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Tom Dumoulin’s 2019 season came unravelled at 6 km to go in the fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia. At a roundabout, the peloton toppled like dominoes on both sides of the road, sending Dumoulin to the ground.
A chainring slashed his left leg deeply, and as he gingerly pedalled across the finish line, he was flanked by five Sunweb teammates with a crimson stream running down his leg. He abandoned the next day, recovered enough to start the Criterium du Dauphine a month later, but dropped out before it finished.
He didn’t know it then, but that faltering Dauphine was to be Dumoulin’s last race for Sunweb, and his last race for 420 days.
In the time since that crash, the 2017 Giro d’Italia winner has struggled through surgery to remove a shard of gravel left over from the crash; undergone a contract negotiation, and jumped ship from Sunweb two years early; had his season start delayed by intestinal parasites; and, like the rest of the peloton, grappled with the suspension of racing due to COVID-19.
Last week’s Tour de l’Ain was the first time the Dutchman has turned a pedal in anger since June 2019, and his first race in the colours of Jumbo-Visma.
The Tour de l’Ain is a minor race but it has taken on an outsized significance in the condensed 2020 calendar as a tune-up for the Tour de France, which is slated to begin – all being well – on August 29. In Ain last week, on the slopes of the Jura mountains, two tridents of Grand Tour titans went head to head – Jumbo-Visma’s GC line-up of Primoz Roglic, Steven Kruijswijk and Dumoulin, and Team Ineos’ Tour-winning trio of Egan Bernal, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
It was an early test and there is time to finetune, but one thing was clear: Jumbo-Visma had the upper hand. Primoz Roglic claimed the final stage and with it, the overall win; Egan Bernal looked embattled amidst a crumbling, tactically lacklustre Ineos squad. But while Roglic scooped the headlines from the race, it was Dumoulin’s performance that was among the most interesting takeaways.
Before Dumoulin had even pinned on a number for Jumbo-Visma, he had been named on Jumbo-Visma’s 2020 Tour de France squad, sharing co-leadership with Roglic and Kruijswijk, along with a stacked supporting line-up including Sepp Kuss, Tony Martin, Wout Van Aert and George Bennett. In June, Dumoulin admitted to some nerves about the task before him, saying “I have not yet been able to prove and show myself for my new team … I really want to shine in the colours of my current team.”
On stage one at the Tour de l’Ain, in Dumoulin’s first race in 420 days, the Dutchman rode a near-perfect sprint lead-out for Roglic, finishing fourth on the stage with his teammate narrowly pipped on the line by Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Andrea Bagioli. “The final was hectic, but that’s just like skiing, you don’t forget it,” Dumoulin said afterward. “I couldn’t have wished for a better test.”
On stage three, Dumoulin was again prominent, leading a dwindling peloton up the Col du Grand Colombier. Behind him, Ineos splintered and Bernal yo-yoed off the back, and Dumoulin kept pedalling on, his face showing an almost monastic calm.
After pulling off to let George Bennett take the final turn, setting Roglic up for the stage win, Dumoulin rode on to the summit, eighth on the stage and 11th overall. In doing so, he proved that after a challenging year away from the peloton, he’s most of the way back.
“My shape is still ups and downs,” Dumoulin told Eurosport at the top of the Grand Colombier. “I hope to use this race to get more consistency in my performances because it’s been really long since I’ve raced.”
Dumoulin has three weeks to dial in that consistency. At the Tour de France, Dumoulin and Roglic and Kruijswijk will each vie for the chance to win the sport’s most famous race. “All three of us get the chance to prove ourselves but eventually we will ride for the one who turns out to be the strongest,” Dumoulin said in June, before racing resumed. “If it turns out that I am stronger than Primoz and Steven, then I have a world-class team to support me to try to win the Tour.”
Two months later and one race down, Dumoulin’s had his first taste of the potential of his team. The Tour de France is a different beast to the Tour de l’Ain, but there is reason enough for optimism – for a strong result for Dumoulin himself, but for an end to Team Ineos’ stranglehold too.
“It is amazing to be part of this team. I’ve never been in a team this strong,” Dumoulin enthused on Sunday. “It’s amazing to see how we can dominate a race like this. I hope we can go further in Dauphine and the Tour.”