After local star and Giro d'Italia leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) was cheered and applauded by massive roadside crowds from almost start to finish of stage 2 in the Netherlands on Saturday, he was asked if there had been one moment, amongst the 190 kilometres of celebrations and quarter of a million fans on the roadsides, which had stuck in his memory.
"Yes," he said with a chuckle. "There was one sign somewhere along the way which said 'Tom, will you marry me?' That will stay with me, although the answer is 'no'."
For Dumoulin in general, unexpected marriage proposals apart - "if anybody's going to ask that question, it should be me to my girlfriend, so she won't be the one with the sign" he pointed out with another smile - stage 2 was, as he repeated countless times after the race was over, "a very special day." The massive crowds, excellent weather and a relatively straightforward, incident-free, ride all made what was already going to be an exceptional day, even that much better.
As the Giant-Alpecin rider pointed out, with three riders up the road, all the bonus seconds from the intermediate sprints were taken before the main peloton - with the top threat to his lead, Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) - reached them. As a result with Kittel unable to gain enough bonus seconds even by winning, as the German duly did, Dumoulin knew that barring absolute disaster, his lead was safe.
"That made a fairly easy day, even more enjoyable, I could enjoy the crowds, all the people shouting my name. It was a party out there. To me it's very special, because ever since last winter this has been a goal but in my head it wasn't real and now it is, which is strange.
"There were many people wanting a picture, shouting my name, I will try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts now. I don't like saying things like 'this was the best day of my life', but it was certainly really, really cool.
"We didn't specify our goals before the race, except to work for the time trials in this Giro. I didn't really think about the pink jersey itself, to get it here or one of the next few days. Now it has already happened [and] this is the dream scenario."
Dumoulin said that he was not resigned to losing the jersey on Sunday's equally flat stage, which seems all but doomed to end in a bunch sprint, even though Kittel is just one second behind overall after taking a ten-second time bonus for the stage. But although Dumoulin and Giant-Alpecin will clearly defend the jersey, there was logically a little bit of fatalism in Dumoulin's analysis of his chances.
As Dumoulin put it, "it's all very close together now, so the chances are I will lose it if Kittel sprints like that again. We will have to make sure that there is another break that takes the bonus seconds and he will have to be in the right position at the right time to be in the top three."
"Either way, what happens on Sunday is not in our hands." Dumoulin did add, though, that if anybody was to take his lead, he would be happiest if it was his former teammate."Everyone in the team also liked Marcel as a captain," he commented, "even though he's now in another team, he's still a friend to everyone."
The terrible training crash that befell a group of his teammates in Spain this spring has, logically, cast a long shadow over Giant-Alpecin's first half of the season, but Dumoulin brushed aside a suggestion that it had affected him directly in the build-up to the Giro. He pointed out that "I was in a group of riders who heard about it in the [training camp] hotel. It was a terrible accident but it didn't change my training or change my outlook."
With no wins coming through for Giant or himself until the opening time trial stage on Friday, "of course I felt a little bit more pressure on myself. I was waiting for a victory, and the results not very good this spring." The results of the Giro in May, though, were a very different story indeed.
The first-ever Dutchman to lead both the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España, Dumoulin was asked a lengthy list of questions about the maglia rosa as well as the differences and similarities between leading the two Grand Tours, as well how he viewed a hypothetical spell in the Tour de France's maillot jaune. The Dutchman answered diplomatically that "to me all three leaders" jerseys have a special place in cycling and have a lot of history. The [Tour and Giro's] yellow and pink go back a long way in history which is different to the Vuelta" - which has changed colour several times. Dumoulin revealed, he had not, however, gone to sleep wearing the maglia rosa last night, "although I know that's supposed to bring luck." Instead, he said, it had been on the couch opposite his bed.
In fact, apart from when he was asleep last night in the hotel, possibly one of the more relaxing moments of his spell so far in the lead, he said, came at another point when he was not wearing the pink jersey - on Friday evening when he rode the 15 or so kilometres to his team hotel after the opening time trial. "It was to get the lactic acid out of my legs, it works better like that, but I didn't wear the jersey, I was already getting enough attention." On stage 3, though, when he is back in pink he will likely get a whole lot more.
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