Don’t call him the defending champion; Tom Dumoulin prefers to go into the 101st Giro d’Italia with a clean slate. And whatever happens in Rome, a shot at the Tour de France is at least on the cards as things stand. Cycling reporter with Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, Raymond Kerckhoffs, has closely followed his countryman’s rise to the top.
It’s pouring with rain, the thermometer reads 5C. The date? Wednesday March 28, 2018: the day of Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Just 60km to the south of the Belgian Classic’s finish in Waregem, across the border in northern France, Tom Dumoulin is training alone.
"A beautiful experience. I enjoyed it," he tells me that evening via WhatsApp when I ask him if it’s true that he's been doing a recon of the 154 kilometres that make up stage 9 of the 2018 Tour, between Arras and Roubaix, complete with 22km worth of cobbles.
It may sound like a cliché, but it’s a stage on which you won’t be able to win the Tour, but one on which you could certainly lose it. And that’s the reason behind the Dutchman’s dreary late-March outing.
Chris Froome was here a week earlier, while Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana later also tested the pavé sections. Dumoulin, therefore, is perhaps laying bare his intentions. A tilt at the Tour de France this summer is uppermost in his mind.
Neither Dumoulin nor his Sunweb team are prepared to share such information with the outside world, of course. Dumoulin confirms as much with Daniel Verbrackel, the director of the iconic Roubaix velodrome, which hosts the finish of Paris-Roubaix a week after Flanders.
"First I’ll do the Giro d’Italia, and then I’ll see if I’m going to ride the Tour," the defending Giro champion tells Verbrackel.
"Last year I was completely physically and mentally empty after the Giro," Dumoulin continues. "I wouldn’t have been able to ride the Tour. That’s why I’m planning on doing things a little differently this year. Straight after the Giro, I’m heading off on holiday to Sicily, and only after a break will I make the decision as to whether I’ll do the Tour."
His intentions, however, have arguably been made clear with this ‘secret’ reconnaissance of the Tour’s cobbled stage; Dumoulin hopes to ride the Tour. And not to win stages; he’s looking for a strong performance in the general classification.
The big question, however, has to be: just how much can he focus on trying to win the Giro again when he’s also hoping to go well at the Tour? Dumoulin’s answer is that he’s concentrating on the Giro, but can you really push yourself to your physical limit when you intend to do the same just a month later?
"I want to try to win the Giro again," he clarifies, although he’s not keen on the tag of defending champion. Dumoulin might be pleased to be starting such a major event with the number 1 on his back, but he’s keen to leave last season’s achievements in the past. It’s unnecessary ballast; he wants to start the race unencumbered.
After such a fantastic 2017, when virtually every pedal stroke was a masterful one, it’s not been easy to simply take that success into a new season. There’s a world of difference between wanting to win and having to win, and across the winter Dumoulin wanted too much. He was too keen, too quick to skip a rest day, and cycling lost its fun factor for him. If the only thing that counts is winning, then you can only lose.
Time after time this season - at the Abu Dhabi Tour and at Tirreno-Adriatico - crashes and illness prevented him from finding his legs. Yet elite sport is all about overcoming such setbacks, just as he did at the 2017 Giro.
On the queen stage - stage 16 - between Rovetta and Bormio, Dumoulin was forced to put that mental strength into practice. Obliged to take a sudden toilet break with just over 30km left to the finish, the race leader then had to slip into time trial mode to ensure he held on to the pink leader’s jersey. Mental - as much as physical - strength is essential in such moments.
And it’s that mindset that Dumoulin again needs to take with him to Israel. It’s vital for him to start the Giro with the same mental strength he had going into the 2017 race.
A year ago, we spoke the day before the Grande Partenza at the pre-race press conference. He’d pointed out to his teammates that they needed to find the right balance between a sharp focus on the job in hand and a stress-free camaraderie. It was a time for hard work, but also time to have fun. It would be a tough three weeks, but they were there to enjoy the Giro.
The man from Maastricht will no doubt repeat such sentiments before Friday’s opening stage. But with great expectations - from outside the team - comes pressure, and retaining a relaxed atmosphere will not be easy.
Dumoulin’s early-season woes prove, however, that trying to keep things in perspective will be essential.
While Dumoulin has his sights sets on the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France needs to be the last thing on his mind.
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