So near, but so far. When Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) crossed the finish line of stage 20 at Cercedilla, 35th at 7:30, the Dutchman received a huge round of applause from the crowd for what had been a deeply courageous, if unsuccessful, defence of his Vuelta a Espana overall lead that only collapsed almost within sight of Madrid
Leaning his tall frame against the side of a team car, and his head well above the pack of reporters waving microphones and tv cameras in his direction, Dumoulin stared fixedly at the winner's podium, just a few dozen yards away on the opposite side of the road, as the tv screen behind it flashed up the overall placings. The writing was literally on the wall for him, as the screen showed Dumoulin had slumped to sixth overall, 3:46 down on Fabio Aru (Astana), after failing at cycling's equivalent of the last fence.
At that moment Dumoulin climbed inside a waiting Giant-Alpecin team car, taking a few more minutes before trying to talk over what had been the most brutal of defeats of a Vuelta leader in recent years.
It cannot have been straightforward. Dumoulin had always kept his feet on the ground as victory seemed ever closer, saying that he had only started thinking of the Vuelta podium at the end of the second week, after battling his way through the hardest mountain stages of the north. But just when it seemed within his grasp, Dumoulin's first Grand Tour win, not to mention Holland's first Grand Tour win in 35 years, had evaporated completely. Not even the podium was now possible, with Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) and Rafael Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) now due to stand alongside Aru.
The Vuelta has represented an exceptional breakthrough for the Dutchman in terms of his Grand Tour racing, despite the cataclysmic finale. But as the reporters jammed their cameras and microphones through the open car door, the Giant-Alpecin pro was understandably struggling to draw positives.
"At the moment, it's just disappointment. Tomorrow I will be proud, but today it's just disappointment," he said.
Dumoulin had said he started feeling bad well before the Morcuera, but that it was only at that point that he realised it was game over.
"I was just empty, I had no legs. I had an idea that was the case but I just fought for what I was worth and in the end you just got to deal with it."
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