Commentary: The peloton is a poorer place without Tom Dumoulin to light up the roadway
Dumoulin lived with his emotions on his sleeve, and there was no hiding the agony and ecstasy that came with every dramatic turn of his career.
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Tom Dumoulin might not miss the demands and stress of the peloton, but professional cycling will certainly miss him.
In announcing his retirement Monday with immediate effect, the 32-year-old cited burnout, fatigue, and a general lack of motivation to make the required sacrifices.
His decision was trademark Dumoulin: No excuses, unflinching self-honesty, and no bullshit.
In professional cycling, if the numbers and drive are not there to make the engine purr, there’s no magic formula that can bring either back. Dumoulin was the first to realize that, and instead of hanging around to cash a check, he walked out with his head held high.
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Anyone following professional cycling will be giving the tall, prolific, and articulate Dutch star a collective tip of their hats. And in fact, many top pros did just that via a flood of social media messages.
Perhaps no rider in the vaulted “Class of 1990” better personified or lived the up and downs more than Dumoulin.
His world-class palmarès reflects his deep and varied skillset. He won stages across all three grand tours, powered to a world time trial championship, scored an Olympic medal, won the 2017 Giro d’Italia, and finished second at the Tour de France the following year.
Seventeen of his 22 career victories came against the clock, underlining his dominance of the discipline during his peak years.
For a big rider, he could climb nearly as well as he could time trial, which made him a natural favorite for grand tours. Somewhat surprisingly, however, only two of his career victories are GC titles. In addition to his Giro win, he also won the BinkBank Tour the same year.
I decided to quit professional cycling with immediate effect. Read more📝 pic.twitter.com/mAGMX5olCG
— Tom Dumoulin (@tom_dumoulin) August 15, 2022
At his best, the “Butterfly of Maastricht” could indeed fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Dumoulin brought the full skillset of a complete grand tour rider and hit a sweet spot in his career from 2015 to 2018 where he was a favorite in every three-week stage race he started.
What set Dumoulin apart was his intelligence, his honesty, and his ability to bounce back and grow from potentially spirit-breaking setbacks.
Instead of being overwhelmed or defeated by his inevitable and numerable string of hard knocks, he grew stronger and wiser from each of them.
His implosion during the 2015 Vuelta a España, when he was caught out in an Astana-inspired raid in the final mountain stage in the mountains north of Madrid, only steeled his future determination. Of course, the gap to direct rival Fabio Aru that year was only six seconds at the start of the ambush, and Dumoulin simply could not hold the wheel. He was literally a few hundred meters from closing a key gap when the elastic snapped, and he sunk off the podium.
That experience only made him stronger and more ambitious to erase the Netherlands’ grand tour drought that dates back to the 1980s. In the 2016 Giro, Dumoulin was carrying the pink jersey early on only to succumb to saddle sores. What did he do? He roared back to win two of his three career Tour stages that July.
After an historic pink jersey, the passion and the flame started to flicker
The table was set for Dumoulin’s big arrival in 2017 and his first and only grand tour victory.
The race was wrought with a bitter rivalry with Nairo Quintana, but the Colombian and Movistar could not crack the more mature Dumoulin. Even an embarrassing and physiological mishap, when he was forced off the side of a road in a dramatic “call of nature” of the worst kind, could not phase Dumoulin.
He kept his cool late in the race when Quintana wrestled away the pink jersey, only to win it back in the closing day’s time trial.
Dumoulin made history with that Giro win and seemed destined for so much more.
Yet he would also make occasional tactical errors that would prove costly. In fact, during the 2017 Giro, Dumoulin was dangerously hanging off the back of the bunch on the penultimate mountain stage and barely managed to save the day in order to secure the win in the final time trial.
I remember I saw Tom Dumoulin at breakfast on the morning of the Worlds ITT in Bergen, 2017. He was so calm, so confident. Later that day he smashed the competition on the road, in full control on a challenging course.
What a rider, what an athlete. Enjoy your retirement Tom! pic.twitter.com/m60vlYBPlw
— Ellen van Dijk (@ellenvdijk) August 16, 2022
His grand tour rise came during the peak years of the Chris Froome and Team Sky dominance, and the pair famously clashed in the epic dual 2018 Giro.
After struggling early in the Giro, Froome delivered what’s his personal masterpiece with his long-distance attack over the Colle delle Finestre in the Italian Alps late in the race. Dumoulin found allies on the road as Froome disappeared up the horizon, but in a critical moment, Dumoulin decided to stay with the lagging and dispirited group rather than forge alone to chase Froome, a decision that likely cost him the pink jersey.
The next day, Dumoulin couldn’t hide his frustrations as Froome marked his wheel to go on to win.
Still racing at the out-gunned Team DSM/Sunweb, Dumoulin raced the Giro-Tour double that year in what was his career high-water mark, eventually riding into Paris second in both grand tours.
The wheels started to come off the cart the next season. Dumoulin injured his knee early in what was a surprise decision to race the Giro again instead of taking on a full-strength siege on the yellow jersey. Some questioned why he would race the Giro again when the Tour was there for the taking.
That decision and his lingering knee injury would haunt him, and he would never come close to a grand tour podium again.
A high-profile move to Jumbo-Visma in 2020 seemed to provide the kickstart to his career that he needed, but the signs were already there that Dumoulin was losing the spark and drive needed to win and compete at the absolute highest levels of the peloton.
The pressure and expectations that come with million-euro contracts and the media demands of being the Netherlands’ first grand tour winner in decades started to stifle and suffocate the easy-going and laidback cyclist who smiled his way through hardship and injury.
Dumoulin needed space and air to flap his proverbial wings, and it seemed the world was closing in on him.
The 2020 season seemed to see Dumoulin back at his best, and his arrival to the Dutch team already loaded with superstars meant he could be more of a team player rather than have an entire team’s ambitions and future hanging on his shoulders.
Behind the scenes, the passion and the flame were flickering. A surprise decision to abruptly put his career on hold at the start of the 2021 season was a symptom of something deeper. The pure joy of racing was fading, and some injuries and an ever-faster peloton meant Dumoulin couldn’t ride the fumes of his pure, natural-born talent.
A mid-season comeback last summer earned him an Olympic gold medal in the elite men’s time trial with silver, and he returned home rejuvenated and refreshed. That post-Olympic buzz quickly wore off in the face of flat power numbers and declining motivation.
Any elite athlete inevitably faces the realization that watts in don’t always equal watts out. No matter how hard he worked, Dumoulin was starting to spin squares, both on the bike and inside his mind.
Dumoulin already had the respect of his peers in the peloton, and his elegant and honest appraisal of his professional future was both welcomed and regretted by the people that matter most to him.
It was an extraordinary journey for the reluctant star who became a poster boy for the post-Armstrong era. At 31, he leaves the sport too soon, but he exits on his terms, and with his integrity fully intact.
Dumoulin lived and raced with his emotions on his sleeve, and there was no hiding the agony and ecstasy that came with every dramatic turn of his career. The peloton is a poorer place without him.