Having passed one minor but tricky climbing ‘exam' on Tuesday's stage 4 with no difficulties whatsoever, on Thursday's stage 6, Giro d'Italia leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) came through a second, tougher mountain test with flying colours, taking time on almost all his top rivals with a driving late attack.
Dumoulin had warned that on the steady rather than ultra-steep slopes of the 18 kilometre Roccaraso climb he might try to put some time into his rivals, and he duly opened up the throttle a little under three kilometres from the line. But few would have expected Dumoulin to be able to gain such an across-the-board advantage on several top contenders, including 14 seconds on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and 21 seconds on Mikel Landa (Sky) and top favourite Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Apart form the Belgian stage winner Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), only Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) managed to gain a few seconds on Dumoulin. Overall, Dumoulin now holds a strengthened 41 second advantage on Valverde, 47 seconds on Nibali and 1:08 on Landa. And there is still the Chianti time trial on Sunday to come, where in theory Dumoulin should be able to open up even more of a gap on his rivals.
Strategically, Dumoulin showed he was racing equally impressively. Rather than let himself be drawn into chasing down Nibali when he attacked while Dumoulin was isolated from his Giant teammates, the Dutchman gambled on Movistar and Sky working to bring Nibali back. It was a gamble which worked perfectly, and after Nibali's attack had been closed down, Dumoulin, some 2.5 kilometres from the line, accelerated away and dropped his rivals.
The net result is that Dumoulin is now looking stronger than ever as race leader, and at the same time, given his climbing prowess, it looks increasingly possible that he could make a serious bid on the general classification for the Giro d'Italia. Key to that, of course, is the Dutchman's climbing ability in much harder climbs than anything on offer in the Apennines on Thursday. But even so, to date his climbing performances in the Giro have been far better than he imagined possible.
"I always said that I hadn't prepared for the high mountains and for GC but I surprised myself today, I didn't think I would be this good," Dumoulin said afterwards. "Of course when I worked for the Giro d'Italia I worked hard but only at home, I didn't do any mountain training camps."
"I didn't think my training would be enough [for the mountains], apparently up until now, though, actually it is."
"I just have to see how long it lasts. Nothing will change for the coming two weeks, I will try and defend the overall classification as long as possible. Maybe at one point there is a day I feel really bad in high mountains and I lose everything. But until that day comes we'll defend the jersey."
His attack on the Roccaraso, he said, was not at all planned, although he had been expecting Nibali to bridge up to [earlier attacker and teammate] Fuglsang. "It was actually a smart move for them to do that with Fuglsang. But I thought Nibali attacked at the wrong moment. I didn't have [Giant teammates] Georg Preidler or Tobias Ludvigsson to support me by then so I was hoping that Movistar or Sky would close the gap on Nibali and they did."
"If my rivals had let Nibali and Fuglsang take a lot of time then they also lose time, so you just have to gamble. If I lose at that point, then they [Movistar and Sky] also lose. It wasn't their plan to help me, but they did."
"Then there was a little ramp, and I just went for it: if I see an opportunity then I just go and I don't think any more."
He defined his attack as not being at all calculated but based on instinct. "You cannot explain this feeling, when an animal has an instinct for something, he just does it. I guess that's the same here. It's instinct. I had some good legs and I already said if there is an opportunity, I just take it. Maybe that's going to cost me in the last week, but the seconds I have taken now, I can also maybe use them in the last week."
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Dumoulin explained that given his pre-Giro goals were purely the time trials, then he is able to gamble more strongly than if he had been specifically targeting GC prior to the race. "My attack had some risks, but I don't have the pressure to be on the podium in Turin, I'm just here to enjoy myself. I will also look at opportunities to take more time and definitely when my rivals don't expect those attacks or I can surprise them I need to do it."
Another factor in Dumoulin's favour, he explained, is his growing self-confidence and experience as a team leader, something he had to work on a lot in the Vuelta a España last year and learn on the hoof when he was unexpectedly leading there deep into the Spanish race. As a result, he is able to direct the Giant Giro d'Italia team better and to benefit more from that.
But if Roccaraso was a surprise both to Dumoulin and his rivals, in Chianti on Sunday it will be a different story, given the Dutchman's skills as a time triallist are well established. The key question therefore, will be if Dumoulin can gain time on his rivals there, as expected, and if so, how much?
Tellingly, and perhaps for the first time in this year's Giro d'Italia, after his successful mountain defence of the race lead on Thursday rather than a straight bid for a time trial victory in itself Dumoulin publicly discussed his possible gains in Chianti on Sunday in terms of the ongoing GC battle, and how far those gains might - just - take him towards wearing pink in Turin.
"It will be very difficult to get enough time in Chianti to be able to defend the maglia all the way to the finish but I will go full gas as I always do"; Dumoulin commented. "It's a time trial that suits me really well because it's up and down but it also means that the other GC riders like Nibali and Valverde will prefer a time trial like this over a flatter one."
"I don't know how much time I will take, maybe not even a lot or maybe nothing. But I will just go full gas and then we'll see at the end."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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