For the past couple of years, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) has quietly pulled out the occasional strong performance in the high mountains yet repeatedly downplayed the prospect of testing his credentials as a Grand Tour rider at this early stage in his development.
"I won’t race for 10th place on GC," the Dutchman told Cyclingnews in Estepona earlier in the week when asked about his overall prospects at this Vuelta a España, though, in hindsight, the proviso was instructive: "It needs to be either really good or else I’ll just save myself a little bit."
Dumoulin was certainly not sparing himself on the wickedly steep slopes of the Alto de Puig Llorença, also known as Cumbre del Sol on Sunday afternoon, as he caught and passed no less a figure than Chris Froome (Sky) in the final 100 metres to land stage victory and reclaim the red jersey of race leader.
Nine days into this Vuelta, and with two category 1 mountaintop finishes behind him, Dumoulin lies almost a minute clear of the rest atop the overall standings, after matching – and even surpassing – the pre-race favourites on the short, sharp climbs that have been the feature of this first week. It begs the question – what’s next?
"I don’t know," Dumoulin smiled in the mobile press conference truck past the finish line. "I had no GC ambitions coming into this Vuelta and now I’m really there. I’m at the top of GC and it would be stupid to let it go. But we’ll have to see in the big mountains. We’ve had mountaintop finishes but no real mountain stages with a lot of climbs on the stage yet. We’ll just have to hang onto this jersey and we’ll try to defend it as a team and then we’ll see."
Attack dislodges race leader
Dumoulin began the day just five seconds behind Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) in the overall standings, having tried and failed to dislodge the Colombian on the frantic run-in to Murcia on Saturday. At that point, he was beginning to feel that his chances of another spell in red were dwindling to nothing.
"Yesterday I felt really bad and I wanted to give up on it, and even today I thought ‘This GC thing is not for me,’" Dumoulin said. "I just gave it a try on the last climb and I really surprised myself."
As is so often the case on this short, steep finishes so beloved of recent Vueltas, the four-kilometre haul up the Alto de Puig Llorença quickly turned into a slugging match between the pre-race favourites, with Rodriguez, Fabio Aru (Astana), Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) all landing blows that threatened to leave Froome on the canvas.
Dumoulin, meanwhile, simply waited for them to punch themselves out, gambling that there would be a natural lull when the road flattened out in the penultimate kilometre. 1700 metres from the top, he moved powerfully off the front.
"They stopped attacking when it got flat, and I thought to myself ‘I might take a shot here.’ I just went for it," Dumoulin said. "I knew the smaller guys wouldn’t want to chase me down on the flatter bit and there were no real teammates helping each other."
Initially, Dumoulin’s lead looked a winning one, but Froome and Rodriguez gave chase as the gradient pitched up once again in the final kilometre, and he was caught and passed with 400 metres remaining. The road climbed all the way to the finish line, however, and some way, somehow, Dumoulin went into overdrive in the final 150 metres to inch his way past Rodriguez and Froome.
"When Froome and Rodriguez caught, I thought it was all over," he said. "But I knew that they had also made a big effort to come up to me. I wasn’t holding back any more and I had pushed a lot of power on the pedals, so I knew they had to have made a big effort. And that showed in the final 100 metres. They were both tired and I had a little bit of energy left, and I used it all to catch Froome on the line."
Freshness, of course, is always a live issue at the Vuelta. Since the race switched to its current late-summer date in 1995, only five editions have been won by riders who had completed the Tour de France beforehand. Dumoulin was forced out of this year’s Tour on stage 3 after he dislocated his shoulder in a crash and, in a roundabout way, that lay-off has proved beneficial to him at the Vuelta.
"That’s definitely an advantage here, but it hasn’t been an advantage in my season," he said. "But with my shape compared to the others, it’s definitely been an advantage."
Dumoulin will expect to defend his overall lead on the road to Castellón on Monday, but the 24-year-old will face a rather more robust test when the Vuelta resumes after its rest day with 5,200 metres of vertical climbing in Andorra. On Sunday evening, however, Dumoulin was eager to live in the now.
"This is something I could never have imagined," he said. "If someone told me this two weeks ago I would have said ‘You’re crazy’ but this is really happening."