Alliances in cycling, like politics and religion, are rarely discussed in polite company, but Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) saw no reason to pretend that he had not depended on the kindness of strangers to limit his losses on stage 20 of the Giro d'Italia and put himself in the box seat to reclaim the maglia rosa in Sunday's final time trial in Milan.
When Dumoulin found himself distanced by chief rivals Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) six kilometres from the top of Fonza, the Giro's final climb, he turned and gestured for his companions in the chasing group to help in the pursuit. Ordinarily, one might have expected the request to fall on deaf ears, but shortly afterwards, Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) came to the front.
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) was next to put his shoulder to the wheel, while white jersey Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) also provided some turns on the front. At the summit of Fonza, 12 kilometres from the finish, Dumoulin trailed Quintana, Nibali et al by 25 seconds, but Jungels' metronomic effort on the front kept the deficit in check on the rolling altopiano to the finish.
Dumoulin eventually reached the finish in Asiago in 10th place, just 15 seconds down stage winner Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). Although the Dutchman drops to 4th overall, he is only 53 seconds off Quintana's maglia rosa with a flat, 29.3-kilometre time trial to come. He is, by any reckoning, the favourite to win the Giro.
"I'm forever thankful and grateful for the work that Bauke Mollema, Bob Jungels and Adam Yates did for me," Dumoulin said outside the Sunweb team bus after the finish. It was striking that he made a point of mentioning their help without prompting.
"They were pretty much not really fighting anymore for any spots on GC, because they are pretty much fixed on their spots on GC, so it was definitely to help me. I'm very happy about that and very thankful."
Although Mollema pointed out afterwards that he was riding in the hope of contesting the stage win, from a general classification standpoint, there was little logic to the trio's willingness to contribute so wholeheartedly to the chase alongside Dumoulin. Mollema's overall deficit is such that he seems already locked into seventh place overall, while Yates and Jungels are engaged in their own private battle for eighth place overall and the white jersey of best young rider. It was, Dumoulin said, simply a coalition of goodwill.
"I know Yates and Jungels and Mollema, the three of them actually, for a long time and we've always been good together," Dumoulin said. "We just cooperated well."
Saturday morning's edition of L'Équipe, meanwhile, had already identified some of Dumoulin's allies in the upper reaches of the general classification, and noted pointedly that their teams were, like Sunweb, members of the Velon organisation. Movistar, Bahrain-Merida and FDJ, of course, are not among the 11 member teams.
For all Dumoulin's glowing praise for the efforts of Mollema, Yates and Jungels, his own part in limiting the damage in the final 20 kilometres was the most important. Having struggled so obviously as he lost the pink jersey at Piancavallo on Friday, Dumoulin never threatened to lurch into crisis here, and his pedalling was always smooth. "I'm happy that mentally and physically I'm in a much better place than yesterday," Dumoulin said.
Were it not for his abrupt toilet stop at the base of the Umbrailpass, it is likely that Dumoulin would already have this Giro sewn up. Instead, he must claw back 53 seconds on Quintana, 14 on Nibali and 10 on Pinot to ensure that he becomes the first Dutchman to win a Grand Tour since Joop Zoetemelk's Tour de France victory of 1980.
It is a scenario that Dumoulin would gladly have settled for when the race left Alghero three weeks ago and, based on the startling gaps from his dominant victory in the Montefalco time trial on stage 10, he will surely expect to be feted in the maglia rosa in the shadow of the Duomo in Milan on Sunday afternoon. To win the Giro, Dumoulin must gain a little over 1.8 seconds per kilometre on Quintana. In the last time trial, he picked up more than four seconds per kilometre on the Colombian.
The 29.3km stage offers a rather different test to the Sagrantino time trial, however. The course is pan flat, and, in theory at least, the potential gains will be smaller. The residual fatigue of an entire Giro – and its punishing last week – must also be factored into the equation. However the numbers finally add up, the margins should be tight.
"It could be possible but after three weeks racing and after a hard week racing in the mountains like this, anything could happen tomorrow. I'm just going to focus on my own ride tomorrow and then we'll see at the finish what it's worth," Dumoulin said.
"It's quite a big gap, so I definitely need a good day to get that gap. There are not going to be time differences like the last time trial, I know that. And it's been a very hard three weeks. I'm very tired. Everybody is very tired so that makes for a very weird TT tomorrow."
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