A year after his triumphant start to the 2016 Giro d'Italia in front of home crowds in the Netherlands, Tom Dumoulin's start to this May's edition of the Grand Tour may be more low-key - but his overall goals are far more ambitious.
As the 26-year-old from Maastricht told Cyclingnews earlier this year, after his breakthrough overall result and performance in the 2015 Vuelta a España, taking sixth, last season Dumoulin pressed pause on his Grand Tour GC ambitions. That didn't stop him taking a narrow but hugely popular win in Apeldoorn a year last May when the Giro d'Italia kicked off on home soil, and remaining in the lead, barring one day, for the whole of the first week. Then there was a memorable win in the atrocious weather conditions in Andorra in the Tour de France of course, and again in the mid-race time trial, prior to a forced abandon after a crash in the Alps.
This time round, the Netherlands-born rider is hoping the last week of the Giro d'Italia will be a different story to the final third of his previous two Grand Tours, although Dumoulin is careful to set the bar only so high. Although not ruling out the pink jersey - who would? - the Team Sunweb leader confirmed Wednesday that if he could sign on the dotted line a guarantee he'd be riding into Milano's finish line, anywhere on the final podium of the Giro, he'd be reaching for a pen right now.
"Normally, winning here for me would be really difficult, I'd need my best shape ever and a little bit of luck," Dumoulin said. "My favourite is [Nairo] Quintana (Movistar Team). In the last few months he's been showing that even when he's on 95 percent of his top form, he's still always playing for the win."
"A guy like me or Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), if we're on 95 percent then we don't compete for the win anymore." Nor does he view himself as likely to be turning the tables at the last minute and blowing the race apart like a certain Italian did last year in the Giro: "A guy like [Vincenzo] Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is always dangerous. Last year, I didn't think he'd win the Giro d'Italia, but he still did. You never know with him."
But on the plus side, Dumoulin is where he wants to be as the Giro approaches and that, given the novelty of building specifically for GC in a Grand Tour, is no small success in itself. His overall condition, he says, is "pretty good. The preparation went well, I'm in a good place mentally and physically. I just want to experience the Giro and fight for GC in three weeks."
"I did it only one time before, in the Vuelta  and that was kind of a surprise. Now I'm going in with the mindset that I will be doing that from day one and that's new for me. I'm not really focusing only on one result, just try to have a good GC throughout."
He is, he says, on a much better level now all-around for the GC battle than he was when he took sixth in the Vuelta a España, a result that bore no reflection how close he came to winning the race outright. His climbing has improved considerably since Fabio Aru (Astana) shed him in the sierras of Madrid to take the win, he is calmer overall, and even puts in the occasional attack, as he did last year at Rocarasso in the Giro d'Italia's stage six. That particular challenge netted him a fourth place on the stage and briefly strengthened his overall lead, but the subsequent speculation that he could, in fact, be looking to go all the way to Milan evaporated when he abandoned on stage 11 with saddle sores.
Whilst the mountain stages kick in sooner than usual in the Giro d'Italia this year, Etna, in particular, with its steady but not excessively steep slopes could suit Dumoulin's more measured climbing style. But the Dutchman is confident that up until the stage 10 time trial, the Giro will not enter its truly decisive phase, with few GC contenders truly out of the running beforehand.
"With just one climb on the Blockhaus and Etna summit finishes, there won't be too much of a time loss," Dumoulin points out. "The last week, though, is going to be terrible." With the considerable difference, of course, that for the first time, in 2017, rather than watching it on TV, Dumoulin may well find himself in the thick of the Giro d'Italia GC action.
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