Sunweb plays long game in learning ropes at Tour de France
In pro cycling, ambition to win the Tour de France can materialize fast as an Alpine storm. A best young rider honor or a win in a minor one-week race can catapult a rider into the lists of top-10 favorites.
Although Tom Dumoulin‘s breakthrough Giro d’Italia victory in 2017 could have given his Sunweb team lofty aspirations at the 2018 Tour de France, it didn’t. With Dumoulin sitting second overall ahead of the stage 20 time trial, Sunweb could be greedy, desperate to grab yellow. It isn’t.
Instead, team CEO Iwan Spekenbrink says they approach this year’s race as another opportunity to learn the race’s intricacies to one day mount an all-out assault for the yellow jersey.
“We do our best but gain a lot data, a lot of information that we can take with us when we one day, with the whole team, go for the Tour de France,” Spekenbrink said after stage 19. “We learned a lot of lessons. I think for our next attempt we can increase our chances up front with everything we’ve learned. And we’ve seen it work well to do it because we have the level both the team and Tom [Dumoulin].”
Unlike grand tour contenders that rely on climbing talents, such as Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), or Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Dumoulin’s strength lies in the time trials.
In that way, he resembles the modern Tour de France’s rider of reference, Chris Froome (Sky). Some have also said he’s a worthy successor to Miguel Indurain, winner of five Tours thanks to his metronomic time trial riding and cautious pacemaking in the mountains.
Dumoulin’s full potential as a GC rider wasn’t realized until the 2016 Vuelta a España, which he might have won if it weren’t for Aru’s ambush on the penultimate stage. The Italian went on to win his first grand tour.
Spekenbrink pointed out that Dumoulin and Sunweb have already been learning and improving in the last few years. The 27-year-old Dutchman is no longer one to fade in the third week of a major race.
“Every day there are always little details we can improve,” Spekenbrink said of this Tour. “We were able to keep the level in the third week, which we’ve been doing all the last years, that’s really becoming a strength.”
On Friday, the Tour’s final mountain stage, Dumoulin again proved himself, riding with the best over six categorized climbs on the 200.5km route.
The day’s strategy was simple, Spekenbrink explained. But it wasn’t necessarily easy — it required Dumoulin to ride on his limit over hors categorie climbs that would ordinarily favor smaller riders, such as Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), who each attacked throughout the day.
“Two things could happen: Tom could crack a bit more than the others, we need to be able to defend the position; or, others would crack, for example, Thomas. And we need to grab the opportunity to gain a little bit,” Spekenbrink said. “Tom was strong, but those were the two strategies going into the race. We were happy we had the legs. It’s a big compliment for Tom but also for the team.”
In this race, his biggest misstep was not sitting too far back in the bunch on a mountain stage and missing the split, like what happened in the Giro’s stage 19 this May. It wasn’t cracking under pressure on the final day of climbing like he did in the 2016 Vuelta. It was a mechanical on stage 6’s hectic run-in to the Mur de Bretagne climb that saw him lose 1:17 after a 20-second time penalty was added for drafting his team car.
The time lost was a blow, but Spekenbrink wouldn’t agonize over that fateful stage.
“Yeah, it was costly but… if you go into the Tour de France you need to be prepared for many things,” he said. “It will not be three weeks of blue skies, only sunshine. Cycling is a sport where external factors play a role.
“It makes no sense to look back. Yes, we lost those seconds. … It would have been a different race. But that is speculation.”
It seems that Spekenbrink does not like speculation. He likes data, experience, process. After all, that’s how he and the Sunweb team have developed a grand tour champion that is living up to the hype.
Fred Dreier contributed to this report from Laruns, France.