When a man is only 1:51 off winning the Tour de France after three weeks and almost 3,250 kilometres of racing, it's tempting to dwell on the seconds left here and there along the roadside, but Tom Dumoulin was not much inclined to let his mind drift off in search of lost time on Saturday evening in Espelette.
The Sunweb rider’s largest single concession came due to mechanical mishap on the approach to Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage 6, when he came in 53 seconds down and was docked another 20 seconds by the race jury for drafting behind a team car during his frantic chase. Dumoulin shook his head and smiled, however, when asked if those missing 73 seconds had altered the complexion of a Tour where he will be the only man to finish within two minutes of yellow jersey Geraint Thomas (Team Sky).
"Yeah, it would have been different for Thomas, because he would have attacked me," Dumoulin said frankly. "He held back on some stages because he was pretty safe. He played a safe game in the mountains. If I’d been closer without the time lost at Mûr-de-Bretagne, he would have taken more time on me in the mountains because he was definitely stronger. I have no regrets at all.
"Like I said, Thomas was the absolute strongest over the last three weeks, and he showed that every day, so losing time on Mûr-de-Bretagne wouldn't have changed any result, I would have been second also."
In truth, as at last month's Giro d'Italia, there was precious little more Dumoulin could have done on this Tour. He displayed no visible ill effects from his Italian campaign and he suffered no jour sans in the high mountains. He showed invention by attacking on the road to La Rosière, he continued to probe Thomas in the Pyrenees, and he won Saturday's time trial in the Basque Country for good measure.
"I'm really genuinely happy with my second place. If somebody told me that after such a Giro I'd win a stage and be on the podium again, I'd immediately have signed for it," Dumoulin said.
"I'm also happy for Geraint Thomas, as he was absolutely incredible for the last three weeks. He was in the shape of his life. He didn't make any mistakes, he was never put into trouble by anyone – including me – in the mountains or in any stage. I only have big respect for him. I'm really not disappointed with my second place.”
Taking on Team Sky
Perhaps privately, Dumoulin will harbour some frustration that he performed the heavy lifting of defeating the seemingly unbeatable Chris Froome - who salbutamol case was dropped on the eve of the race - only to be deprived of final overall victory by another Sky rider. The rather less heralded Thomas had never placed higher than 15th overall in a Grand Tour before this July, but looked impregnable throughout the race.
Team Sky have now won six of the past seven Tours through three different riders and can afford to deploy men of the quality of Wout Poels, Michal Kwiatkowski and Egan Bernal as domestiques and water-carriers. Their team at the Giro – where Froome beat Dumoulin into second place – was hardly much weaker. Team Sunweb’s budget, on the other hand, is rather more modest. Their roster did not have the depth to compensate with the absence of the injured Wilco Kelderman and youngster Sam Oomen, who was wisely held back after a fine outing at the Giro.
"If you have more money to spend, it makes easier sometimes, but the question is – are they happier?" Dumoulin joked when asked if Sky’s vast budget complicated the task of beating them. "Of course, having a big budget matters but we have to make the most out of it now and for the coming years.
"For this Tour de France and also the past Giros, it didn't make a difference. Of course, we couldn't control the race like Sky did, but at the end it also depends on the legs of the leader. At the past Tours and also the past Giro, they also had the strongest guy in the bunch. You can have a strong team but if you don’t have legs to follow big attacks you’re losing time anyway even with a strong team. It’s too easy to say that Geraint Thomas had a big advantage with his team. No, he was just the strongest rider."
One Grand Tour only in 2019
Even before Saturday’s time trial, Dumoulin knew only too well that he would not overhaul Thomas in the overall standings, and he seemed somewhat resigned, too, to the prospect of losing second place to Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo). Instead, the Dutchman produced a fine performance on the hilly 31km course to deny Froome by 1 second and Thomas by 14, while a flagging Roglic could only place 8th, 1:12 down.
Dumoulin wore a broad smile at the finish after it was confirmed that he had pipped Froome to the stage win – his third on the Tour after a brace of victories in 2016 – but confessed that his expression had been rather less serene when he awoke in the morning to the realisation that his world champion’s skinsuit had gone missing in transit somewhere over the past three weeks.
"It was a stressful morning for me and everyone, I was utterly pissed," said Dumoulin, who was fortunate that the time trial took place in the Basque Country, home of his supplier Etxe-Ondo. “They actually called up a retired seamstress and made an entire new suit this morning. They were all on holiday, they had nothing in the office, so they made a complete new suit this morning and drove it here."
The latter part of the season will likely see Dumoulin focus on retaining that tunic at the Innbsruck Worlds, and while his 2019 plans are barely in gestation, he confirmed that he would not make another attempt at the Giro-Tour double.
"It would be logical to focus on the Tour de France next year, but it also depends on the parcours," he said. "If it absolutely doesn't suit me at the Tour de France, then I'm more than happy to go back to the Giro. I don’t want to say it’s 100% sure I’ll do the Tour de France next year, but it’s pretty sure I don’t want to do two Grand Tours next year."
Still only 27 years of age and after consistent progress in the Grand Tours since his breakout display at the 2015 Vuelta a España, Dumoulin looks the man most likely to break Team Sky’s Tour hegemony in the seasons to come. He is aware, however, that Tour history is punctuated by men who came this far and got no further.
"It's too easy to say, 'He's progressing each year and he’ll definitely win the Tour de France.’ It’s not so easy," Dumoulin said. "I'm well aware that it’s possible it doesn’t happen, and that this was my highlight."