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Ascension Day

Tom Dumoulin flips the script and all of cycling is on notice

I’ll take that, thanks

Yesterday’s somewhat thrilling conclusion to the Giro d’Italia combined the most dramatic outcome — a reversal of the overall win on the final stage — with a sense of total inevitability, thanks to the brilliance of Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin. And this is good news.

We have seen this sort of late reversal happen a number of times in the last few decades, particularly at the Tour de France which often schedules a time trial just before the ride into Paris, and in the spy-vs-spy dynamic of climbers vs cronomen, this creates exactly that sort of drama. The most dramatic of them is (and may forever be) Greg LeMond’s win on the Champs-Elysées in 1989, which produced both the narrowest victory margin and one of the all-time great shocking moments in sports. Dumoulin’s victory might look vaguely like that, but it was something else.

It belongs to a category of races that were wonderful and suspenseful but made sense in real time. In the Giro (which rarely slips in a time trial at the end, but now that I think of it, that’s a Tour gimmick that they have appropriated on occasion), think of Ryder Hesjedal overturning a 31-second deficit in Milan in 2012. In the Tour, think of Cadel Evans reversing a 57-second margin against the hapless Schlecks in 2011. Or Stephen Roche in 1987, overturning a 21-second deficit to Pedro Delgado. It doesn’t happen that often. It didn’t happen in 2008, when Carlos Sastre got enough of a buffer on Alpe d’Huez to hold off Evans, for example. But as dramatic reversals go, the formula for Cronoman’s Revenge is reasonably well established. Hesjedal’s win is probably the weakest of this list, relying on an OK performance against a simply poor cronoman, but the rest of it is populated by powerful, convincing performances.

Hesjedal’s winning ride
Tim de Waele

What it may lack in actual (versus perceived) drama, such wins atone with a sense of justice done, that the strongest rider won. And in Dumoulin’s case, I doubt anyone would disagree. Dumoulin ascended to the sport’s inner circle, the grand tour winners, by outright taking the shirt off the back of Nairo Quintana, not by having it fall in his lap. There’s an ancient Chinese saying that goes, if you come at the king, you best come correct. Dumoulin came at a pair of Giro kings in Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, but at the end we all knew who was the ace.

[Aside, Dumoulin’s win is a surprise, even to him as he is telling it now. I had little confidence in his ability to win, but on our last podcast Andrew said that the maglia rosa would be won for good before stage 16, pointing at the time trial on stage 10. And Conor in his preview post said he didn’t think he’d win but named him as the man most likely to spring a surprise.]

Tom Dumoulin, I swear...
Tim de Waele

It was so clear at the end that I stuck to an ambitious riding plan and missed watching it live, a difficult choice that I nonetheless don’t regret. Dumoulin did exactly what I thought he would, springing past the three riders in front of him in a fashion that was every bit as convincing as his first time trial effort in Umbria, or his subsequent time-trial-like efforts every time he let a gap go on a climb. Those latter data points might be the most important ones for our narrative. Dumoulin is not a human piston like Tony Martin, or a creature of superior positioning who can’t replicate that advantage on a standard bike. He’s all of the above: strong, technically correct, relentless... on any course.

Dutch fans waited 37 years for another grand tour winner, and as a cycling powerhouse nation you can imagine that included a great many near misses along the way. Pieter Winnen, Eric Breukink and Steven Rooks hung around the podium of the Tour in the 1980s. Breukink’s Giro heroism in 1988 is overshadowed by Andy Hampsten’s but shouldn’t be. The briefly terrifying Gert-Jan Theunisse looked like a promising climber at the 1989 Tour and evolved into an almost mythical figure, then a nearly tragic one, but in the end he did no better than fourth in the Tour. For 37 years the peak of Dutch pride in the grand tours was ownership of Alpe d’Huez, which made Steven Kruijswijk’s crash last year a lot more painful than perhaps we new country people fully appreciated.

Gert-Jan Theunisse in 1989

A mere one-year later, though, things are considerably brighter, as Dumoulin more than fulfilled the promise he flashed at the 2015 Vuelta. Beating a crew of Quintana, Nibali, Mollema and Pinot is no accident of circumstance, it’s rather an announcement that he can climb quite well, thank you very much, to go along with his world champion-level ability in time trials. So where exactly is this going? I’m sure in the Netherlands the media is treating this win with reason, caution, and... oh. OK then, well, is he the next star of cycling?

We won’t know the answer for certain until he does this in the Tour de France, as we can be certain he will attempt in 2018. [Maybe he goes this year too but without much in the tank.] Personally I like his makeup a lot, not merely the time trialling but the consistency with which he rode. Yes, he faltered a bit at the end, but not in a big way, and with a calmness that showed he knew he was playing with a large buffer from the looming final-day time trial. The fact that he is 26 means Dumoulin is just entering his prime years, so it wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to see him bump up his climbing a bit more as he continues to develop. The competition gets tougher at the Tour than just beating a curiously average Quintana, but that time trialling advantage is so large and so replicable that his floor appears to be “podium finisher.”

Tom Dumoulin Tim de Waele

Obviously he won’t be taking down Chris Froome this year, and it’s a bit optimistic to imagine that happening even in his first real stab at the Tour in 2018. But let’s look around for some comparables to see what constitutes a reasonable set of expectations for Dumoulin’s Tour hopes.

In terms of his skill set, in the last 30 years you might point to Evans, Roche (?), Indurain, Riis, maybe even Ullrich or Armstrong. But the latter three are convicted dopers and Indurain... well, he dragged 175 pounds up and down the highest mountains right on the wheel of the natural climbers, all of whom were fully doped. So their careers aren’t useful to look at. Roche and Evans were slightly different body types, though at least Evans’ skills looked a lot like Dumoulin’s. Roche was 28 when he did his famous treble, and 27 when he climbed onto the Tour podium for the first time in 1985. Injury was a factor there, but for what it’s worth, when he was healthy, it was in his late 20s that he finally rose up. Evans was a remarkable 34 when he finally won, but was challenging for the win beginning at age 29, and that’s after a late start in road racing.

Those are some pretty good comps, but there is one comp that is clearly the best for Dumoulin, even though it’s one that I am hesitant to use... Froome. Their body types are very close, same height but Froome maybe 8-10 pounds lighter — something Dumoulin will probably have to realize in order to win the Tour. Froome first won the Tour at age 28, after an early career that was held back by the parasitic illness bilharzia. Without that, well... anyway, Froome’s development was less rapid than Dumoulin’s has been to date. Once it happened, Froome started winning Tours by dominating the time trials and occasionally crushing the climbing stages too, though he’s had a few mediocre days there. It’s hard to equate their careers, since cycling careers are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. And it’s hard to equate them physically; for all I know Froome has a lung capacity or some other less obvious physiological advantage that Dumoulin will never have.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Twenty One Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

But they call the time trial the race of truth, and it tells us that Dumoulin puts out power and processes oxygen at the level of a champion. That and the rest of this Giro tells us that he can translate that ability over to a lot of the climbs that you would find in a grand tour, maybe not all of them, but only on certain occasions can he not time trial his way out of major losses. He’ll have to up his altitude, since the Tour’s peaks are often higher than those of the Giro, and there’s a Dutch wisecrack to make here I suppose. But honestly, there isn’ a whole lot of reason to doubt him right now. He may be a year or four away from winning the Tour de France, but when you look at the crop of riders ready to assume the mantle from Froome, Valverde, Nibali and the last wave of champions, it’s hard to picture anyone better poised for success.

[And that includes Nairo, who I’ll talk about in a separate post.]