From good to disappointed to good again. Tom Dumoulin's feelings about this year's Giro d'Italia have varied considerably on the crucial stages in the race so far, but the Sunweb leader has reached the first rest day feeling, finally, satisfied with how he's performing.
"It's not going better, but it's going as well as last year," was how the defending champion summed up his sensations on Monday afternoon.
This time last year, after the Blockhaus stage, Dumoulin was in third place, 30 seconds down on Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and two seconds adrift of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). This time around, he is again third behind two climbers, with a 38-second deficit on Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and six seconds behind Yates' teammate Esteban Chaves. The Dutchman has everything to play for, then, once more and is in almost exactly as good a situation as in 2017.
What has varied, though, is Dumoulin's feelings about his 2018 Giro. His performance started on the highest note possible in winning the Jerusalem time trial. But since then, Dumoulin has had a greater degree of inner doubt about how his climbing was rating; he explained until he reached the Gran Sasso, where he lost a mere 12 seconds to Yates, Pinot and the other best climbers. That, if nothing else, reassured him all was well.
"On Etna, I was slightly disappointed, and also I didn't have very good sensations," Dumoulin explained. "I could still follow through, so the next day I thought that maybe I was too self-critical after that, maybe it wasn't so bad.
"But after Gran Sasso, I felt better, like I could give something more. So that was good to see, I'm coming into the rest day with a good feeling.”
Ending the first block of racing on an upward curve is what Dumoulin wanted. But when eying the upcoming stages, Dumoulin pointed out, not for the first time, that the overall route this year does him far fewer favours than in 2017. "Last year, I had two long time trials waiting for me at this point, this year it's one medium length time trial," he told reporters.
"I'm really excited about the coming two weeks. They're going to be hard, but I feel good, and the team feel good. I know, though, I can't take so much time on Yates in one time trial, especially because he did so well in the time trial in Jerusalem. So it will be very difficult but I'll just fight every day, and I'll see where it ends."
Chris Froome never tires of pointing out that the Giro d'Italia is more like a series of 21 Classics, than a three-week Grand Tour. But Froome would surely have to agree, too, that the ascent of the Zoncolan stands head and shoulders above the other Giro stages, as the hardest feature of the second week by some considerable margin.
That said, Dumoulin has not reconned what is very possibly the toughest single climb of the entire 2018 Giro, but he believes that he knows more than enough about it.
"I've seen it on TV, and that's about it. I know how it is, it's steep, and it's long," he said. "I've not been surprised by anything I've heard about it so far."
Any time differences produced on the Zoncolan, too, will have a huge knock-on effect on the rest of the race, starting with the stage 16 time trial, on which Dumoulin's hopes are largely pinned. But as he says, it won't be enough just to do well against the clock, with limited time trialling, his climbing ability will also be vitally important.
"I'm not nervous, but it's definitely a fact it's going to be really difficult this year," Dumoulin commented. "There's a little less than two weeks to go, and it sounds like a cliche, but truly anything can happen. For me, I have to climb well to win this Giro, and that's it."
On the climbs, though, Dumoulin will largely be on the defensive - even if his ride to victory to the summit finish in Oropa last year saw him gap riders theoretically stronger than him on the Giro's mountain stages, and should serve to boost his morale this time around as well.
Getting as much time as possible on Yates in the time trial in any case, given the Briton's superiority in the mountains, is a given in Dumoulin's overall strategy.
"The difference could be around two minutes," Dumoulin said. "But that all depends on the legs. If I have a bad day then definitely not two minutes. I'll be satisfied if I give it everything and I have no regrets. Then it's only possible to be satisfied."
As for Yates' overall performance, while Chris Froome has said he is surprised at how well Yates is going in the Giro, Dumoulin feels the opposite. Even so, Dumoulin said that "[Yates] is definitely very good and definitely at a higher level on the climbs than me. That's a fact."
"He showed it in one-week races, and now he's showing that at least in the first nine days, that he can do it in Grand Tours. So we'll see how it goes in the next two weeks, but he's looking very good at the moment.
"Somewhere it has to be your first time fighting for the win in a Grand Tour; I guess this is going to be his first."
For Dumoulin, meanwhile, his big goal is a repeat of last year's scenario in the Giro - only on much tougher terrain and with even less room to manoeuvre. So far, though, so good.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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