This time, it's for keeps, but when Tom Dumoulin came within a mountain pass of winning the Vuelta a España in 2015, he was, by his own admission, something of an accidental Grand Tour contender. After abandoning the Tour de France with a broken collarbone – right when he was on the cusp of becoming the first Dutchman to wear yellow since Erik Breukink in 1989 – Dumoulin arrived at the Vuelta with the vague aim of building towards the World Championships and the more precise brief of preparing sprints for John Degenkolb.
A stinging attack on the short, sharp haul to Cumbre del Sol changed everything. Dumoulin's stage victory there put him into the overall lead at the end of the opening week, and seemed to press fast forward on his career plans. Like any fine time triallist with the ability to climb, there had been murmurs about Dumoulin one day targeting Grand Tours, but then the same thing had, at various times, been said of men like Chris Boardman, Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. That Vuelta, where Dumoulin's eventual 6th place finish was scant reflection of the quality of his display, demonstrated far more than mere potential.
Even so, Dumoulin refused to allow himself to be painted into a corner. His long-standing plan for 2016 had always been to target the Olympic Games time trial in Rio, and he would spend most of his tenure in the pink jersey at last year's Giro d'Italia insisting – truthfully as it turned out – that he had pressed pause on his Grand Tour ambitions until 2017. Having almost stumbled into Vuelta victory two seasons ago, Dumoulin arrives at this year's Giro having meticulously planned his assault at the summit.
"Honestly, I really didn't go to the Vuelta in 2015 with the ambition of doing the GC. I wasn't even feeling so good at altitude camp before that Vuelta, so it was really a surprise for me to end up going for the GC there," Dumoulin tells Cyclingnews from Tenerife, where he put the finishing touches to his Giro build-up. "That will definitely be different at the Giro this year. I am going there with GC ambitions. That's the objective, and that's what the team is built around. That's definitely new for me."
Read more on this article:
- Dumoulin confirmed for Giro d'Italia challenge
- Dutch riders to sacrifice Tour de France ambitions in favour of the Giro d'Italia
- How to turn Tom Dumoulin into a Grand Tour contender
- Dumoulin: I'm targeting a Grand Tour in 2017
- Dumoulin: If you are not willing to lose, then you can't win
- Dumoulin reflects on brutal defeat in Vuelta a Espana
One of the tell-tale signs that Dumoulin's tenure in the red jersey at the 2015 Vuelta was wholly unexpected was his level of engagement each day in the race leader's press conference. Thousand-yard stares and banal answers are the norm, and Dumoulin's eye contact and lengthy responses were all the more striking given that his chief rival's public thoughts rarely extended beyond a variation on ‘We'll see.'
Mercifully, Dumoulin's new status has not diminished his loquaciousness, and he was a most articulate spokesman for the Tour de France peloton on the day after the terrorist atrocity in Nice last July. This season has, however, seen Dumoulin conform to another tenet of the Grand Tour contender: large tracts of his spring have been spent away from racing, cloistered at training camps in South Africa and Tenerife. For the first time in his professional career, Dumoulin did not line up in his home event, Amstel Gold Race, and one senses that there was no greater sacrifice he could make in the name of preparing for the Giro.
"It was strange and also disappointing not to be there, because that's the race that made me start cycling. It was not an easy choice to make but if I want to be in my best shape possible at the Giro, it was a necessary sacrifice," Dumoulin says.
Received wisdom says that Dumoulin will have to sacrifice something of his time trialling ability if he is to attain the body shape seemingly now demanded in order to climb well enough to win a Grand Tour. His lone time trialling outing thus far this season, a low-key 13th place on the final leg of Tirreno-Adriatico, lends some currency to that theory, but it would be hasty to draw up a balance sheet based on a mere 10-kilometre test.
"I made some mistakes before Tirreno in terms of time trialling. I was too laid back and I thought I would be able to show my ability anyway even without training a lot on the TT bike," Dumoulin admits. "That was not possible, so it turns out that I need to keep working on that. There will maybe be a moment, and there was already this moment at Tirreno, where my time trial will be affected by my focus on climbing, but I hope we've found a better balance now ahead of the Giro.
"I hope I can do much better in the time trials there, but it's also a decision we made, to focus more on the climbing and if that affects the time trial just a little bit, that's definitely possible. But it's also not the time to evaluate already after just one time trial in Tirreno."
One time trial should, at first glance, set the tone for Dumoulin's Giro – provided, of course, he emerges unscathed from the race's island hopping and subsequent trek northwards through the opening week. The second week of the race begins with a 39-kilometre time trial from Foligno to Montefalco, and the so-called Crono del Sagrantino offers the Dutchman an opportunity to put time into Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali et al. Dumoulin has reconnoitred just one stage ahead of the Giro. It is, inevitably, this one.
"It's not very technical but it's definitely up and down. It's a really cool TT only the road surface was really bad when I reconned it but maybe they'll have put some new asphalt down before the Giro," he says. "They normally do that and I hope they will because it was really quite bad. It was a beautiful TT, up and down, not too hard but definitely not too simple."
Dumoulin delayed making a decision between riding the Giro and the Tour de France until after the respective routes were unveiled last Autumn, but he downplays the idea that the dearth of time trialling kilometres in July had nudged him towards the Giro. For myriad reasons, including his brief but largely positive experience of the corsa rosa last year, Dumoulin was always likely to make his first concerted tilt at the general classification of a Grand Tour on Italian roads.
"The time trial kilometres is definitely a reason we're doing the Giro but it's actually not the main reason. I could have favoured the Tour de France because of the parcours this year: it has less time trialling but also fewer kilometres of climbing, and that could also be to my advantage," he says. "Going for the first time with GC ambitions and a team around me might be more difficult at the Tour because all the media attention and all the pressure that is on that race. We wanted to start off with slightly less pressure, and that's also why we're going to the Giro."
Not that Dumoulin will be that far removed from the madding crowd in Italy in May. Historically, stage racers from the Netherlands have venerated the Tour above all other races – Dutch corner did not develop by chance – but Dumoulin will be joined by two of his fellow countrymen in the long list of podium contenders at the Giro, as Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) take aim at the corsa rosa.
Last year, Dutch reporters who came to chronicle Dumoulin's early stint in pink found themselves hastily booking hotels for weeks two and three when Kruijswijk emerged as a contender. This time around, they have already planned for long haul, but Dumoulin downplays the idea of any internecine rivalry with his fellow countrymen.
"To me they are the same as all the other GC contenders so that's not really a thing. I don't need to be the best Dutch guy," he says. "Though, of course, I want to be the best, because if I beat Mollema and Kruijswijk it means I'll be high on GC, but no, I'm just focusing on myself. But of course in the Netherlands, it's now a bigger thing, the Giro. We have contenders, hopefully, and that's different to the past."
At the Vuelta two years ago, the squad was built around Degenkolb's sprint and Dumoulin was left isolated in the high mountains, but the team's recruitment policy since has reflected the shift in its emphasis. In Laurens ten Dam and Wilco Kelderman, Dumoulin has two redoubtable climbers at his disposal. "I expect to be one of the stronger teams when we go uphill and that didn't happen so often in the past on our team, though I really don't blame anyone for that. Nobody expected me to go so well at the Vuelta two years ago."
Despite his near miss at the 2015 Vuelta, Dumoulin seems adamant that this year's Giro marks the true beginning of his life as a Grand Tour rider, and is loath at this point to set a target for his final position in Milan. Logic says that Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is the favourite and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) the man most likely to deny him, but Dumoulin figures alongside men like Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Mikel Landa (Team Sky) on the long list of podium contenders.
"At the moment, it's my first time in Tenerife, it's my first time having the ambition from the beginning, it's my first time having the team around me fully supporting me for GC: it's all new. I don't really have a position in my mind that I should get and then I'm happy. We'll just see how it goes," he says. "I think Quintana is the main contender and after that you have a couple of guys."
A year ago, Dumoulin's surprise attack at Roccaraso sent frissons through the Giro and briefly convinced his hosts that he had come to the race with designs on overall victory. Atypically for a time triallist, the so-called 'Butterfly of Maastricht' is an often instinctive racer, and this, too, was part of the attraction of riding the Giro instead of the rather more controlled and tempered Tour.
"I think the Vuelta and Giro, when you compare the styles of racing, they're quite similar, quite aggressive. They're quite open races, whereas in the Tour, a lot of riders are afraid to lose and they don't attack like they do at the Giro or the Vuelta. That's also to my advantage."
On the subject of openness, meanwhile, Dumoulin has pledged his willingness to release his power data after this Giro, just as he did following his breakthrough Vuelta. Like his teammate Ten Dam, who had a year of power and blood values analysed as part of a book collaboration with Dutch journalist Robin van der Kloor in 2013, he is aware that all doubts can never be satisfied by the data, but he sees little point in withholding the information from the public domain.
"I'm really for showing data and showing credibility. I think if we can do small things to make cycling believable again – or still – then why not?" Dumoulin says. "You can already pretty much calculate my watts on the climbs because you know my climbing time and my VAM values, so there's no point in making a big secret out of it.
"So yeah, I showed my values in the Vuelta, and I have no problem doing it again in the Giro, except for maybe the time trial because that is pretty personal. By showing that data, you can really give a lot of information to your competitors about aerodynamics about how you go into corners. A lot in the time trial is personal, so I wouldn't show that data quickly, but all the other data is not a big secret."