Tour de France: Tom Dumoulin and Sunweb looking to go one step further

Dutchman's consistency bags podiums at Giro and Tour

Second overall at the Tour de France, as he was at the Giro d'Italia, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) will end the 2018 season without a Grand Tour title to his name, but one statistic from the summer illustrates his ongoing progress in the discipline. After 6 weeks and almost 7,000 kilometres of racing across this year's Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, only 13 seconds separated Dumoulin's aggregate time from that of Chris Froome.

Overall victory at last year's Giro remains – for now, at least – the signature victory of Dumoulin's career, but there is a strong case to be made that the 27-year-old’s athletic feat these past three months exceeded his striking string of displays in May 2017. Another statistic puts the feat in context: before Dumoulin and Froome – winner of the Giro and 3rd on this Tour – no rider had finished on the podium of the Giro and Tour in the same summer since the late Marco Pantani in 1998.

The Dutchman's Giro victory in 2017 featured some obvious highs – namely, the dominant Montefalco time trial win, the surprise victory at Oropa, the fightback on the Stelvio – but there were occasional setbacks, such as the concession of ground at Piancavallo in the final week.

Across the 2018 Giro and Tour, by contrast, Dumoulin has been a model of constancy. Such reliability looked set to carry him to Giro victory following Simon Yates’ late collapse only for Froome to conjure up an improbable 80km solo raid on the Finestre. At the Tour, Dumoulin was among the strongest on each and every mountain stage, but had the misfortune to come up against one rider – Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) – who was always a notch ahead.

"Tom held a consistent level through the Giro and that was the key to his second place there, and again on this Tour, he’s shown a consistently high level," Sunweb directeur sportif Luke Roberts told Cyclingnews in Espelette on Saturday.

"He was always consistently among the best three. There were days where Froome seemed to be a little bit better, Primoz Roglic was very strong when he took his stage win [on stage 19 – ed.]. Geraint Thomas was better most days, but Tom’s been consistent, and it was nice to be able to finish it off with a stage win in the time trial."

As the Tour entered its third week, Roberts wondered if Dumoulin might begin to pay for his Giro efforts, but his concerns appeared to be misplaced. Indeed, riders who recently tackled both Giro and Tour – most notably Alberto Contador in 2015 and Nairo Quintana a year ago – had already betrayed signs of struggling in the opening 10 days of the Tour. Dumoulin, on the other hand, seemed to betray no signs of that accumulated fatigue on the Tour, though Roberts insisted that appearances could be deceptive.

"He was feeling the effects of the Giro, but the difficulty of this Tour was such that it would be difficult to say exactly now what effect the Giro had on him," Roberts said. "We'll crunch some numbers back in the office and have a good idea of what moment Tom was at 100% and we'll be ready to plan his season for next year."

The additional week between the Giro and the Tour – six rather than the normal five due to football’s World Cup – persuaded Dumoulin to try the double this year, but on Saturday evening, he confirmed that he would not ride both races in 2019. "The Giro was no preparation for the Tour," Dumoulin grinned when asked if his exertions in Italy had helped to steel him for the Tour.

Assuming ASO include at least one long time trial on the route, it seems likely that Dumoulin will build his 2019 campaign around a wholehearted tilt at claiming the maillot jaune. It is still unclear, however, whether the Dutchman can make the final stride forward and break Team Sky’s hegemony of the race.

Strength in depth

Team Sky's budget is, according to most estimates, currently around twice that of Team Sunweb, and nowhere was the disparity more apparent than in the teams’ respective line-ups for the Giro and Tour. Team Sky could field Sergio Henao, Kenny Elissonde and David De La Cruz in support of Froome in Italy, and then deploy Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski, Egan Bernal and Jonathan Castroviejo to join Froome and Wout Poels in an even stronger Tour line-up.

Sunweb also split its Grand Tour roster between the Giro and Tour, but the decision ultimately meant that Dumoulin was surrounded by a diluted climbing team in each race. After riding to a fine 9th at the Giro, youngster Sam Oomen was sensibly rested in July, but it meant that Sunweb had nobody to cover for the absence of the injured Wilco Kelderman. It seems likely that Sunweb will concentrate its best Grand Tour talent in the team that supports Dumoulin next July, but reinforcements will likely be needed in the off-season.

“We balanced our GC support over the two Grand Tours and we also came here with a sprinter [Michael Matthews – ed.] and lead-out men for him, so it wasn’t a full-on assault on the overall win," Roberts said. "We've come away with a second place, so there's a lot of depth in our team that's watched this race from the couch. I'm confident that when we really go for it, we can also match a team like Sky."

Dumoulin, for his part, took a pragmatic view of Sky’s riches. "The question is, are they happier?" he quipped, before pointing out that, regardless of the quality around him, the buck stops with the team leader. "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 Tour and the Giro, they also had the strongest guy in the bunch."

Still only 27 years of age, Dumoulin will feel that he has ample margin for improvement over three weeks, even though one would expect the advances to come in smaller increments as the years progress. His Sunweb team continue to view his Grand Tour career as a learning process.

"We were at the Giro last year only to learn and we ended up coming away with the victory," Roberts said. “We were at this Tour looking to learn something, which we have. What we put into practice from last season was the key to his two second places in the Giro and Tour this year. What we learned this year, we hope it can put us one step higher."

Earlier in the Tour, Dumoulin, incidentally, dismissed the idea that he had come to France only to learn, carefully noting that he had come "to race for GC, and that's what I'm doing." The learning process may be for Sunweb as a whole rather as much as for Dumoulin himself. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, that the 2019 Tour team will carry a sprinter. After finishing in the top two of his past three Grand Tours, Dumoulin can rightly expect full commitment to his cause next time out.

As the curtain fell on the 2018 Tour, however, Dumoulin pointed out that coming this far did not necessarily mean he would go any further in the years to come.

"I will take life as it comes, I'm super happy with second place," Dumoulin said when asked if winning the Tour would be a logical progression in his career. "I'm well aware that it's possible it doesn't happen."

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