When Niki Terpstra was beaten to the title of Dutch rider of the year by Tom Dumoulin last month, he didn’t exactly stifle his disappointment in the manner of an overlooked Oscar nominee. Asked for his thoughts, he opted for frankness rather than diplomacy. “I’m surprised,” Terpstra said at the ceremony. “I thought I’d shown enough this year.” As soon as the lights went up, Algemeen Dagblad reported, the Paris-Roubaix winner “won the sprint for the cloakroom” by a handsome margin and promptly left.
The Netherlands, of course, is a country where plain-speaking is often the lingua franca on the sporting scene – witness the forthright exchanges over the years between football coach Louis van Gaal and the press for instance – and the debate over the rights and wrongs of the jury’s decision rumbled on deep into December.
Mercifully, Dumoulin, does not seem the type to be fazed by such polemics. On the night, he admitted to reporters that he, too, was surprised by the vote, but also noted that he had put together the most consistent body of work by a Dutch rider over the course of the season.
“I would have been even more proud if it weren’t for the big discussion that happened afterwards,” Dumoulin told Cyclingnews recently of the award. “But in the end I’m proud that I won and it’s a good motivation also for the coming season to make another step and become a better rider.”
Indeed, while Terpstra is entitled to feel aggrieved at losing out, there is still a compelling argument to be made for Dumoulin, who became the first Dutch elite rider in seven years to win a world championship medal, and who excelled across a wide combination of terrains over the arc of the entire campaign.
The stand-out performance was that Worlds time trial in Ponferrada, where he not only finished as best of the rest behind Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin, but also wore the burden of pre-race expectation lightly after a series of strong displays against the watch all year had made him a favourite for a podium spot. He deliberately set out steadily but then hauled himself into the medal positions – and almost within reach of Martin himself – on the hilly back section of the course.
“There was actually a bit of pressure on me, both from the outside and from myself. I’d been doing really good TTs the whole year and I knew that I had a normal or a good day it would be very possible to get a medal,” Dumoulin said. “I was really nervous but in the end I had a really good day and I came pretty close to Tony and Wiggins, so that’s also nice to see for the future.”
Dumoulin speaks English with a command of the subjunctive mood that would put many native speakers to shame, and perhaps it’s just as well. Conversations with the 24-year-old understandably involve a great deal of hypothesis, all the more so given the surfeit of options presented by the rare skillset that allows him to shine in time trials and hilly one-day races.
There are few recent precedents for riders shining both against the watch and in the Ardennes classics, and in the future, Dumoulin may be forced to sacrifice one for the other, but for now at least, he is happy to juggle both objectives.
“It’s a bit unusual but until now, it’s still good,” he said. “Before the Worlds for example, I focused on the Worlds also but also on my endurance in classics and that showed in Canada where I had a good result [2nd in the GP de Québec – ed.] So I think the combination is possible although in the future maybe I will focus on different things at different parts of the season: in the spring, I’ll focus maybe more on the classics and at the end of the year maybe more on the time trial for the Worlds.
“For me and the people around me, it’s really difficult to say where it’s ending or where my capabilities stop, but I’d like to combine the two things.”
Dumoulin will lead Giant-Alpecin’s Ardennes Classics line-up alongside Simon Geschke and Warren Barguil, buoyed by how comfortable he was in rubbing shoulders with Simon Gerrans et al in Quebec this past autumn, and a strong showing in his home event is his personal objective. “I was never a big cycling fan when I was young but Amstel Gold Race and the Tour de France were the two races that I used to watch,” said Dumoulin.
While the romantic in him wishes the finale was still in his birthplace of Maastricht – he has hazy memories of seeing Michael Boogerd and Lance Armstrong ride past his house in 1999 – the pragmatist in Dumoulin recognises that the current finale over the top of the Cauberg is perhaps best suited to him and chimes more satisfactorily with the tactical approach of the contemporary era.
“Maybe with modern cycling it’s better to have the finish where it is now, because if it were in Maastricht, it would be a pretty big bunch at the finish. Different times, different finishes,” he said. “It’s getting more and more a waiting game in the classics, so I think the finish now is the best option, it makes the race more fun to watch and it’s not just a sprint on the Cauberg either, because there’s a lot that can happen after it.
“I’ve noticed as I get better and better in the classics, that if you want a result you really have to wait. If you go on the attack, there’s a 90 percent chance that you don’t make it, so if you want to do a result, most of the time you have to wait. That doesn’t make it more fun, but the riders are so equal to each other these days that it’s just really hard to ride away from everyone else.”
Utrecht and beyond
Dumoulin will, of course, have one major opportunity to ride solo before the Dutch public in 2015, as the Tour de France kicks off from Utrecht with a 16km time trial on a course that he describes as “not too technical and really fast.” He was cautious, however, when asked if he dreamt of wearing the first yellow jersey of the race on the evening of July 4, and pointed to Tony Martin as the strong favourite.
“That’s a difficult question and I’m not going to answer it I think,” he said. “Wiggins isn’t doing it I think but Tony was definitely better than me last year but it’s up to me to make that step up to where I can really be a rival of Tony in the future. I of course hope that it’s going to happen in the coming year but I just can say it’s a big goal and I’ll try to be at my best form and then I’ll see. It’s a really good course for me, the perfect distance actually and I hope to do really well there.”
Though only entering his fourth year as a professional, Dumoulin has already participated in two Tours de France, and helped Marcel Kittel to eight stages in that time. In 2015, however, the testing opening week could offer more opportunities for the puncheurs than the fast men. “It has a bit of everything, with the cobbles and the Mur de Huy, the time trial and the windy stages, and also some nice stages for me I hope,” he said. “But it all depends on form. I have to make sure it’s really good, but I hope to compete in the first week.”
Dumoulin was decidedly more circumspect about the prospect of competing over the course of three weeks and quickly dismisses the significance of his 33rd place finish in this year’s Tour. “Outside of the top 20 it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are 30th or 80th or 150th, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Top 20 is maybe interesting, top 10 is really interesting but after that it’s a blurry mix of riders. So that’s not interesting. I took some days easy and I had some days where I really tried it uphill but it wasn’t enough.”
In the grander scheme of things, then, Dumoulin’s 5th place finish at the Tour de Suisse is perhaps of greater relevance, although he stressed that he is certain neither of the extent of his abilities nor the limitations of his range in the high mountains.
“We’ve been thinking about it, especially after the Tour de Suisse. For me and the trainers and coaches here at Giant, it’s also the question: where does it end?” he said. “Until now I’ve been disappointed more than I’ve been really happy about my climbing skills but sometimes it all turns out pretty well like in Tour de Suisse, so of course it raises the question about can you do that in the future. But I cannot answer that question because it’s also the big question for me.”
Dumoulin begins his 2015 campaign at the Tour Down Under in January and while week-long stages races will be targets in the build-up to the Ardennes Classics – “It’s a big weapon, the time trial,” he said – his full programme will not be unveiled until his revamped Giant-Alpecin team is presented in Berlin next month.
The addition of a German sponsor and the team’s registration as a German squad will not, Dumoulin said, alter the atmosphere of the team, which was always rather more cosmopolitan in feel than other Dutch teams to begin with.
“I think teams like Belkin are much more Dutch-oriented than we have ever been. We have been an international team for years now,” he said. “For me it doesn’t matter if we’re riding on a Dutch licence or a German licence. The big office is in Holland and actually it doesn’t change anything. But the coming of a big German sponsors like Alpecin is good for German cycling and for us of course.”
The Giant-Alpecin roster is composed of a number of riders in their early and mid-twenties who have developed progressively in recent seasons. As they press on towards racing maturity and the peak of their earning power, it remains to be seen whether manager Iwan Spekenbrink will be able to keep Kittel, John Degenkolb, Barguil and Dumoulin together in the longer-term. Dumoulin’s current contract expires at the end of the 2015 season and his run of his success in the last year means that he will have no shortage of suitors enquiring about his services over the coming months.
“Of course, I have been thinking about it but that’s another thing I’m not going to tell you,” Dumoulin said of his contract situation. “It’s definitely an option to stay on the team, but we’ll see. It’s a good thing that it’s a still growing team so we’re getting bigger every year. We’ll see next year but for now I’m just going to focus on 2015. 2016 is so far off that it’s not been decided yet.”