As per tradition, Giant-Alpecin had arrived at the start in Marbella with a team built around a fast finisher, in this instance John Degenkolb, and the nine-man selection was composed primarily of riders to chase down escapes and set up sprints. Even Dumoulin, on hand to prepare for the World Championships time trial, was delegated a role in the lead-out train.
When Dumoulin seized the red jersey after triumphing atop the Cumbre del Sol on stage 9, however, Giant-Alpecin’s line-up was hurriedly organised into an unfamiliar formation. The skills of setting up a bunch sprint were applied elsewhere, and men such as Luka Mezgec, Johannes Frohlinger and Koen de Kort were redeployed to position Dumoulin at the foot of climbs.
The experiment proved a success – Dumoulin only lost the red jersey on the penultimate stage, after all – but the Dutchman’s isolation prompted a rethink when it came to selecting a team for the Giro. It is instructive that, Dumoulin apart, Tom Stamsnijder is the only other survivor from last year’s Vuelta to make the Giro team. Solid climbers such as Georg Preidler, Chad Haga and Tobias Ludvigsson are on hand to complement the work of Bert De Backer, Cheng Ji et al.
“We have more climbers with us. We’re a better balanced team that’s for sure,” Stamsnijder told Cyclingnews in Sulmona on Friday, ahead of Dumoulin’s sixth day in the maglia rosa. “I don’t think it’s that much different except there’s more climbers to stay with Tom in the final, but bear in mind that those guys are still young so it’s still a learning curve.
“It would be nice to keep the pink jersey to the end, to avenge last year’s Vuelta. But we’re not long trying to change ourselves into a GC team so don’t expect that we’re going to do it like Sky or Astana or Movistar. We’ve still got a long way to go, it’s something like a trial and error thing but it’s quite fun.”
Allies of circumstance
Whereas the distinction between a mountain stage and a sprint stage is relatively clear at the Tour de France or the Vuelta, the undulating terrain sprinkled throughout the Giro makes it a notoriously unwieldy race for any one team to control. Friday’s sprint finish in Foligno, for instance, was preceded by a brutal opening three hours of racing through the Apennines that saw the peloton fragment into small groups before eventually reforming. “You see the course but it’s always heavier than you think,” Stamsnijder said.
During the Giro’s opening week, however, Dumoulin and Giant-Alpecin have been able to rely on common interests and informal alliances in order to keep a semblance of order in the peloton. The Etixx-QuickStep team of his former teammate Marcel Kittel helped to control affairs in the opening days. After Dumoulin advised his friend Tim Wellens to attack and claim stage victory at Roccaraso, Lotto-Soudal proved a useful ally on the road to Foligno, where they took another win through André Greipel.
“It was just an act of friendship. I knew Tim was many minutes down so I said if you attack, we won’t chase you,” Dumoulin said of his exchange with Wellens, though he downplayed the prospect of Lotto-Soudal providing help later in the race.
“If we have the same ideas in the race we will definitely help each other but they are not going to ride if they don’t have a purpose. I cannot imagine that Lotto-Soudal will help us in the third week just because they like me. I don’t think that will happen.”
As well as a little help from friends, Dumoulin and Giant-Alpecin have thus far been able to rely at times on the inadvertent kindness of strangers. The Dutchman took a calculated risk on the climb to Roccaraso on Thursday by allowing Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) go up the road, gambling on Movistar and Sky taking up the chase behind.
“When Fuglsang attacked, he stayed very calm. He said to me on the radio, ‘We’ll do our own thing. That will be fine for today, he will come back anyway.’ He was very calm and confident that we could manage it in a good way,” Giant-Alpecin directeur sportif Marc Reef said.
“There are always teams who are interested in the stage result or GC and they want to try something. I think Tom is in a position now that it is not necessary that we directly have to do something. Before the stage yesterday I read that Astana said they had to try to drop Tom to gain some time. It’s more up to the other teams to do something on the uphill. They also need to take control and we can hold a little bit back in that way.”
Dumoulin leads Fuglsang by 26 seconds in the general classification, though with the stage 9 Chianti time trial to come, he could have a far firmer grip on the maglia rosa by the time the Giro breaks for its first rest day on Monday.
At the same point on the Vuelta last year, Dumoulin’s tenure in the red jersey was already uncharted territory for Giant-Alpecin. This time around, and despite Dumoulin’s prostestations that the Rio 2016 Olympics time trial is the centrepiece of his year, the squad is better prepared.
“We’ll do what we always do, like we did at the Vuelta, we’ll look at it day by day,” Stamsnijder said. “We’re not experienced as a GC team but what we really can do is work to a plan each day. We’ve learned that from being a sprint team. We have to do it like this and see how it develops.”
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Mikel Landa (Sky) all boast teams that, on paper, are better-equipped for the Giro’s third week in the Alps than the squad at Dumoulin’s disposal, but the maglia rosa sounded a defiant note in Foligno on Friday evening.
“With Georg Preidler and Tobias Ludvigsson, we have very good climbers in exceptional shape right now,” he said. “So I’m not scared for the last week.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.