Plain-speaking often seems something of a national trait in the Netherlands. Laurens ten Dam certainly didn't sugar-coat his account of his Sunweb teammate Tom Dumoulin's travails on stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia. "I think you all saw what happened on television, right? He had to shit," Ten Dam said with a wry smile after reporters swamped him on crossing the finish line in Bormio.
Ten Dam's humour was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Dumoulin, despite his obvious distress, had managed to limit the damage sufficiently to retain the maglia rosa, albeit with a much-reduced advantage of 31 seconds over Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and 1:12 over Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).
Dumoulin's metronomic dominance at Montefalco and Oropa saw him characterised as "monstrous" in sections of the Italian press, but he was laid low by a very human problem with 32 kilometres remaining, just as the pink jersey group approached the Stelvio for the second time, this time via the Umbrailpass.
"He had a little bit of stomach problems, diarrhoea. He had to find the right moment to stop to get rid of the stuff," Ten Dam said of Dumoulin, who removed his helmet and his maglia rosa as he dashed to the roadside. All of a sudden, Dumoulin's long conversation with the team car ten minutes previously, not to mention his unusual placement near the rear of the group, began to make sense.
Ten Dam was the only teammate Dumoulin had for company in the sizeable group of favourites, and the help he could provide was limited after he had been delegated to infiltrate the breakaway that formed on the Mortirolo early in the stage and augmented its advantage over the first ascent of the Stelvio. With Dumoulin isolated behind, Ten Dam was ordered to drop back on the Stelvio, and he immediately understood that his leader was struggling.
"I hadn't seen him since the Mortirolo and then when I came back into the group it wasn't the normal Tom I saw," Ten Dam said. "I said, 'Hey what's going on?' And he said, 'Yeah, I need a shit. I got some problems in the stomach.' So first we tried to stop it, but that didn't work, so then we stopped on the side of the road."
Had Dumoulin taken that decision earlier, on the descent of the Stelvio itself, the terrain might have been more amenable recouping the minute or so he conceded to Nibali, Quintana et al by stopping. Instead, the road began to climb almost immediately after he remounted, and he faced a frantic – and largely solo – chase. Ten Dam did what he could for 500 metres, but Dumoulin wanted a quicker pace and he continued alone.
"Once he got rid of it, I think he got back his legs because he was only yelling at me, 'Go faster, go faster.' I was tired from jumping on the Mortirolo, and fighting on the Stelvio, so I couldn't help him as much as I wanted," Ten Dam said. "So it is what it is, and now we have to recover."
As the Giro d'Italia headed into its third week, Dumoulin led Quintana by 2:41 and, with a 30-kilometre time trial to come in Milan on the final day, a hypothetical advantage closer to five minutes. His path to overall victory has become considerably more hazardous after he conceded 2:18 to Nibali here, but Sunweb manager Iwan Spekenbrink preferred to focus on the quality of his team leader's performance in adversity. "It may sound strange, but Tom Dumoulin made a very strong impression on me," Spekenbrink said. "He was alone on the last climb and barely lost time to the favourites. The Giro is definitely not lost."
After initial confusion that saw the pace abate in the group of favourites, Bahrain-Merida and Movistar eventually picked up the baton and began forcing the pace on the Umbrailpass. Ten Dam, who came in more than 20 minutes down, just as Dumoulin was being helped into a fresh maglia rosa on the podium, simply shrugged when informed of the reaction of Sunweb's rivals.
"I'm not going to say things about that. It is what it is, and it was not a crash, eh," Ten Dam said, and then smiled: "When you stop for a piss, they also don't wait. So when you stop for a shit, it's also the same I think."
As he soft-pedalled towards the Sunweb team hotel just past the finish line, Ten Dam struck an optimistic note about Dumoulin's prospects in the days to come. Like Spekenbrink, he felt Dumoulin's crisis ahead of the Umbrailpass was a simple digestion problem rather than the consequence of an underlying illness.
"I think so, I think it was just a one-day bad stomach," Ten Dam said. "I hope it will be better tomorrow."