The consensus beforehand was that Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) was the coming man in time trialling and that prognosis was duly borne out at the UCI Road World Championships in Ponferrada. In his first tilt at the elite world time trial title, the 23-year-old claimed the bronze medal, beaten only by the two overwhelming favourites, Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin.
In the post-race press conference, the newly-installed world champion Wiggins could scarcely believe the youth of the man seated to his left. A man with his palmarès has the rare luxury of measuring his life in rainbow jerseys, and Wiggins’ first came in the individual pursuit in Cuba as a junior, all the way back in 1998. At the time, Dumoulin had barely started school and was still a decade shy of beginning his own cycling career.
"I won my first medal at the Worlds 16 years ago, so how old were you? Six, seven years old," Wiggins said, adding mischievously: "Tom has improved over the past two years, he keeps getting stronger. He just needs to sign for Team Sky and he’ll go through the roof."
Dumoulin was careful when asked about Wiggins’ comment by reporters afterwards, pointing out that he is very happy at Giant-Shimano, thank you very much. He is contracted to the squad until the end of next season, and on the morning of the Worlds time trial, a new sponsor was confirmed.
"I still have a contract for next year and that’s it," Dumoulin said. "Like I said, I’m still 23 and I hope to still make improvements. Until now I have made really big steps on this team and I’m still here next year with Giant – what is it now? – Alpecin. Yes, the shampoo."
Dumoulin’s analysis of the race beforehand had been a clear-headed one. He told Cyclingnews earlier in the week that he felt he could recoup ground on the men around him on the hilly finale of the Ponferrada course, and the theory was put into practice on Wednesday afternoon.
He set off steadily but picked up seconds and places as the road grew long and the gradient pitched upwards. At the first check after 12 kilometres, Dumoulin was 7th, 15 seconds off a medal. He was still only 6th, 11 seconds off, by the second split, and then moved up to 5th with 12 kilometres remaining.
On the run-in, however, Dumoulin’s climbing ability saw him home. He overcame his deficit to both Rohan Dennis and Vasil Kiryienka, and, more impressively, he recouped almost thirty seconds on Martin in the final 12 kilometres. Only Wiggins was quicker on that stretch, and only by two seconds.
"It was the same for me as for Bradley. On this course, the final was definitely about power to weight. I’m light for a time triallist. I knew the final was very hard so I saved myself for that," said Dumoulin, who had no time checks throughout his effort. "I was focusing on my own ride. I wanted to know my last split, after 35k, but I didn’t get it, I don’t know why. I decided to go as hard as I can. You have to on those hills and I made it."
Dumoulin proximity to time trialling’s big two put an extra sheen on his afternoon. He ended the day just 40 seconds down on Wiggins and only 14 shy of Martin, the man he had deemed all but unbeatable beforehand.
"Even if the gap was bigger and I’d taken third, I would also have been happy but the gap is not that big so that’s promising for the next years," he said. "I’ve got my first medal at 23 and I hope to do better in the future. You don’t know exactly how it will turn out but I hope I can still improve."
In the years to come, Dumoulin’s problem, if it can be defined as such, may prove to be an abundance of options. While he has been steadily closing the gap to Tony Martin over the past eighteen months – he was second to the German in long time trial at the Tour, for instance – he has also been recording impressive results in a wide range of races.
5th overall at the Tour de Suisse at the age of 23 hints at an aptitude for stage racing, while Dumoulin matched the Ardennes classics specialists at the GP de Montreal and GP de Quebec earlier this month.
"It’s a good question and it’s also the question for me. Before I came here I was in Canada one and a half weeks ago and I did really well in the one-day classics," he said. "I hope to combine the two and still be a really good time triallist and also to compete in the one-day races with the hills.
"My mind is not on GC in big tours for the moment but we’ll see. I’m still young and I hope to improve still." A sobering thought.