CANTIONE DELLA PRESALONA, Italy (VN) — Tom Dumoulin is sitting in an enviable position on the third rest day of the Giro d’Italia.
The Sunweb rider boasts an impressive leading gap to his nearest rival — 2:41 to Nairo Quintana — and with a final-day time trial in Milan, you can add at least an additional virtual minute to that lead, if not more.
Dutch media is arriving en masse for what they hope will be a history-making defense across the Alps and Dolomites. No Dutchman has ever won the Giro, and with the way Dumoulin is climbing, many are already putting the champagne on ice.
Dumoulin revealed at Oropa on Saturday he’s prepared to defend pink all the way to Milan. His counter-attack to reel in Quintana and win the stage widened his lead, confirming he looks firmly in control of the Giro.
But everyone knows the Giro d’Italia is far from over. In fact, the hardest and most difficult climbs are looming. One journalist calculated that of the nearly 1,000km remaining kilometers, 25 percent of them are on rated climbs. There’s plenty more to tell of this Giro.
How could things unravel for Dumoulin?
Crash: Worst-case scenario
Crashes can spoil a perfect race at any time or any place. Just ask Steven Kruijswijk, who looked to have last year’s Giro in the bag when he plowed into a snow bank on the final weekend of racing.
This year’s Giro yet again confirmed that the Italian grand tour can spring unpleasant surprises at any corner. Tanel Kangert (Astana) was riding into podium range when he struck a traffic sign late in Sunday’s 15th stage and exited with a broken elbow. Geraint Thomas (Sky) was knocked out of contention (and eventually abandoned) after a motorcycle caused a pileup in stage 9. Italy’s mix of uneven roads, unpredictable weather, and frenetic finales make the Giro one of the most treacherous races on the calendar.
Dumoulin survived a nervous start in Sardinia and Sicily and steered clear of trouble in the sprint stages to ride into an enviable position coming into the Giro’s final throes. Staying upright will be the first key to Dumoulin’s chances. One miscalculation can spell doom.
Dumoulin: “We’re just in a really good vibe at the moment. The team’s been doing a great job keeping me out of trouble and keeping me at the front in the key moments. We made it to the final week in one piece, and with a nice gap. It’s them who have to attack me.”
Isolation: Rivals sense an opening
Most of his rivals sense the best way to get to Dumoulin will be to isolate him early and then attack him on the later climbs. All the hardest climbs are back-loaded in this Giro, setting up ideal ground for ambushes from Movistar, Bahrain-Merida, and others to pick off Dumoulin’s teammates and then attack his flank.
Sunweb lost key all-rounder Wilco Kelderman in stage 9, leaving the team with just seven riders to support him in the approaching storm. Simon Geschke and Chad Haga are solid on the medium climbs and Georg Preidler and Tom Stamsnijder are no slouches, but Laurens ten Dam is the team’s only true climber.
On paper, the longer, harder climbs favor proven GC contenders like Quintana and Nibali. Dumoulin has been able to fend for himself on the one-climb finales so far in this Giro, especially at Blockhaus and Oropa, but his rivals expect to see him struggle on the multi-climb stages looming at high altitude in the Alps and Dolomites.
Tuesday’s epic stage over the Mortirolo and Stelvio, for example, will go a long way toward revealing if Dumoulin can hang on. Dumoulin has a big cushion, which he can use to his advantage even if he’s isolated early. Expect teams like Movistar to send riders up the road early, especially a GC threat like Andrey Amador, to try to force Sunweb to chase early. The idea Tuesday would be to leave Dumoulin isolated on the first climb up the Stelvio, and then attack hard on the second ascent.
Chad Haga (Sunweb): “The suffer button is going to get pushed, and it’s not going back up. It’s going to be a hard final week. Tom knows he’s got really great legs, and we’ve got a strong team around him. It’s certainly not a given he’s won, we’ve got some time to play with. We have to stay focused on getting through each stage, one at a time.”
Bonk: It’s happened before
All hope for his rivals hangs on seeing Dumoulin blowing up like he did in the 2015 Vuelta a España, when Astana finally cracked him on the final mountain stage, allowing Fabio Aru to take a dramatic win. Dumoulin lost the wheel and quickly bled time, plummeting from first to sixth in just one stage.
So far in this Giro, Dumoulin has been able to manage the stages with perfection, but he still might run out of gas. Managing his lead will be a critical part of his defense. Dumoulin would be smarter to lose time and limit his losses if he’s struggling, knowing he has the final-day time trial in his favor, rather than go too deep in a vain attempt to save the day.
Dumoulin can afford to cede 30 seconds per mountain stage and still have the pink jersey going into Sunday’s TT. He can lose even more than that and still have a shot of clawing it back in Milan. What he cannot do is go so far into the red and risk blowing up and losing everything in one bad day.
Aike Visbeek, Sunweb sport director: “He is very prepared. In the last week, it’s about having a bad day, and if you do, managing that as well as you can. We know the stages. It’s about being up there and being attentive with the entire team. Tom still has to prove himself in this GC work. It will be interesting to see how the others deal with it. If they focus too much on Tom, another guy might be flying and might ride away to victory in the end.”
Collusion: Tricky to script
Most of the top rivals are still holding out hope that Dumoulin will crack. If the attacks come hard and fast over the next few days, the race could see on-the-road alliances develop to try to shake the stubborn Dutchman. It’s not hard to imagine riders like Pinot and Quintana getting up the road together and deciding to work in unison to try to gap Dumoulin to revive their GC chances.
Some have suggested that the Dutch riders, Kruijswijk and Mollema, will help Dumoulin, but that’s highly unlikely unless it’s something that spontaneously develops on the road. Alliances are hard to script and almost always involve someone who has something to give away. A more likely scenario is Dumoulin going up the road with someone like a Nibali, with the offer of a stage win for a chance for Dumoulin to bury his other rivals.
Things will be complicated for Dumoulin. It’s not just Quintana that Dumoulin has to mark. Nibali, Pinot and even Mollema are still within striking distance and are sure to try to attack. If Dumoulin has the legs, however, he’ll aim for an Oropa repeat and turn the Giro into a race for the podium.
Quintana: “Our hope is to see him fading a bit in this third week while we continue to grow in the mountain stages containing more than one climb. In theory, there are four or five riders who could win this Giro other than him, and these stages suit us really well. An alliance against Dumoulin? That can only happen depending on how the race goes and which are each one’s interests. That’s not something you can plan on ahead.”
Dutch curse: Weight of a nation
Will Dumoulin crack under the pressure? Those close to him say he’s tougher than he looks and up to know, he’s been dealing just fine with the pressure of wearing the pink jersey.
Every rider deals differently from the pressure of leading a major grand tour. Some crack, others can even break down in tears, while others feed off the added stress.
The expectations are building. No Dutchman has ever won the Giro. The last grand tour winner from the Netherlands Joop Zoetemelk (1980 Tour de France). Recent efforts have raised hopes but inevitably fell short, including Michael Boogerd, Robert Gesink, Kruijswijk, Mollema, and Dumoulin. The weight of a nation can be very heavy — just ask any Frenchman.
Dumoulin seems looser and more confident than some of his compatriots. The final week of the Giro will reveal much about Dumoulin’s character and it will indicate just how far he can go in his career. The Dutch are banking on it.