While Jumbo-Visma are clearly going places this spring with their Paris-Nice display with Primož Roglič and Wout van Aert and the Classics team dominating the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, the start of the season for Tom Dumoulin has been a lot more uneven.
A nondescript performance at the UAE Tour was followed by a none-start at the Strade Bianche due to COVID-19, heightening interest in how he would get on in his first European WorldTour race of the year, the Volta a Catalunya.
Speaking to reporters before the first stage, Dumoulin said it would have been unrealistic to hope for a top GC result. But he did express hopes of a solid week of racing hard to try and improve his condition overall.
Instead, the Dutchman found himself out for the count again on stage 3, climbing into the team car mid-way through the race's first incursion into the Pyrenees.
His untimely exit from Catalunya has fuelled speculation that Dumoulin might opt for a change of program in the build-up to the Giro d'Italia. But according to Jumbo-Visma sports director Merijn Zeeman, rather than switch things around, the team prefer to keep Dumoulin on the same course for now.
As for the exact reasons of his abandon, "He was not ill, he was not feeling great because he was [racing] too much on the limit, so he's at home now," Zeeman told Cyclingnews earlier this week.
"He'll get back into training tomorrow [Saturday] again. He had a COVID-19 infection before Strade so we expected he'd need some time."
Zeeman said there will be no change in Dumoulin's race program: "He will do two races in Holland, the Volta Limberg [April 2nd] and the Amstel Gold Race [April 10th] and then he will go to altitude. He will prepare well for the Giro and then we will see how he will be."
Should this program stay the same, Dumoulin will start the Giro with just 11 days racing in his legs through the spring. But Dumoulin had also said before the Volta a Catalunya start that, given his best performances at the Giro had been preceded by minimal racing, he was not overly troubled by that possibility.
Zeeman preferred to reserve judgement for now; "the Giro will tell," he said with a wry grin.
"We tried to make the best possible plan, now he withdrew and of course it would be much better if it was different, but we have to deal with this situation and he will need some hard training.
"The races will make him better, too, and three weeks at altitude always makes a big difference of course, combined with his talent and his potential, hopefully we'll see a good Tom. It's obviously insecure, but we'll do it as well as possible."
Zeeman concurred that in any case, if a situation like Dumoulin's has arisen, better now than closer to the Giro. And he pointed out that Dumoulin is far from being alone in having to handle illness or its consequent damage to form this spring.
"Of course, but I think a lot of riders have to deal with sickness or they were sick before. It's still strange times with COVID-19, now society is more open, all the other viruses [are circulating widely]. For every rider it's a strange time, you have to deal that, and that's also a problem."
Although it was unfortunate that Dumoulin's capacity to handle high mountain racing could not be tested, Zeeman said the odds of getting an accurate analysis on that were in any case low given Dumoulin had not been feeling great in the previous days before his abandon.
"So also in the big mountains we would haven't seen too much of him," he noted.
As for the rest of the squad in the Volta a Catalunya, Jumbo-Visma turned in a scorching performance on the day of the echelons. But then their leaders in the mountains were a little less successful. Post-Pyrenees, Sam Oomen is currently lying 14th overall while Steven Kruijswijk was running 26th.
"Sam is progressing really well, but he is on the right track and we will see a lot in the coming years," Zeeman said. "Stevie expected more [in the Pyrenean stages] and is actually feeling fine, even if it didn't go as well as we wanted."
However, as Zeeman puts it, while globally it's been anything but a bad season for Jumbo-Visma generally this year so far, those sort of difficulties are inherent to the sport and it's learning how to handle them that riders progress.
"But that's bike racing, sometimes you're on top of it, sometimes you see you have some work to do. It's a hard sport, if you don't have that one per cent then you are not with the best. And there's young guys constantly coming up every year, also here, you see Juan Ayuso and Tobias Haalland Johannessen.
"So the level gets higher every year. And it's also good to keep realising that there can be good races like Paris-Nice, but when you struggle a little bit more, it keeps you motivated to do better in the next one."
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