Tom Dumoulin: making a Grand Tour contender

Tom Dumoulin wins at Oropa on stage 14 of the 2017 Giro d'Italia

Dumoulin wins at Oropa on stage 14 of the 2017 Giro d’Italia

Tom Dumoulin’s arrival as a ‘general classification’ rider took lots of people by surprise, including him. Could the Dutchman be a serious GC contender? Is the Giro the start or the limit?

That saying about how ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ may not be meteorologically accurate, but when it comes to cycling crashes, well, perhaps it holds water. When erstwhile Giant-Alpecin leader Tom Dumoulin went skittling down the dead-straight N921 on stage three of the 2015 Tour de France, his summer was as wrecked as his bike. Months of planning and training to peak for July ended in an ambulance beside William Bonnett, Fabian Cancellara and other unlucky souls.

After a few days of feeling sore and pissed off, the then 24-year-old and his long-standing coach Adriaan Helmantel decided that the Tour of Spain would be a good place to try to salvage the season and, if nothing else, prepare for 2016. To the cheerful Dumoulin’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to re-write history with his eyebrow-raising 2015 Vuelta performance.

Recall, if you will, that the slimline Dutchman took the red jersey of Vuelta leadership on stage five then lost it again in short order. However, to general surprise, he refused to drop into the depths of the classification. Instead, Dumoulin put his rivals to the sword with a brilliant 39km time trial stage win in Burgos to re-take the race lead. In a display of gutsy riding, he held on to it all the way till the penultimate stage where a combination of Astana tactics, superior firepower and Dumoulin’s fatigue bumped him down to sixth overall, 3-45 behind the race winner Fabio Aru.

“I had crashed on the Tour on the day I thought I would be able to take yellow (the stage finished at the summit of Huy – Ed.), I was so disappointed that day that I really wanted to make a good result at the Vuelta. I mean, I had a broken shoulder, so I needed to rest, so it wasn’t like I could take my Tour form anywhere else. I was so pissed off, but then I thought about it and got serious about the Vuelta. Actually, at first the team wasn’t keen on me riding the Vuelta and I had to push them, I told them I really, really really needed to ride a Grand Tour, to have that in my legs for the following season. My first goal in the Vuelta was…to help the team in the sprints!”

“I know it’s a cliché, but I was going to take it day-by-day, there were no plans to race for the GC. I came down from altitude camp at Livigno and felt OK, but not as good as I had in Sierra Nevada, so I thought, ‘Ach, let’s just see what happens.’ I knew I was really skinny – not like Froome skinny,” he laughs, “but for me it was quite skinny. Anyway, I gave it a shot on the first real stage and I was second on general classification. From that point on, you are part of the GC race, you know? You don’t give away second place in a Grand Tour and after two weeks I was leading the race, but it was never my plan.”

Sadly for Dumoulin, it was never the team’s plan either and, confronted by an Astana squad intent on victory, Dumoulin endured a torrid time. “Yeah, I think everyone expected me to crack and then, on the day they least expected me to, I cracked,” laughs Dumoulin, clearly a lot more comfortable with the memory now than he was at the time. Stand-up guy that he is, he even rejects the ‘get out clause’ that a much stronger Astana team put Giant Alpecin to the sword.

“No, really, I cracked, I cracked. I was really not on a good day and, to be honest, even the stages before I was really not feeling well and I was just not fit anymore, I wasn’t sleeping well, I had a stomach upset, I was getting all those little problems that you get when you are suffering. I was managing to hold on, every day, I even got a few more seconds back – three or six was it? – on the uphill cobbled finish in Ávila, immediately after the stage I said I was really not in good shape to my sport director. The funny thing was that the next day I was sitting on the team bus, I had finally had a good night’s sleep, I had eaten well and my confidence was coming back and my body basically said ‘OK, that’s enough now, that’s one day too many.’”

Vuelta 2015 Tom Dumoulin in race leader's red jersey

Dumoulin found himself in the lead at the 2015 Vuelta

He rejects the idea too that if he had had been part of a team that had more climbers, he might have made it. “You know, Alex Howes of Cannondale was in the early break that day and I know him. Anyway, he was dropped from the breakaway and he waited for me and he tried to pace me and…I just couldn’t hold his wheel anymore I was so gone. Even if I had been surrounded by five team mates, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Unless they had taken turns to push me!” And again Dumoulin laughs. “No, I was gone. It was just too much.”

In any case, after the scars had healed and dust had settled on the Vuelta, 2015 saw the arrival of Tom Dumoulin – general classification contender. “Hmmm. You know, I never had that dream of being a GC rider,” muses Dumoulin, “I’m not a big dreamer, I’m more of a realistic person and as soon as I think that a goal can become – or is – a reality, something that is possible, then it becomes the dream, but so far, certainly before the last Vuelta (in 2015), I never had the idea of becoming a Grand Tour general classification rider. But that Vuelta changed everything for me.”

For a rider who started the Vuelta with no serious ambitions, coming out with two stage wins and several days in the race lead topping it off with a sixth overall was a decent outcome. “If you had offered me that before the start, I would have been happy, so although I was disappointed at the time, it was pretty good,” reflects Dumoulin. “It was kind of…career changing.”

Predictably, as soon as a rider sticks their head above the parapet and shows some general classification potential, there are floods of questions and speculation about whether or not rider ‘X’ can win the Tour de France. We are cursed to live in an age where for many media outlets, the Tour is the only race that happens all season. Dumoulin refused to play along, and deflected all attempts to frame him as an outside bet for the 2016 Tour de France. “The weeks after the Vuelta there was a lot of pressure and media all saying that I had to go for the GC in the Giro or Tour, everyone was pushing me in the GC direction and I kept saying that we already had this plan for 2016 that it was going to be all about Rio. I didn’t want to be this guy who goes for GC, finishes eleventh and then does nothing in Rio at the Games then looks back in ten years and realises that I had the biggest chance of my life in Rio and didn’t take it.”

Tom Dumoulin Giro time trial 2017

Dutch national time trial champion Dumoulin in Giro TT action

“We (Dumoulin and his coach) always had the plan to go for the time trial at the Rio Olympics,” insisted Dumoulin, “and I really didn’t want to change that plan, though the team was kind of interested and saw the opportunities after my ride at the Vuelta. I made sure though that the 2016 season was all about Rio,” explains Dumoulin, pausing briefly before adding, “Now that’s out of the way, actually my focus will change.”

Inevitably, any rider who thinks he has the all-round characteristics to win a Grand Tour is going to give it a nudge. At only just turned 26, Dumoulin has time on his side. “My focus for the next few years is going to be more on trying to become a GC rider,” states the man from Maastricht. English may not be his first language, but his use of the word “trying” is quite precise. Note that Dumoulin said he would be on “trying to become” a Grand Tour general classification rider. He will try to become that sort of rider because he knows – and his coach knows – that he’s not quite there yet and he understands too that it’s no easy task, far from a foregone conclusion.
“Actually I have always had this idea – or this fear – that I’m not really good enough to be up there with the guys on the Grand Tour podium and then it’s not really worth going for it, you know? I mean, if I can win time trial stages in the Tour de France, if I can compete for the win in the World time trial championships and in prologues…if I have to put that all to one side to end up finishing seventh overall in the Tour then it’s really not worth it as far as I am concerned.”

“I want to try for a few years and see what happens, see whether or not my level at Grand Tours improves – or not – and if it doesn’t involve me seriously fighting for the podiums, then I will switch back, because, as I said, it’s just not worth it for me. But I’m definitely going to try in the next couple of years.”

Even as an Under-23 rider, Dumoulin always showed talent when it came to time trials, even those embedded in the middle of stage races. He won, for example, the time trial stage of the ‘Baby Giro’ in 2010, but “was nowhere” in the mountains. “I wasn’t in the grupetto, but I could never make the front group back then, I was never really competitive in the mountain stages. But then, I won this really hard time trial, which was just up and down the whole way, no flat at all. At that point I started to think, ‘Why isn’t it possible to do that in a normal road stage? Why was I only doing it a time trial?’ That got me thinking. Maybe it was only a mental thing, maybe it was about the way I was using energy? Maybe I was a rider who burned a lot of energy in carbs that meant I could generate a lot of power but only for a shorter time, so that all my energy was gone after three hours of a stage. That was always my problem in the Under-23 races.”

Tom Dumoulin on 2017 Giro podium

Dumoulin enjoyed several days in the pink in 2017

For context, the ‘Baby Giro’ that year saw the expulsion of the Lucchini Unidelta team following a search of a team car in which a variety of substances, banned in the race and never officially detailed, was revealed. Matteo Rabottini would go on to test positive later in his career too. If Dumoulin was getting a kicking back then, perhaps there were other forces at work.

These days, Dumoulin is concentrating on different avenues. “I think food is so, so important,” he states, “in every aspect of racing. Not just for proper recovery, but what you eat and when exactly you eat. It’s something I just started to realise a couple of years ago and I’m starting to improve on that side. For years I never thought about things like that, but now you see with guys like Froome you can see that they’ve been thinking about it for a long time, as well as the support guys around him. I think I need to make another step with that stuff, possibly even the area I need to work on the most.”

Dumoulin is clearly a cautious kind of fella, he’s not rushing in to anything and, given his confession that he was ‘afraid’ that he didn’t really belong with the big hitters, that explains the slow realisation that he might be in with a shout in a three week stage race. Not even previous high-flying results in the Tour of Switzerland (fifth overall in his third year as a pro, backed up with third place podium in 2015) could arouse dormant ambition. “Yeah, even after that I still didn’t have the idea of going for GC in Grand Tours, I was still riding thinking ‘Yeah, we’ll just see how it goes.’ Maybe I just needed more time to think about it.”
The Vuelta was the spark that kindled greater ambitions. “It turns out I was ready to go for the GC in Grand Tours much quicker than I thought, much quicker. And I didn’t expect that to be the case.”

The secret, such as it is, was that Dumoulin decided to “watch” his weight “better” and “for the second time in my life, I was training at altitude. The first time I went to altitude was at the Tour de Suisse, where we went to the Sierra Nevada for three weeks and then the second time was just before the 2015 Vuelta we went to Livigno for two and a bit weeks. The results afterwards make me realise that those altitude camps work really well for me. Actually, not in terms of blood chemistry, because I never see a change in blood you know? They always say that you make more red blood cells, but I never saw that either time, but still, there is something that happens with my body that means I am way more efficient and I’d say that’s actually the main thing. It’s not like I can push more power for 20 minutes, my power output doesn’t go higher, but I am more efficient, I can ride for longer at my higher output. Those two camps also made me realise that there is still some potential to improve.”

It’s a bit of a surprise to hear that a rider like Dumoulin, in a World Tour team, a pro for five years, had never been to an altitude camp in all that time. It’s not like those sort of training regimes are cutting edge or top secret these days. But then, not all World Tour teams have the same budgets. In any case, in spite of his late ‘conversion’ to the joys of weeks of high altitude isolation, Dumoulin was – and still is – feeling his way with the with the effects of altitude training. “Actually when I came down, before the Tour de Suisse, I felt better and before the Vuelta I wasn’t expecting anything.”

And expectation is an increasingly big factor in the life – or rather life style – of a professional rider who aims for Grand Tour podiums. These days, it’s about following a lifestyle for 365 days a year, season-in, year out. It requires a level of commitment that wasn’t needed as much in the years of heavy-duty doping. If you want to win clean, there are fewer shortcuts than ever. Does Dumoulin have the temperament and focus to maintain that focus and discipline? It cracked Bradley Wiggins, after 2012.

“I haven’t reached the point where I have reached my goals, not in GC terms, so I don’t know how I might react if I reached a goal like that. Wiggo had one big goal and he made it (in 2012) and then it was maybe like ‘OK, I made it now, that’s enough’ for a guy like Froome it’s obviously not enough. I cannot say how I will react. All I know is that at the moment, I can do more, maybe not do better, but I can do more and then I’ll find out if I get better results or not. I know I can improve my nutrition and training I hope to make changes. Actually just today I made a list of things – that I’m not going to share with you! – a list of things where I think we can improve over the next season so we can really go for the GC and make some differences. I’m going to try that for one or two, maybe three seasons and then… we’ll see!” Dumoulin smiles and there is more than a hint of excitement and enthusiasm as he describes his scheme. Then he adds, “If it doesn’t work, I can go back to doing what I do now because what I have is not bad! I’d still be a pretty good rider.” From the man who wore the Giro pink jersey, won two stages, won two Tour de France stages and picked up a bronze medal in the Rio Olympic time trial. Yeah, ‘pretty good rider.’

Post script: The New Dutch Empire

After several seasons in which Dutch cycling didn’t have a lot to shout about in Grand Tours, Dumoulin finds himself in the happy position of being one of – say – four riders in with a shout of a podium in the three Grand Tours. It’s a happy state of affairs for all concerned, sharing the heavy expectations of a nation.
Dumoulin laughs. “Yeah, there’s Gesink, Mollema, me, Kruijswijk, Kelderman, but already they are expecting a lot from me and although 2016 went well, maybe there will be a time when I don’t perform so well because of too much pressure. So far, I’ve handled it OK and…you know, in the end, it’s me who wants to make my goals and I know it sounds like a cliché, but it really doesn’t matter what other people think. Nobody likes hear critics, of course not, but in the end, it’s up to me.”

Dumoulin is lucky, in any case, to be part of a small group of talented young Dutch riders who all seem to have come to the fore at roughly the same time. “Why are there so many guys now and not five years ago? I think its coincidence, but we’ve all been part of the old Rabobank Continental team as under-23 riders, which was doing good stuff for a couple of years. That team of course was producing riders a few years ago too but they didn’t make that step up. I don’t know, but I’d say that the sport is definitely cleaner – I hope – I guess and I hope and I think that might have something to do with it. I think we may have an advantage because, if I’m being honest, I think that the northern countries have a bit of a different mentality to the southern countries for a few years and we’ve been trying to find a different way, with better training, better nutrition to perform better and do better against the guys who maybe don’t do it on a good way and I think now that the sport is cleaner I think we have an advantage. Maybe I shouldn’t quite put it like that,” adds Dumoulin, struggling a little here with the nuance of what he is trying to explain. “Well,” he concludes, “that could be one of the reasons.”

May 2017