Dumoulin cautiously optimistic about chances of taking Vuelta lead in Burgos TT

If there was one word to sum up Tom Dumoulin’s attitude to how he will possibly fare in what remains of this year’s Vuelta a Espana, it would be - cautious.

The Giant-Alpecin leader knows that he is widely forecast to take the Vuelta lead in Wednesday’s 39km time trial, and aware that interest in whether he will become his country’s first Grand Tour podium finisher since Erik Breukink took third in the 1990 Tour is steadily rising.

For the last two weeks, for example, there have been one or two Dutch journalists on the Vuelta at most - but for Tuesday’s rest day, the total had suddenly soared to double figures, and the number will surely continue to rise should Dumoulin continue to shine.

The million dollar question is, of course, can Dumoulin win the Vuelta, something which would make him the first Dutch winner of a Grand Tour since Joop Zoetemelk way back in the 1980 Tour.

“It could happen, maybe it couldn’t happen” was Dumoulin’s cagey response. “Let’s say I take the lead tomorrow, it could happen. Two minutes [roughly race leader Joaquim Rodriguez advantage on the Dutchman] is a lot of time, and it’s not as easy [to take back that time] as some journalists think.”

Either way, Burgos' 38.7km is only one part of a fraught finale of the Vuelta, Dumoulin points out, given there are three mountainous or hilly stages to come. “I’m going to do my best, but there’s three days to go until Madrid after the time trial. And although my team is strong and very committed, they’re not the strongest squad here on the climbs. If I take it [the lead], it’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

Both Dumoulin and Giant-Alpecin team in any case, have had a radical change of game plan since the Vuelta started, where Dumoulin was keen to prove a point after crashing out of the Tour this summer. “The GC was not amongst our original aims, the idea was to go for bunch sprints with [John] Degenkolb. During the first few days, I was very motivated to show everybody I had come back with a bang after my injury in the Tour. But finding myself in fourth spot on GC, that’s something I didn’t expect.

“My climbing is improving and improving, I knew last year in the Tour de Suisse, where I got fifth, that I was a lot better. But to be a real GC contender in a three-week Tour, that’s something new and something quite surprising.” Indeed, as the 24-year-old told Cyclingnews back in the Vuelta’s first week, “I won’t race for 10th place on GC. It needs to be either really good or else I’ll just save myself a little bit.”

As things have turned out, Dumoulin’s gc is, indeed, “really good.” - way better than he expected. But he revealed he had not started to ‘think big’ until the first two weeks of racing were over and the worst of the mountain stages behind them.

“Yesterday [stage 16 to Ermita del Alba’s summit finish] was the day I realised I could go for the podium. Before that I still thought I could have a bad day. Yesterday I could have lost five minutes. When I only lost 20 seconds on Purito, I knew the podium was possible.”

Although most of the media focus on those still surviving in the Vuelta battle has been on Dumoulin, Rodriguez and Aru, the Dutchman says that Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), third overall at 1-35, is another big contender.

“He’s been going better and better in this year’s Vuelta, come through really strong in the second week and I still think he can pull it off [win].” Dumoulin said,

“Tomorrow’s time trial will make him a lot wiser, and he’s got a strong team, too, they could definitely put on a good show in the last mountain stages.”

As for Dumoulin, his eyes almost gleam in anticipation when discussing Wednesday’s undulating time trial course.

“It looked really flat, but the first 30 kilometres are definitely rolling, it’s exactly what I like,” he says. “The final is also really nice, technical, with a little climb. It’s good for me.”

As for how much of a buffer over Rodriguez, Aru and the rest he would need to be comfortable, he says with a grin, “I’d need ten minutes, but that’s not going to happen. Whatever happens, I’m not going to feel confident and comfortable afterwards.”

Looking further afield, the bigger question for Dumoulin is - inevitably - the Tour de France and what his thoughts are about his chances there in 2016. But as cautious as ever, he prefers to say he’s concentrating on this year’s Vuelta for now.

Dumoulin did reveal, though, that next year he will be going for the Olympic time trial in Rio regardless of what happens in the upcoming five days of the Vuelta. Rather, what he achieves on the other side of the Atlantic in a little over two weeks time will be more important in the big scheme of things.

“The main test will be the [2015] World Championships time trial. If I do really badly there, then I won’t go for gc in the Tour next year,” said Dumoulin, the bronze medallist in Ponferrada last year. “In 2016, it’s mainly about Rio.”

His girlfriend will, he said, be in Madrid to celebrate the end of the Vuelta with him. “And that’s if I finish 100th, too,” he joked. At the moment, though, he’s still aiming much higher than that.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.