[Editor’s note: Will Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin cross paths in 2018? As of press time, the results of Froome’s adverse analytical finding for salbutamol had not been decided, and no sanction from the UCI had been handed down. We are aware that the rivalry may be put off until 2019 or beyond due to the ongoing case.]
Cycling’s newest grand tour rivalry traces its roots back to stage 20 of last year’s Giro d’Italia. One final battle for the maglia rosa was waged on the first-category climb to Foza, with Colombian climber Nairo Quintana attacking Dutch time trial ace Tom Dumoulin. Given the steep profile of the climb, Quintana owned a considerable advantage over the heavier Dumoulin. Yet Dumoulin surrendered just 15 seconds to the diminutive Colombian, churning his sizeable frame to the summit of Foza with relative ease. The next day, Dumoulin blazed the final time trial to snatch the jersey off Quintana’s back.
As Dumoulin stood atop the final podium in Milan, fans and pundits alike pondered the same question: Had the sport finally found the man to topple Chris Froome?
Cycling fans are ready for Dumoulin — or anyone, really — to challenge the Brit. Spend five minutes in cycling’s Twittersphere and you will understand why. Froome’s Tour victories have felt as inevitable as the presence of sunflowers in France’s summer landscape. He wins in the individual time trials and then squeezes out small gaps on the climbs. His dominant Team Sky snuffs out would-be aggressors with its crushing tempo. The drama of the Tour de France is gone. Five years into the Froome reign, cycling fans want a leadership change.
So far, nobody has come close.
In recent attempts, Alberto Contador never mustered the strength of his early career, and repeatedly fell short of challenging. Vincenzo Nibali always surrenders time in the high mountains. Nairo Quintana’s weak time trial torpedoes whatever advantage he garners on climbs. Richie Porte’s terrible luck repeatedly spoils his otherworldly talent and poise. Romain Bardet is simply not good enough yet.
As one rival after another has failed, fans longing for the excitement of a true battle have become frustrated. Their grumbles have prompted race organizer ASO to try to make things more difficult for Froome. In 2017, it reduced the miles of time trialing, injected a short 100-kilometer stage, and replaced the long climbs with punchy steeps. The result was the same. Froome won, with ease. This year the UCI has also gotten involved, reducing grand tour squads to eight riders. Will that make the difference? Probably not.
The only foil to Froome seems to be Dumoulin. (To be certain, there’s no guarantee he can usurp control either.) He appears to have the physical tools to battle Froome. As the reigning world time trial champ, Dumoulin could be capable of beating Froome at his own big-engine game: He could blaze the individual time trial and then survive in the big mountains.
“Froome needs an opponent who can take it to him in the time trials and in the mountains, and that’s where I think they’re pretty even,” says longtime Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby. “Dumoulin is coming up, while I think you get the sense that the wind under [Froome]’s gliders is starting to ebb.”
Dumoulin’s Giro victory confirmed his spot as a contender, and it came after years of work. Always regarded as a huge talent, Dumoulin was considered a pure time trialist, too heavy for grand tours. That changed at the 2015 Vuelta a España, where he won two stages and held the lead until the final day, eventually slipping to sixth overall. The result confirmed that if Dumoulin could shed some weight, he could contend for a grand tour.
When a leaner, meaner Dumoulin arrived at the 2017 Giro d’Italia, he showed that his power had not declined. His strength was confirmed in that stage 20 battle with Quintana — the weight was gone, yet the engine remained. Now, the sport wonders, if Dumoulin can maintain this delicate physical balance, can he beat Froome?
“Dumoulin needs to race against Froome to confirm his greatness,” Kirby says. “They really need each other.”
Whether Dumoulin can inject the type of drama that cycling fans crave is, of course, unknown. José Been, a Dutch commentator for Eurosport, admits that this defensive style may not be what cycling fans are looking for.
“If you are a connoisseur of the sport, I don’t think there are a lot of people who think, ‘The defensive style of Sky really appeals to me,’” Been says. “We want to see what Contador did at the Vuelta — try eight times and win on the ninth.”
The two men may battle each other twice this season, at the Giro and Tour. Dumoulin’s best chance may be to cede the Italian grand tour to Froome and plan for a July peak. Of course, even if Froome is weakened by the Giro, he’ll have plenty of team support in France.
Indeed, the deciding factor between the two could be the strength of each man’s squad. Sky is famously strong, with a grand tour lineup that includes Sergio Henao, Geraint Thomas, and Wout Poels, among other greats.
Been says Sunweb’s team is not to be underestimated. “They have three guys capable of doing top 10s in a grand tour, including Laurens Ten Dam and, of course, Wilco Kelderman,” she says. “But it’s nothing compared to Team Sky. If [Sky] bring the entire cavalry, it’s just too much.”
Whatever the battleground, Dumoulin will be the underdog. Still, he is as worthy of the hype as the many previous challengers who have come up short.