It was one mountain stage too many for Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) at the Vuelta a España.
Dumoulin’s miracle Vuelta run finally cracked with just two mountain passes to go in what’s been an emotional ride for the breakout Dutch sensation. Starting the Vuelta’s penultimate stage with a pencil-thin six-second lead to Fabio Aru (Astana), Dumoulin couldn’t match a searing pace set by Astana on the third of four first-category climbs in the 175.8km 20th stage.
His dream of becoming the Netherlands’ first grand tour winner since 1980 collapsed, and he tumbled off the podium, into sixth at 3:46 back.
“It was too much today,” Dumoulin said. “I was expecting the attack from Aru, but I couldn’t follow him. I fought with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough.”
Astana out-gunned Dumoulin’s Giant-Alpecin team, a squad that came to the Vuelta to support sprinter John Degenkolb. Without workers in the mountains, Dumoulin was exposed on every major climb in the GC battle. Until Saturday, he was hanging on, but Astana reminded everyone that cycling is a team sport with superbly executed tactics.
After pipping Aru in Friday’s run into Ávila, widening his lead from three to six seconds, Dumoulin was quietly confident he could hold on one more time. Things started to unravel on the day’s third major climb, the Puerto de la Morcurera. Astana piled on with Mikel Landa, Luis León Sánchez, and Andrey Zeits, and Dumoulin finally cracked.
With just six seconds separating him from Aru, Dumoulin was still hopeful to pull back some time on the descent, but the gap became a canyon, and Dumoulin started bleeding time.
Astana drilled it down the wide-open descent, and poured it on during the final climb. Isolated without teammates, Dumoulin was in no-man’s land, with Zeits sitting on his wheel, logically, never taking a pull. Not only did he lose the Vuelta, he lost all hope of the podium. It was a lonely place to be.
“After the first attack by Aru, I had difficulties countering him, and closing the gap,” Dumoulin said. “I was on the limit. When he went again, it was over, and there was a gap at the summit. I almost came back on the descent. It’s too bad the descent wasn’t more technical, because I could have come back.”
It was a painful finale to what’s been an incredible grand tour breakout for Dumoulin. With two stage victories and the leader’s jersey going into Saturday, Dumoulin was hoping to make Dutch cycling history.
No Dutch rider has won a grand tour since Joop Zoetemelk in the 1980 Tour de France, and no Dutch rider had finished on a grand tour podium since Erik Breukink with third in the 1990 Tour. All that unraveled Saturday.
“In the valley, Astana pulled with three guys, and I knew it was over,” Dumoulin said. “I kept on fighting for the podium or the top-five, but there was nothing left in the tank. I was out of energy, and it was one day too long.”
It was a dramatic and disappointing finale to what’s been a dream ride for Dumoulin across this Vuelta. Aru was quick to tip his hat to his Dutch rival.
“Dumoulin is a great rider, and he made us fight right to the last stage,” Aru said. “We had to do everything to beat him.”
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) also fended off attacks from Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) on what was a brutal last road stage of the 2015 Vuelta to secure a podium spot with second. The veteran Spaniard knows a thing or two about GC implosions in grand tours.
“It’s so hard to lose like that. He’s a great rider, with a big future, and for sure it’s not going to be the last time he will be fighting in a grand tour,” Rodríguez said. “He lacked a team here. He needs to be philosophical, because this is happening to him at 24 or 25, not as if he was 31 or 32, and he has a lot in front of him. If he falls into a hole, and starts asking why, it will be worse for him. He needs to look at how positive this Vuelta has been for him.”
Giant-Alpecin sport director Addy Engels admitted that Astana simply out-gunned his squad today.
“We knew Astana was planning this, and we simply didn’t have the team to take the initiative on a difficult course like today’s,” Engels said. “It came down to Tom himself, as in earlier stages in the Vuelta, but unfortunately today, he didn’t have the legs. We were close, and it’s too bad we lost the lead on the last difficult stage. We have had a fantastic Vuelta, with two amazing stage wins and the overall lead for a long time. A third stage win [with Degenkolb] is possible tomorrow.”
Aru will stand atop the winner’s podium tomorrow — barring disaster — and Dumoulin will have to put the disappointment out of his mind with sixth overall. It was two mountains too far for the Dutchman.