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Life is a blank slate for Tom Dumoulin now, and ‘it feels good’

After 11 years as a pro cyclist, Dumoulin is ready for what comes next. Whatever that might be.

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It’s been a few months now since Tom Dumoulin raced as a professional for the last time. He announced in June that he’d retire at the end of the 2022 season, but come August he was done.

Now, a month or so after visiting the Wollongong Worlds as a spectator – the flights had already been booked – the 31-year-old has reflected on his 11-year professional career in an illuminating interview with Dutch newspaper, NRC.   

The interview paints a picture of a man who was never truly happy as a professional cyclist. He may have won a Grand Tour – the 2017 Giro d’Italia – and been a world champion – he won the Worlds time trial at Bergen in 2017 – but the Dutchman was never truly content or comfortable.

Part of it, he thinks, is down to the fact he never really planned to be a pro cyclist. He just sort of fell into it after years of playing football (soccer).

“I was an energetic kid and needed sport as an outlet,” he told NRC. “When I started cycling, I found that I liked it. But I never dreamed of a career as a professional cyclist. I really just rolled in there.

“I’ve always thought: what else is there in life? Most teammates didn’t understand that either. Part of my cycling life felt like a sacrifice to me. I thought: I’m doing this now so I can live a normal life later on.”

Today, Dumoulin looks back on some of his achievements with pride; like his Giro win in 2017, for example. 

“I have [the same] physical talent that others have, but I won the Giro,” he said. “I did so with a determination, ambition and strength that is more than just physical aptitude. And that will benefit me for the rest of my life.”

But in his view, the sort of focus and drive needed to succeed at the highest level, for years on end, isn’t exactly healthy. At least not for him.

“[Elite] sport is very beautiful, but you also have to be a little crazy in your head to keep it up for a long time,” he said. “I think that almost every top athlete at the highest level has something loose.

“You put your whole life aside. You get up, you work out as long and hard as you can that day, and when you get home, you’re so exhausted that you’re just barely able to do the same thing the next day.”

Dumoulin said that in order to succeed, he had to live a rather blinkered existence.

“[I’d] just keep working on the next thing,” he said. “What we are doing here together now is reflecting. And I tried to do that as little as possible. I didn’t think about the bigger picture; who am I, where do I want to go with my life, how do I want to be for others? I’m glad those questions didn’t occur to me then, because then I wouldn’t have won the Giro.”

That Giro win was the highlight of Dumoulin’s career, but it wasn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped.

“We would come up with a master plan for 2018 in the [Sunweb/DSM] team house in Sittard,” he said. “I cried half of that meeting. Why master plan? In 2017 everything I had saved up in all those years had come together. I had made it to the top and I was super proud, but I also felt; yes, that pot of gold was not there. That was a big disappointment.”

Dumoulin moved to Jumbo-Visma in 2020 but he says joining the Dutch team ultimately wasn’t the best fit for him. The 2020 Tour de France in particular, was a low water mark in his career.

“It was really, really awful,” he said. “I hated cycling so much, and I hated being there so much. Almost the entire Tour I drove around with a large tumor under my buttocks. And still I was able to help the team and I finished seventh. Seventh! I really don’t understand how that is possible.”

Struggling with life as a professional cyclist, Dumoulin stepped away from the sport in early 2021. He returned in June of that year before winning the Dutch ITT title and taking silver in the Tokyo Olympics time trial. He took a handful of top-10 finishes in 2022, including a memorable fourth place on stage 7 of the Giro d’Italia, won by teammate and breakaway companion Koen Bouwman. A DNF at the Clasica San Sebastien in late July would be Dumoulin’s final outing as a pro racer.

Now, with his racing career behind him, Dumoulin is feeling refreshed and ready for whatever comes next. He recently spent six weeks travelling alone in Costa Rica and Fiji, sleeping in hostels, learning to enjoy his own company.

Dumoulin told NRC that he’s currently going through a divorce, 13 years after he and his wife Thanee van Hulst first got together and four years after they were married. And while the decision to separate is still fresh – roughly a week old – he’s trying to look at the positives.

“For the first time in my life I can fill in everything myself,” he said. “I start with a completely blank page and where I’m going, I have no idea. And I’d like to leave it that way. Because it feels good.

“I am grateful and happy with what cycling has taught me, but now I want to be closer to the person I am.”

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