It’s the twelfth of September 2015. Tom Dumoulin, clad in the red jersey, crosses the line in Cercedilla, four minutes behind new race leader Fabio Aru. He’s had a breakthrough Grand Tour, showing hitherto unseen climbing abilities, but the final mountain stage has proven too much for him. He falls to sixth on GC, but will henceforth be always in the reckoning for Grand Tour success.
Fast forward to 2017. It’s the sixteenth of May. A restday ago, Tom Dumoulin stayed in close contact with an impressive Nairo Quintana on the slopes of Blockhaus, but now he’s on his own terrain, a forty-kilometre rolling time-trial in Perugia. He sets off third from last. Fifty minutes later he’s sitting pretty in the pink jersey, minutes ahead of Quintana and any other rivals. Four days later Dumoulin is triumphant again on Oropa. Three days on from that, he forces me to use the euphemism “stomach problems” to briefly explain what causes his setback on the Umbrailpass. They turn out to be irrelevant, as even a loss of the pink jersey at Piancavallo is wiped out by a dominant final time-trial.
Jump forward a few months to the twentieth of September. Dumoulin rides chancelessly to the world time-trial championship. He now holds pink and rainbow jerseys, and can arguably be considered the second-best Grand Tour rider in the pro peloton.
At this point I’ll dispense with all the time-travel and bring matters to how they lie currently. Tom Dumoulin is a rider with the ability to win the Tour de France. The Tour de France route, by a quirk of luck and another quirk of French favouritism, lacks the amount of time-trialling kilometres which he would consider ideal. So where does Dumoulin go in 2018?
I’ll tell you the answer: he’s going to the Vendée. Sponsor pressure is probably a strong enough force to make him realise the comparative lack of value that comes with a second consecutive pink jersey, and to drive him into competing for yellower clothing. All that is independent of the fact that Wilco Kelderman is looking for Giro leadership, and there’s a fairly strong argument for giving it to him after his Vuelta performance. Sunweb and Dumoulin aren’t completely above the pressure to challenge Froome, either. To wait another year for Froome’s star to wane could forever put an asterisk beside a Dumoulin victory — he couldn’t even challenge Froome at his peak, it would surely say.
A team such as Sunweb may simply not have the patience to hold off on sending their star rider to the Tour. Indeed, noting the figures released by AG2R about what nets them sponsorship money, it seems likely that a second or third would be much more beneficial to Sunweb than even a dominant Giro victory. I don’t doubt Dumoulin’s ability to net that second or third. However, I’ve watched the last few Tours fairly carefully, and while I would never claim to have one of the great memories of all time, I remember a few things about how Chris Froome wins them. He has consistently taken time from his rivals early on, meaning that before the first mountain stage, he has a sizeable buffer even before he outclimbs them. This year’s race was different to those gone before it, but Froome adapted and won an assured victory. The constant theme has been that Froome can find time where nobody else can. Stopping this will be necessary to getting in his way, with the variable of the cobbles stage Dumoulin’s best opportunity.
On paper, the cobbles would seem to favour Dumoulin, the heavier man who simply looks more like a classics rider, and to tell the truth I can’t imagine Froome having an advantage on the Roubaix stage. The fact, however remains that the Giro winner is very inexperienced on the pavé. I went through his results over the years expecting to see a Paris-Roubaix effort from his early career, but his only experience of the French cobbles came in the 2014 Tour, where he finished alongside Romain Bardet. So, er, good effort, but nothing to shout about, even considering that he had less of an incentive to race hard on that foul day than Bardet or any of his companions. Bottom line, if it’s dry for stage nine next year, the chances of him making gains on Froome, who may well be in yellow by that stage, knowing him, are not large. Then come the mountains, where Dumoulin is going to have to beat Froome at his own game, even with the final time-trial in his back pocket.
Dumoulin is a great climber, and he’s not likely to disimprove any time soon, but the prospect of him consistently being on an even footing with Froome for a week is not one I can accept easily. That, however, is what will be necessary and I just don’t think he can do it. Froome (aka that guy who won by minutes on Mont Ventoux, Ax 3 Domaines and La Pierre Saint Martin, and has never had a particularly harmful bad day on a French mountain) has always seemed to be underestimated when it comes to climbing, but he was still the equal or better of everyone in this year’s Tour. Dumoulin will lose next year’s Tour unless he is less than thirty seconds behind Froome after all the mountains. That I just cannot see happening.
Of course, all of this assumes that Froome will be on form and on his bike throughout July, but assumptions that that will not be true have failed every time they have been made, and that realistically shows no sign of changing. To speculate on a race absent Froome would pit Dumoulin against Romain Bardet, a battle for which I would place Dumoulin as the slight favourite. That is idle speculation, however, and the facts remain that Froome is extremely likely to arrive in France next year in the right place to win.
Should Dumoulin avoid the Tour then, save his battery until 2019, when a weaker Froome and a more friendly course may be in the offing? That presents its own risks. It’s more time in which Dumoulin could fall to sickness or crashes, it provides scope for a new challenger such as Miguel Ángel López to get into position to beat the Dutchman and there is no guarantee that the route will have any more time-trialling — Gouvenou isn’t legally required to put any in and they’re hardly a huge public demand for them — so going to the Giro and waiting patiently is by no means a risk-free operation. The idea that a Giro win (not that I’m taking for granted that he would win it) is even close to a yellow jersey is held by fewer and fewer, especially when that Giro win is a second in succession and the choice to take on the Tour is there.
So is there a right answer for Dumoulin? To me, the yellow jersey looks beyond his reach, and riding the Giro comes with enough caveats to make him think twice about it. He’s immensely talented, possessing all the tools to win the Tour, if circumstances go his way in 2018 and certainly in the further future. But his 2018 season, it seems, will struggle to be quite as faultless as this one.