Tom Dumoulin's performance on the Blockhaus on stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia kept him within touching distance of the maglia rosa ahead of Tuesday's long time trial, but the Dutchman's expression was dark as he emerged from the tent beyond the finish line where UCI inspectors had examined the bikes of the top finishers.
As Dumoulin hopped aboard his bike to descend to the Sunweb team bus, his annoyance was such that he shook his head as a camera crew from Dutch television station NOS called out for an interview, before eventually acceding to the request. In time, a swarm of reporters gathered around him, and he politely repeated himself in English.
Third place on the Giro's toughest stage so far, just 24 seconds behind a rampant Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and over half a minute ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), ought to have given Dumoulin cause for quiet celebration, but his immediate thoughts were for his teammate Wilco Kelderman, who abandoned the race with a broken finger after crashing on the approach to the Blockhaus.
"I'm feeling shit because we lost Wilco," Dumoulin said. "Wilco was feeling very good and I was really comfortable with him. Now I cannot be happy today because he would have been so important in the final week, and I'm really disappointed for him. My own performance was good, and I'm happy with that, but losing Wilco is a real shame."
Dumoulin's irritation was all the more acute because of the circumstances of Kelderman's crash, as he fell when his handlebars were clipped by a police motorbike that had braked on the roadside. Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) and Sky's Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas also came down in the same incident, and though they completed the stages, their hopes of overall victory have been irretrievably dashed.
"I don't know what the stupid motorbike was doing there," Dumoulin said. "I'm so disappointed. I could just avoid it, I saw it at the last moment but I was lucky that I was 2cm to the right of Wilco. They say, ‘it happens,' but it shouldn't happen."
Despite that drama before the climb had even begun, Dumoulin delivered an assured performance on the Blockhaus. Although he was distanced by Quintana when he accelerated with a little under seven kilometres to go, Dumoulin rode sagely to limit his losses. After chasing in the company of fellow countryman Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), he passed Nibali and caught Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) in the final two kilometres.
Dumoulin was out-sprinted by Pinot for second place, but he rises to third overall, a mere 30 seconds behind Quintana, ahead of the time trial from Foligno to Montefalco. The 40-kilometre test is the only stage of this Giro that the Dutchman has reconnoitred in person, and he will examine it again during Monday's rest day. The rolling parcours seems ideally suited to his characteristics.
A little further up the mountain, Bauke Mollema was of a rather sunnier disposition, despite losing contact with Pinot and Dumoulin on the final approach to the line. The Trek-Segafredo leader finished the stage in fourth place, 41 seconds behind Quintana, having sagely opted not to track the Colombian's searing series of accelerations midway up the climb. He found common cause with Dumoulin for much of the ascent, and together, they dragged themselves back into contention towards the summit.
"For me it was a good day. I felt pretty good on the last climb. It was a really hard one. I did my own pace actually all the climb," Mollema said. "I was together with Dumoulin. He rode very regular. That was perfect for me. I could profit a little bit from him. He was very strong as well."
Mollema lies fourth overall ahead of the Montefalco time trial, 51 seconds down on Quintana. Although Dumoulin and Pinot will be expected to perform strongly in the 40-kilometre test, Mollema can take heart from the fine display he produced in the Ardèche time trial at last year's Tour de France.
"I'm looking forward to Tuesday. Obviously in the Tour de France I did a very good time trial, I finished sixth and I think this time trial on Tuesday is more or less like the one at the Tour de France: it's hard and up and down," Mollema said. "I'm looking forward to it. I've been training a lot on my TT bike. We made some changes on the bike, improving aerodynamics and the weight of the bike and that's definitely going to help me gain time. Dumoulin will be difficult, but Quintana and maybe Pinot, we'll see…"
Ahead of the long transfer north to Umbria, meanwhile, Mollema's mood was lightened still further by the news that his beloved Feyenoord had been crowned champions of the Dutch Eredivisie on Sunday afternoon. "I've just heard it. That's even better news," he smiled.
The Netherlands' longstanding love affair with the Tour de France means that its best stage racers have tended to eschew the Giro d'Italia and spare themselves for July. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) bucked that trend with fine performances at the past two editions of the Giro, but he struggled during the first major selection of this year's corsa rosa.
Kruijswijk was distanced under the weight of Movistar's forcing, and could only manage 12th on the stage, 2:43 down on Quintana. In the general classification, he lies 10th overall, some 3:06 off the maglia rosa. In each of the past two years, Kruijswijk has come into his own in the second half of the race, but one senses that, like in 2015, he has left himself with too much ground to recoup here.
"I didn't have such a good day," Kruijswijk admitted. "At the bottom of the climb, I was already at my limit."
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