It wasn't supposed to be like this. Jai Hindley's Giro d’Italia debut was meant to be devoted entirely to riding in the service of Tom Dumoulin, but the Dutchman's crash in Frascati and untimely abandon has forced a radical redrawing of Team Sunweb's race.
The Giro squad was selected with the objective of marshalling Dumoulin through the flat opening phase and then shepherding him through the high mountains as he went in search of a second overall victory in the corsa rosa. Now, rather than racing cautiously to protect and serve one of the outright favourites, Hindley and his teammates have been forced to redraw their plans.
"It was a bit devastating for the team to lose Tom, and so early as well, so we've had to shift the focus a bit," Hindley told Cyclingnews in Ravenna. "It's opened up a lot of opportunities for us because Tom isn't here, but obviously it was a shame to lose him."
After Dumoulin's crash but before he had withdrawn from the race, Sunweb had briefed their riders on a change in tack. Dumoulin lost more than four minutes after crashing in the finale at Frascati on stage 4, and while his GC hopes lay in tatters, he remained determined to start the following day's stage despite his knee injury.
"We already had a meeting with the riders on the evening Tom's crash happened, where we talked about searching for new goals," directeur sportif Marc Reef explained. "Though it wasn't that Tom was out of the GC completely, because we still wanted to see how the knee was and then maybe look for our chances again."
In the event, Dumoulin could only make it through 700 metres of the neutralised zone on stage 5 before calling time on his Giro. Sunweb responded by sending Louis Vervaeke up the road on that rain-soaked stage. A day later, Sam Oomen was part of the day-long escape that finished seven minutes up on the gruppo in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Oomen, who placed ninth overall a year ago, had lost four minutes after waiting for Dumoulin in Frascati, but his performance on stage 6 suddenly lifted him back into the GC picture. Although Oomen dropped to 19th overall, 5:02 down on pink jersey Valerio Conti after Sunday’s San Marino time trial, he remains in contention both for a place in the top 10 and for the white jersey of best young rider.
Reef insisted, however, that Oomen would not simply step into the leadership role vacated by Dumoulin. The team will instead seek to become aggressors and seek to extract a stage victory from this Giro.
"The goal was to do GC with Tom. That is gone and we don't want to shift that approach to Sam. We just want to race free, with an open approach, to look for our chances. And that's what we're going to do," Reef said. "Normally it's not the goal to see how far we can push Sam to do a top 10. It's just seeing day by day what the situation is and what the chances are."
Sunweb's most notable result in the days since Dumoulin's abandon came from Chad Haga, who produced a fine performance to place 6th in the San Marino time trial. The opening segment of the race's second week provides few opportunities for a line-up replete with climbers, but Oomen et al will hope to carve out chances once the race hits the Alps on Friday.
"There's definitely a lot less stress now," Hindley said. "We’re trying to go for stages so on days like today [the pan flat stage 10 from Ravenna to Modena – ed.], everyone's trying to save as much energy as they can ahead of the hillier stages coming up in the second half of the race. We've got a pretty strong climbing team here and everyone's in pretty good form. Everyone's just waiting for the second half, I guess. Everyone wants to come out guns blazing."
While Sunweb's remaining six riders – Rob Power abandoned after crashing on stage 6 to San Giovanni Rotondo – ride in search of stage victories, Dumoulin is spending a week off the bike as he continues his recovery from the wounded knee that forced him out of the Giro.
Like last year, Dumoulin had lined up a tilt at the Giro-Tour de France double in 2019. The Tour remains on his programme, but the Dutchman has yet to settle on his final build-up to July. It seems clear that he will add at least one stage race to his calendar between now and the Grand Départ on July 6, but no decision has yet been taken on his schedule.
"Tom needs to recover and then when we know he can start again, we can also see what the possibilities are for the programme," Reef said. "There are a lot of races in the next two months so we are very open to what his approach will be."