Dumoulin follows, and Thomas cannot.
But that, of course, is easier said than done, as Saturday’s finish at Mende proved.
“We tried to attack each other a bit but we were all equally strong,” Dumoulin said. “We were pretty evenly matched, just like when we were in the Alps. I attacked first then Thomas was on my wheel, then Froome closed the gap and attacked. Then Thomas closed the gap to Froome. I stayed on the wheel. We’ll see where that goes in the next week.”
With all three riders evenly matched after two weeks, fatigue is likely to play the most important factor in the third week.
Thomas is unproven as a Grand Tour contender over three weeks, and notably had a bad day at the 2015 Tour de France, where he sat fourth overall after 18 stages before losing 22 minutes on Stage 19 to La Toussuire.
Dumoulin also had a late-race collapse at a Grand Tour, on Stage 20 of the 2015 Vuelta a España, where he wore the leader’s jersey into the final mountain stage but was dropped early and plummeted from first to sixth overall. The Dutch rider seems to have overcome that weakness, having won the 2017 Giro d’Italia and finished second to Froome in May.
That Giro d’Italia may prove to be the deciding factor in how this Tour de France plays out, as both Froome and Dumoulin wrestle with fatigue.
“This is the first time I’ve raced for three weeks, so it’s a bit of an unknown,” Thomas said after the finish in Mende. “It’s also an unknown for Froomey and Dumoulin, they’ve both done the Giro. It’s a weird position we’re all in.
“The main thing is that we win and that we don’t start racing against each other and Dumoulin wins, you know?” Thomas said. “Then we would look really stupid.”
And that may be the only certainty in this entire scenario.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.