Just before he drew his season to a close in October last year, Tom Dumoulin signalled his intention to target the Tour de France in 2019 and skip the Giro d'Italia altogether. He had ridden the Giro three years in a row, and he felt the time had come to switch priorities.
However, his plans quickly changed when he saw the routes that the organisers had planned for the two races. The Tour de France would be a three-week festival of high altitude, while the Giro d'Italia would offer a much more varied race that was punctuated with three time trials.
Although he still intends to ride the Tour in July, the Dutchman has no regrets about coming back to the Giro for the fourth year running.
"I love to go there, and we made that decision last winter, and I'm sticking by it," Dumoulin tells Cyclingnews.
Dumoulin is speaking at Team Sunweb's hotel for the Ardennes Classics on the outskirts of Maastricht, his hometown. As he has done since the 2017 season, Dumoulin used Liège-Bastogne-Liège as his final tune-up race ahead of the start of the Giro. After a long stint of training at altitude, it was a good chance to test his legs at race speed before the big event.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and Dumoulin has almost done a copy and paste job on his early calendar for this season, with a few minor tweaks. The UAE Tour has replaced the Abu Dhabi Tour, while Strade Bianche has been removed altogether. With almost identical programmes, it's easy to draw comparisons from year to year.
Dumoulin maintains that early spring is not where he pulls out his best performances, and a quick look at his results show that this is the case. However, some years have been better or worse than others.
Last season's spring was one of his more challenging, with mechanical problems and crashes littering the first months of his campaign. Dumoulin has not been winning everything he does, like his Giro rival Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), but his spring has been arguably better than it was in 2017 when he went on to win the Giro d'Italia, with sixth overall at the UAE Tour, fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico and 11th at Milan-San Remo this season.
"In training, everything has felt good. I know the March period is never my best period, although I thought that my level was pretty good," he says.
"Last year, it didn't go smoothly at all during the spring. So it's good that it's been working out. My results this year have been OK – not the best, but they've been good. But even having had a smoother spring than last year, it's no guarantee that my shape for the Giro is going to be any better."
As well as his crashes and mechanical travails, Dumoulin admitted last year that training had become less of a labour of love and more like, well, just labour. He took steps to address that prior to last year's Giro and says that, 12 months on, he's in a much better headspace, and enjoying the training again.
"I'm definitely in a much better place than I was last year, mentally. Last year, after the spring, I made a switch, and was then much better already. I struggled a bit with the 2017 winter and leading up to 2018," he explains. "I think it's my outlook in general. We haven't really changed anything. It's just my perception of how it is."
Although his season has certainly run a lot smoother, there have been plenty of challenges and changes for the team that will surround him in Italy this month. Over the winter, the team lost Laurens ten Dam and Simon Geschke to the CCC Team. Wilco Kelderman was due to play a major part in Dumoulin's support network, but the Dutchman fractured a vertebra in a crash at the Volta a Catalunya, while Martin Tusveld broke his jaw. Sam Oomen, originally set for the Tour de France, will step in to replace Kelderman, but it's still far from ideal.
"It was a big blow to our team, of course. First of all, it was a big blow for him, as Wilco has had his fair share of bad luck in the last couple of years, and it didn't stop this year. We just have to deal with it," says Dumoulin.
Fight for pink
Despite a difficult spring campaign, Dumoulin was arguably the most consistently strong rider throughout last year's Giro. After a day in pink following his prologue win, he spent almost the entire race sitting in second place, and only briefly dropped down to third for a day after stage 9 to Gran Sasso. When Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) dramatically cracked on the Finestre, en route to Cervinia, it appeared that a second title was up for grabs for Dumoulin, but the drama would not end there, and Team Sky's Chris Froome would end up grabbing the race lead and taking it to Rome.
"I was very close, of course, but I don't think that the win was ever really on the books," Dumoulin says, almost 12 months on.
"The first week, I wasn't good enough to follow Yates, and in the last week I wasn't good enough to follow Froome. I was never the best in the race, let's say. Eventually, I ended up with second. I was very stable, but I never really had this feeling that I was going to win this race. Eventually, it didn't happen, and everybody remembers the crazy Finestre stage."
Aside from a DNF on his debut in 2016, due to saddle sores, Dumoulin has never finished off the podium at the Giro. Even in the year that he did abandon, he won the opening time trial and spent most of the first week in the maglia rosa.
The rider that was just behind Dumoulin in that prologue in 2016 was a certain Primoz Roglic, who is heading up Jumbo-Visma's GC ambitions for the first time at a Grand Tour. The Dutchman has gone up against the Slovenian twice this season, with Roglic winning on both occasions.
"He was very good in the spring, and won almost everything last spring, too, and was still great at the Tour," says Dumoulin. "He's definitely going to be one of the big opponents, along with Simon Yates and Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali showed good form again at the Tour of the Alps.
"We need to look out for Egan Bernal [Team Ineos] and Miguel Angel Lopez [Astana]. It's a long list of contenders, and I'm well aware that it's not going to be easy to win this year's Giro."
Of course, the thing that attracted Dumoulin to this year's race was the plentiful time trial kilometres on offer – particularly given the lack of them at the Tour de France. Although he was enticed by them, Dumoulin doesn't think that the time trials will have as much of an impact on the overall classification as some might think, as they involve quite a few altitude metres.
"It means that the time differences won't be so big," explains Dumoulin. "Even Simon Yates won a hilly time trial in Paris-Nice. I definitely don't think that I can take a lot of time in the time trials. They suit me well, and I like them, but in terms of gaining time, I probably won't take that much."
Yates is not known for his time-trialling skills, and when asked for his thoughts on that Paris-Nice result, Dumoulin admits that it was unexpected, but perhaps not totally out of the blue.
"I know he's a super-strong rider. I saw that already at last year's Giro, and I'm just going to have to try to beat him," he says.
"There really is a whole bunch of favourites. I could name five riders that could win it – who definitely have a big chance of winning it. I'm one of them, I hope. But it's not like I'm going there as the big guy – it's not going to be like that."