If you were to sum up Tom Dumoulin's rest day press conference in three words they would be "I don't know". The Sunweb leader is heading into the unknown as he begins the final week of his second Grand Tour of the season as he hunts for the overall title at the Tour de France.
With five more stages to decide his fate, Dumoulin believes that he's stronger than he was at this point at the Giro d'Italia in May but he doesn't know how he will react to a sixth week of Grand Tour racing.
"The last two weeks I've felt slightly stronger than I was during the Giro so that was nice but also, for me, there's a question as to how I'll be in the third week now after already doing a Grand Tour this year, that's an answer I can give you in a week," Dumoulin said.
This is the first time that Dumoulin has targeted the general classification at the Tour de France, having won the Giro d’Italia last year. Aside from the reaction of some riders, the stresses and strains are much the same, according to Dumoulin.
"This, I didn't see in the Giro," he said, gesturing to the crowd of journalists, photographers and TV crews that had packed into a small side building at the team’s hotel in Capendu.
"Physically, the Giro has been more demanding over the three weeks. From week one, it is physically very hard. That is the difference between this Tour de France. The first week was pretty physically easy but, mentally, somehow riders think there is more at stake here and they take more risks, there are more crashes, more stress in the bunch, so that takes something from the race.
"That definitely takes something from other riders and myself. But, other than that, they're both big Grand Tours and both physically and mentally demanding."
Cracking Team Sky
Also new to Dumoulin is the position that he finds himself in. After two weeks of racing, Dumoulin is in third place overall, 1:39 off the race lead and just 11 seconds off second place. Ahead of him is the Team Sky pairing of Geraint Thomas, who currently holds the yellow jersey, and defending champion Chris Froome. Dumoulin has never had to take on two teammates and says that he will have to think on his feet to crack them.
"It's definitely different. It's weird, I've never had this experience before," Dumoulin said. "I don't know what they will do and I don't know what I will do in certain situations. I just have to think in the race about scenarios and normally I am pretty good at that, so I have to trust that it will be OK."
In the early part of the race, Team Sky understandably put their full backing for the overall classification behind Froome. However, Thomas – whose previous best finish at the Tour was 15th, has got a firm grip on the yellow jersey ahead of the final week. Dumoulin says that the Welshman is his biggest rival for now.
"At the moment, Thomas is far ahead of Froome and me so at this moment I would say Thomas," he said. "I don't know. It's only six days left, just five if you don't count the Champs Elysees, and so far Thomas is looking really strong. I didn't expect [Simon] Yates to crack in the Giro and that happened. I just need to wait and hope because my gap is too big to close in the time trial so I would need a bad day from Thomas."
The seemingly impenetrable Sky train has been dealt a blow ahead of the third week with Gianni Moscon disqualified from the race after punching Fortuneo-Samsic rider Elie Gesbert during the opening kilometre of stage 15. Moscon had been an important part in controlling things early in the stage and Dumoulin thinks that it will hamper the team.
"I've seen it, it's a red card," Dumoulin said of the footage that was circulated online on Sunday night. "That's just not allowed, not in cycling, not in football, not in any sport. That's going to hurt them in the mountains. Normally, they have [Luke] Rowe and Moscon doing the first job and now they need to find somebody else to do it."
Ahead of Dumoulin and the other Tour de France contenders lies three big mountain stages and a time trial. As the world champion against the clock, Dumoulin is confident about how he will do in the time trial next Saturday, saying that Froome will have to take time on him if he doesn’t want to be passed in the general classification. Dumoulin will also utilise his knowledge of preparing for a time trial effort to get himself ready for Wednesday's short 65-kilometre mountain stage.
"We'll probably treat it like a time trial with the same warm-up programme protocol," he said. "I think some guys will attack on the first mountain but the main favourites will probably wait until the Col du Portet. I’ve never done a stage that short, a mountain stage that short and I'm curious to see what will happen."
And, how does he feel so close to taking a Tour de France podium and still have the potential to take the yellow jersey by the end of it all?
"Of course, I'm nervous. I don't necessarily try to hide it now," Dumoulin said. "Of course, the final week is a nervous battle for everyone. It's a battle of mental strength especially but I have confidence that I can handle it."
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