Tom Dumoulin's situation as the Tour de France reaches its closing chapters was neatly summarised by a headline in De Telegraaf on Thursday: "Dumoulin hopes for Yates scenario." Sunweb's leader lies second overall, 1:59 behind Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), but with one mountain stage and a time trial to go, the Dutchman knows that his chances of winning the race depend on the yellow jersey suffering a late collapse on the final stage in the Pyrenees on Friday.
"We don't know what will happen tomorrow, but you'd think that he'd normally be pretty safe with this gap," Dumoulin told reporters in Trie-sur-Baïse on Thursday morning. "You never know what might happen, but it'll be very difficult to change things too much tomorrow."
At the Giro d'Italia in May, Dumoulin reached the final Friday in a broadly similar situation: second overall behind a British race leader who had appeared impregnable in the mountains to that point. Simon Yates lost 38 minutes and the pink jersey on the road to Bardonecchia, but while Dumoulin held his end up by riding strongly that afternoon over the Finestre, he couldn't legislate for Chris Froome's improbable 80km solo raid, and he reached Rome still in second place overall.
The additional week between the Giro and Tour in 2018 – to avoid a clash with football's World Cup – contributed to Dumoulin's decision to ride each race, as Froome (third at 2:31) has also done. Dumoulin might have expected to pay for his Giro efforts in the white heat of July, but instead he believes that he has been performing at a higher level on the Tour.
"I'm still riding really well on the climbs, and I feel good," Dumoulin said. "What's surprising is that I'm even climbing a bit better than at the Giro, which was my best climbing level so far, so I need to do it one more time tomorrow."
Dumoulin has scarcely put a pedal stroke askew on this Tour – save for the concession of 53 seconds when he punctured on the approach to the Mûr-de-Bretagne in the opening week – and has been among the most consistent performers on each of the race's summit finishes. He rode with assurance on Wednesday's final haul up the Col du Portet on stage 17, but although he put time into a flagging Froome, he was unable to shake off Thomas, who clipped away to snare another five seconds (plus four in bonuses) at the summit.
"There were some differences – not too big, but some differences. It's getting more and more towards the end, and it's getting more and more fixed. But we still have tomorrow, and a lot can still happen," Dumoulin said.
Before the Tour began, Dumoulin would doubtless have settled to reach this juncture with a 32-second advantage on Froome, but Thomas' series of startling climbing displays have put an altogether different complexion on the race.
Stage 19 takes the race over the Col d'Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d'Aubisque before a rapid drop to the finish in Laruns, and it presents the final realistic opportunity for Dumoulin to discommode Thomas. Despite his prowess against the watch, the Sunweb rider recognises that he is unlikely to make up two minutes on Thomas in Saturday's time trial in the Basque Country.
"I don't know how much time I can make up in the time trial. We'll see, but definitely not two minutes," said Dumoulin, who has yet to reconnoitre the route. "I haven't really checked it out so far. I know it's pretty technical, and up and down, so it's exactly how I like it – but also how Thomas likes it. I think we both have a fair shot."
Dumoulin has not been afraid to take risks on this Tour – most notably when he attacked on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend with Sunweb teammate Søren Kragh Andersen on stage 11, but he'll need to conjure up something remarkable if he's to unsettle Sky's collective strength on Friday.
Speaking to De Telegraaf, Dumoulin's teammate Laurens ten Dam felt that a long-range offensive on the Tourmalet would be something of a fool's errand given the long valley road that follows. Instead, it seems that Dumoulin will have to probe Thomas on the final ascent of the Aubisque – or simply hope that the Welshman cracks at the last.
"There's a very small chance," Dumoulin said when asked to rate his prospects of snatching yellow at the 11th hour. "I always keep a little bit of hope, and we'll see what happens tomorrow [Friday] and the day after, but you have to think that Thomas should be quite safe. If I want to win the Tour, I'll need to make up time tomorrow, because I can't make up two minutes in a time trial."
Whatever the final outcome of this year's Tour de France, winning in 2019 will be the major goal, for both Dumoulin and Team Sunweb.
“Next year we will start with a preparation that is completely focused on the Tour and with our strongest possible team," team manager Iwan Spekenbrink told De Telegraaf.
"Men like Wilco Kelderman and Sam Oomen also have to ride completely in Tom's service. Perhaps we will get one or two reinforcements for the mountain stages, but also our talents are getting stronger.”
After riding the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, Dumoulin will not defend his 2017 success at the BinckBank Tour in August. He will take some time off after the Tour and criteriums, and return to racing the end of August at the Deutschland Tour, his only race before the World Championships in Innsbruck.