When a Giro d’Italia route complete with three individual time trials was unveiled last October, the consensus was that it was made to measure for Tom Dumoulin. The Dutchman clearly agreed. His Sunweb team had already made plans to build his 2019 season around the Tour de France but the biddable nature of the Giro course meant that it was, as Dumoulin himself acknowledged, "a golden opportunity."
Dumoulin arrived in Bologna among the top echelon of favourites for this year’s corsa rosa, and that status was scarcely diminished even when he conceded rather more ground than anticipated to Primoz Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in the opening time trial. Overall winner in 2017 and second a year ago, Dumoulin’s past pedigree and aptitude for this year’s course meant that he remained a lodestar for the GC battle.
The landscape of the Giro shifted dramatically in the finale in Frascati on stage 4, however, when Dumoulin came down in a crash with a little over 6 kilometres to go. The four minutes he lost effectively ruled him out of the fight for the maglia rosa, and he left the race altogether after wheeling to a halt in the neutralised zone on stage 5.
The most obvious effect of Dumoulin’s withdrawal from the Giro is that it suddenly leaves a space at the top in a race with an especially long list of potential winners. There are no guarantees in a race with as many variables as the Italian Grand Tour, but this was a more reliable and robust contender than just about anyone other than Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).
Since his breakthrough as a three-week rider at the 2015 Vuelta a España, Dumoulin has targeted the general classification at just three Grand Tours, but he has finished on the podium each time: after winning the 2017 Giro, he placed second at the Giro and Tour last year.
"He was one of the contenders for overall victory, so he leaves a space for the others," Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli told Cyclingnews. "Maybe now a rider who came here aiming to finish 5th or 6th might start thinking about the podium. Or a rider who was aiming for the podium might start to think about winning. I think it’s a significant loss for the Giro. He was someone who could really have ignited the whole race on a mixed parcours like this."
Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White echoed Martinelli’s assessment, pointing out that the weighty list of pre-race favourites had already been lightened by Egan Bernal’s crash a week before the Giro began.
"With Bernal and now Dumoulin out, that’s two key rivals who are now no longer in the equation," White told Cyclingnews. "It doesn’t change anything for us in terms of trying to win the race. But it means that there are now two teams without big leaders – so those teams won’t be there, either as allies or enemies."
Dumoulin’s abandon came so early in this Giro that it is essentially moot to speculate on how his absence will affect the tactical approach of the podium contenders in the pivotal third week. The best of the remaining favourites – Roglič, Nibali, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) – remain within 40 seconds of one another, after all, and have yet to reach the mountains. Dumoulin’s departure will have a more immediate impact, however, during the long trek towards those key mountain stages.
In the opening phase of a backloaded Giro like this one, GC riders think less about gaining time than simply not losing it. While their teams compete for position at the head of the peloton, they also help one another to control the race as their interests broadly align at this early juncture.
"It means there’s a GC team ‘missing’ to help control the race now. On a stage like today, it could have been a team that would have helped to control the race in the event of an emergency. Instead, they’ll likely be trying to get up the road," Martinelli said in Cassino ahead of stage 6.
Martinelli’s words proved prescient. In Dumoulin’s absence, Sunweb’s Sam Oomen had the freedom to enter the break on the long road to San Giovanni Rotondo. Oomen lost more than 4 minutes while helping Dumoulin’s forlorn pursuit in Frascati, but he has reignited his own GC hopes after Jumbo-Visma allowed Thursday’s break to gain more than 7 minutes on the peloton.
It was enough for Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) to move into the maglia rosa and it also saw Oomen leap to tenth overall, ahead of Roglič and all the podium contenders. The Dutch youngster placed ninth overall in last year’s Giro while riding in support of Dumoulin, and it came as something of a surprise that he was given so much leeway.
"Dumoulin’s team becomes a bit dangerous now because they might start putting riders up the road," Martinelli warned. "Ok, they came here as his domestiques, but they have some very good riders so they might change the philosophy of the race a bit."
"It’s one GC contender less," Dumoulin smiled on Wednesday evening when asked to assess the impact his absence would have on the Giro, though he knew it meant more than that.
In losing their leader, Sunweb have become more unpredictable. In losing a reference point like Dumoulin, so too has the Giro itself.