"That's a nice one to start with…" Tom Dumoulin smiled as he reached for the microphone at his pre-Giro d'Italia press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon. Ordinarily, a defending champion might expect a tame opening gambit about his condition in such a situation, but this is no ordinary edition of the Corsa Rosa. The presence of Chris Froome (Team Sky) has seen to that.
Froome returned a positive test for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España, but has chosen not to recuse himself from racing while the case is being resolved.
Dumoulin, of course, has been answering variations on the same question since the Sunweb team presentation in Berlin in January, and he trotted out a road-tested response one more time for the sizeable media presence in a ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria. Such careful diplomacy might run counter to Dumoulin's usually forthright nature, but he is increasingly aware of the weight his words now carry in the wake of his 2017 Giro win.
"It's his decision to be here," Dumoulin said of Froome's participation. "Like I've said before, my team is part of the MPCC [the Movement for Credible Cycling - ed.] If I was in the same situation as him, I would not be here. But that's his decision, and it's not up to me to have an opinion about it."
Although the backdrop is different, there is one very distinct similarity between this Israeli Grande Partenza and the 2011 start in Turin, where Alberto Contador's presence – despite his positive test for clenbuterol the previous year – was the overriding question at pre-race press conferences. The Spaniard proceeded to win that Giro only to be stripped of the title when his positive test was later confirmed. With Froome on board, this edition sets out amid similar uncertainty.
"It's not good for cycling in general that it's not solved before the Giro," Dumoulin said. "Everybody's a bit uncertain. Let's say he wins, what will happen if he gets positive afterwards. Does he lose his Vuelta title from last year? Does he lose the Giro title? There's so much uncertainty; I think nobody benefits from that, also not Chris Froome. But he has the right to race here, and that's his choice to make. It's not up to me to think something about that."
Looking to double up
After enjoying a seamless build-up to his victorious 2017 Giro, Dumoulin opted to replicate the very same race programme this spring, but ill fortune beset the opening weeks of his campaign. Mechanical problems cost him dearly at the Abu Dhabi Tour, and he then crashed out of Tirreno-Adriatico having been stricken by illness ahead of the race. Dumoulin spent much of April training at altitude in Sierra Nevada, but he delivered an assured performance in his lone competitive outing since, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège ten days ago.
"I was too focused on getting results and showing myself to the world at the start of the season, and that's not a nice, relaxed mindset to have on the bike – and it also didn't work out. I found that out this spring, and that's why I'm more relaxed now," said Dumoulin.
"I crashed hard in Tirreno, and then I went home. First you blame the bike, then the mechanic but in the end, if you do four bad races in a row, it can't only be about other people, it's also about yourself. I started to ask myself what I was doing wrong, and I think I've found it."
A year ago, Dumoulin was still finding his feet as a Grand Tour contender and arrived as something of an outsider at a Giro where Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali were the overwhelming favourites. As defending champion, Dumoulin sets out from Israel with a rather different status.
"I know what's coming, and that can be good or bad," Dumoulin said. "But last year I came through some difficult situations and handled them well, so that gives me confidence. I know I'm going to feel bad at some point in the race. Everybody has that, but I know I can get through it and that's a good experience to take with me into this year.
"Last year I believed in myself, and I had nothing to lose. This year in spring I felt like I had something to lose and that was not a good mindset, and that also didn't make me very confident. But now I'm a lot more relaxed and confident again."
Team Sky released a video on Monday depicting Froome riding through the snow as he reconnoitred some of the mountain stages in the latter part of this year's Giro. Dumoulin cheerfully admitted that – much like last year – he had not sampled any of the major obstacles between here and Rome.
The Rovereto time trial on stage 16 seems likely to be the cornerstone of Dumoulin's challenge – just as the Montefalco test was a year ago – though he will have a chance to lay down an early marker in Friday's opening time trial 9.7km time trial. The world time trial champion, like everyone else, must wait until Friday morning to sample the course in person, though he was enthusiastic about what he saw from the road book.
"I wouldn't say it's the end of the world if I do bad, but it would be very nice to get a really good result or hopefully win," said Dumoulin, who claimed the first maglia rosa when he won the opening time trial in Apeldoorn in 2016. "I haven't seen the course yet, but I saw it in the book. It seemed pretty hilly to me – so it's good."
The 22 participating teams have been given firm guidelines on precisely where to train in the build-up to the race, far from where they are based, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. On arriving at Sunweb's hotel on Tuesday, however, Dumoulin opted for an impromptu ride all the same.
"It was almost evening when we came to the hotel, but we are in a hotel close to the centre, so I couldn't hold myself back," Dumoulin said. "I took the bike, and I rode a lap around the Old City and also through the Old City. I was in my normal clothes but on my special bike, and getting a lot of eyes on me: 'What is this guy doing?'"