Giro d'Italia analysis: Dumoulin a true contender after race of truth

It's hard to fathom now, but as the Giro d'Italia approached, Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) admitted to harbouring some doubts as to whether his time trialling vintage of 2017 was as refined as that of the previous two seasons. Like many time triallists who make the transition to trying to win big stage races, Dumoulin wondered if his efforts to improve in the high mountains – chiefly, losing weight – would reduce his power against the watch.

A low-key time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico in March hinted that his concerns had some justification, but among the Sagrantino vineyards of Umbria on Tuesday, Dumoulin uncorked one of the best time trials of his career to land stage honours and move into a resounding lead atop the overall standings.

The rolling 39.8-kilometre parcours was perfectly tailored to a rider of Dumoulin's talents but, more than anything, it was the kind of course that left no place to hide. With no fast descents or especially technical sections, riders had to push big gears all the way from Foligno to Montefalco. In the ultimate race of truth, Dumoulin confirmed himself to be a true contender to carry the maglia rosa to Milan.

Dumoulin trailed Nairo Quintana (Movistar) by just 30 seconds as the day began and was expected to move into the overall lead, but not even he anticipated the kind of gains he made here. Only three riders finished within two minutes of Dumoulin, for whom the general classification has been remoulded to some very appealing dimensions.

As the Giro approaches its midpoint, Dumoulin is 2:23 ahead of Quintana, 2:38 up on Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), 2:40 clear of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and 2:47 ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). It is a serious buffer at the midpoint of a Grand Tour. Having climbed so well on the Blockhaus, and with another, 30-kilometre time trial to come on the final day, is Dumoulin now the favourite for final overall victory?

Not quite, or at least, not yet. Impressive though Dumoulin's measured display on the Blockhaus was, it came after a flat run-in rather than after a string of mountain passes. The true test of his credentials, as he well knows, will come in this backloaded Giro's final week, when he faces multiple climbs on one day and, far more importantly, tough mountain stages on consecutive days.

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Dumoulin dealt well, it must be said, with the succession of mountain stages in the final week of the 2015 Vuelta, only to surrender his overall lead and drop to 6th place overall on the penultimate day at Cercedilla when he was stricken by illness. The harsh final week of this Giro is a considerably more daunting prospect than that Vuelta, and Quintana, Nibali and Pinot are more redoubtable foes than Fabio Aru, but unlike 2015, when Dumoulin's tenure in red surprised even himself, he and his team have prepared assiduously for this precise challenge since last winter.

"My rivals will need to take back time on me in the mountains," Dumoulin said in his post-stage press conference and then smiled, "and they know it."

Quintana, Nibali et al also know that Dumoulin will be ready for their onslaught. He will be an exceedingly tough out.

Allies of circumstance?

During the slow news days of the Giro's low-key opening week, a supposed beef between Quintana and Nibali generated plenty of column inches, and for a couple of kilometres on the Blockhaus on Sunday, it seemed as though this race was about to descend into a straight duel between the two favourites.

Ahead of Tuesday's time trial, the Bahrain-Merida camp's focus seemed to be squarely on how much ground Nibali could gain on Quintana, and immediately after finishing in Montefalco, Nibali seemed very pleased indeed to have pulled back time – 46 seconds – on the Colombian. That, however, was before Nibali realised quite how much he had lost to Dumoulin.

As the dust settles in Umbria, and the Giro moves north to a potentially tricky day of racing in Tuscany, Nibali and Quintana may – at least temporarily – take a different view of their relationship now that Dumoulin is in pink. They both lie north of two minutes down on Dumoulin, and one wonders if their Movistar and Bahrain-Merida teams might find common ground in the coming days to try to put the maglia rosa under pressure even before the denouement in the mountains.

For Pinot, it was a case of one step forward and two steps back. After impressing on the Blockhaus, the Frenchman – who has improved so much against the watch in the past two years – was expected to perform far better than 19th at 2:42 in the time trial, and gain far more than 11 seconds on Quintana. Pinot cut a glum figure when he wheeled to a halt past the line, admitting that he had struggled to process the rest day, but this was a disappointment rather than an outright disaster. He handed back some of the gains he made on Sunday, but the form of the Blockhaus has not simply disappeared. Pinot will surely be to the fore again on Oropa on Saturday.

Mollema, meanwhile, quietly went about his business and produced a solid display in keeping with his showing on the Blockhaus on Sunday. Like most, he will be alarmed by the magnitude of his losses to Dumoulin, but 10th place on the stage was roughly in line with expectations for Mollema, who put time into Quintana and Pinot, and conceded a mere ten seconds to Nibali. As ever, the question mark hovering over Mollema is his ability to avoid a jour sans – or two – in the final week, but for now, he is where he ought to be.

Thomas and Yates

Dumoulin aside, Geraint Thomas (Sky) was the principal beneficiary of the Montefalco time trial, as his fine second place on the stage has lifted him to 11th place overall and – just about – back into contention for a podium spot. Although Thomas is now some 5:33 off Dumoulin's maglia rosa, he is back to within three minutes of third place. It seems unlikely that the Welshman can climb that far before the Giro is out, but he is certainly close enough to continue riding for GC rather than turn his attention to chasing stage wins.

Bob Jungels (Quick-Step) third on the stage, moves back up to 6th overall, though unlike Thomas, there was no mitigation for the time he lost on the Blockhaus. Oropa will offer a clearer indication.

Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), like Thomas a faller on Sunday, showed few ill effects en route to 17th in the time trial, ahead of both Pinot and Quintana, and only 26 seconds behind Nibali. His obviously sparkling condition will make his Blockhaus crash all the more frustrating. 16th at 6:58, Yates is a realistic contender for the white jersey, a top ten finish and stage wins in the final week, but on this form, he could – and should – be competing for so much more at this Giro.

Others to concede terrain on the Blockhaus could draw little solace from the Montefalco time trial. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) treaded water rather than bounced back, while Tejay van Garderen (BMC) finished a laboured and lowly 43rd to drop to 17th overall, almost eight minutes down. For better and for worse, it's a long way to Milan. 

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