Suffice to say, Tom Dumoulin and his Giro d'Italia Odyssey is headline news in the Netherlands. Not even the presence of Ajax in a European final for the first time in 21 years seems to be detracting attention from the maglia rosa, whose crossover celebrity grew still further in the past 24 hours after an urgent toilet stop threatened to leave his challenge in tatters in the shadow of the Stelvio.
Having salvaged his overall lead with a measured lone pursuit on the Umbrailpass on Tuesday, Dumoulin enjoyed a rather calmer afternoon on stage 17 of the Giro, as the race made the long trek towards Canazei. He finished safely in the main peloton to retain his lead, 31 seconds clear of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and sat down to a press conference where his temporary crisis of the previous day was, of course, the primary topic of discussion.
"I'm not here to write history because I'm shitting in the bushes," Dumoulin deadpanned in response to yet another question on the incident, just about stifling a grin. "I want to write history by getting the pink jersey in Milan."
All eyes were on Dumoulin as he reported to the start in Tirano, and though the Dutchman showed no signs of distress as he went to sign on, he confessed afterwards that he had set out on the road to Canazei nursing a certain amount of trepidation. "I felt much better today. I was a little bit insecure in the morning," Dumoulin said. "I had to eat bars and food in the race and then I was a little bit worried that it wouldn't be ok but it was completely fine and I had no problems."
Dumoulin was fortunate, perhaps, that Wednesday's stage, though long, was the least demanding of the Giro's mountainous final week. Although the speed was high on the short opening climb to Aprica, there was precious little chance of an ambush on the maglia rosa with so much distance left to run. "I knew it was very long after the second climb until the finish, so I would have been very, very surprised if any GC riders attacked, especially with the hard days ahead, although Bahrain made it hard for us at the start," Dumoulin said.
The whys and wherefores of Dumoulin's enforced stop on stage 16 continue to be debated, though his performance on the Umbrailpass – where he conceded precious little ground to Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) et al once he had remounted – strongly suggests that it was not a symptom of an underlying illness. He dismissed the hypothesis that the pressing call of nature had been caused by stress, pointing out that he had suffered a similar issue at last year's Tour de France, where he rode with no general classification ambitions.
"We don't know exactly what the problem was, but we have some ideas. I think it was a combination of a few things but we don't know exactly," Dumoulin said. "I just have to be focused and sharp on my food intake – the right food at the right moment – and there we solve a lot of the problem already."
Into the Dolomites
Speaking in Bormio on Tuesday afternoon, a weary Dumoulin seemed relieved simply to have lived to fight another day in the maglia rosa. A day later, the Dutchman admitted to frustration at conceding such a large chunk of his hefty buffer in such bizarre circumstances. His lead shrank from 2:41 to 31 seconds, and though he still has the safety net of the final time trial in Milan, Dumoulin's margin for error in the days ahead has tightened considerably.
"I was very disappointed and angry with myself because I actually had good legs. I think with my legs yesterday I would have been up there with Nibali and Quintana at the top of the climb," Dumoulin said. "I would have had a big margin going into the last three mountain days. Now I've lost that because of a problem, not because I had a bad day. If I have a bad day or bad legs in the coming days, I'll lose jersey. That's the biggest setback from yesterday. But the fact I didn't lose any time on the climb when I was chasing alone was the biggest mental win from yesterday."
A man with designs on winning the Giro can ill afford to dwell on the regrets of yesterday, of course. Though the pink jersey on Dumoulin's shoulders is real, his place on the top step of the podium in Milan is virtual. All that matters is the day ahead, and Thursday's Dolomite tappone offers a further, formidable test. The Passo Pordoi, Passo Valparola, Passo Gardena, Passo di Pinei and final ascent of Pontives are crammed into just 137 kilometres of racing, though Dumoulin downplayed the idea that Quintana or Nibali (3rd at 1:12) might begin attacking his lead on the day's first ascent.
"We have to be ready for everything. Maybe the top 3 or top 5 will not attack on first climb – even if we have to be ready for that too – but definitely guys a little further away will try to jump away," Dumoulin said. "That will happen, so it will be a big fight from the first climb."