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Tom Dumoulin: Cycling’s butterfly that got away

The Dutch superstar could no longer find the balance between pain and gain, and the peloton will be a lesser place without him.

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Tom Dumoulin seemed too smart and too nice to be a bike racer.

Not that being a hard-edged bastard is required to be a top WorldTour pro, but it helps.

On Friday, the best male rider to come out of the Netherlands in decades decided to call it quits on his career.

Dumoulin, ever the open book with his emotions and feelings, will ride through the end of the season, and put an end to a fabulous racing career that reached the highest heights of professional racing but also touched some of the sport’s lowest depths.

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His decision Friday to turn the page on his career seemed written in the stars last year after his surprising and abrupt stop at the beginning of the 2021 season.

Known as the “Butterfly of Maastricht,” Dumoulin used to float up Europe’s steepest mountains, and then deliver a sting in the time trials.

After winning the 2017 Giro d’Italia and finishing second in the Tour de France the following year, Dumoulin seemed poised for greatness.

Instead, he was overwhelmed by the spotlight that came with being a sports celebrity and the demands of being an elite athlete in the unforgiving world of professional bike racing.

Citing fatigue, burnout, and almost boredom in the process, sacrifice, and routine required to chisel, hone, and sculpt a body, Dumoulin couldn’t hide the fact that he was simply over it.

Or at least over the intensity, scrutiny, and absolute dedication that it requires to be at the very top of the grand tour heap.

Dumoulin loves to ride and race his bike. That was obvious when he returned last year to win the silver medal in the Tokyo Olympic Games in the individual time trial.

Coming into 2022, he seemed to have turned the corner on his mid-career crisis.

Over the winter, he found escape in the high-altitude roads of Colombia over the winter to train and rediscover the joy of riding.

The WorldTour, however, leaves little space for enjoyment or pure joy. That only comes in narrow slices in the form of victories or a job well-done.

Pain is the underlying currency of cycling, and if the passion and drive are missing, that pain becomes a bankrupting force.

Dumoulin said as much by stating in his goodbye message that there was an “imbalance” in what he was putting into his training and what he was getting out. In today’s number-centric reality, the final equation no longer added up.

At 31, he is both young and old in a modern peloton that sees riders turn pro when they’re teenagers and racing well into their 40s.

On paper, he should be at the “sweet spot” of his career. In the harsh reality of performance, however, his watts, power-to-weight ratios, and overall power output simply wouldn’t allow him to keep pace.

Dumoulin used to be the one dropping everyone else. Instead of being the hammer, he was the nail. That was confirmed on Mount Etna during the first week of this Giro d’Italia.

And for anyone who’s tasted the sweet honey of grand tour success, the bitter pill of being relegated to pack-fill must be hard to swallow.

Some riders can evolve into super-domestiques and road captains as they age in the peloton. That’s harder for GC captains, and harder still if the pure joy of racing is no longer there.

Dumoulin once considered a career in medicine before his innate ability turned him into a world-class pro.

In his farewell message Friday, Dumoulin said he’s relishing the reality of not knowing what his future will hold.

It must be liberating for someone who’s been measuring their meals and scheduling vacations around racing schedules to suddenly have an open road ahead of them.

It will be interesting to see if Dumoulin turns his innate curiosity and intelligence into something beyond the world of cycling. He’s hinted that he wants to stay involved in the cycling community, and it certainly would be a loss if Dumoulin completely leaves the peloton behind.

Some former riders, like Tyler Farrar, found complete new vocations in their post-racing careers. Farrar is now a firefighter in eastern Washington, giving back, he said, after an athletic career of always taking.

Whatever Dumoulin chooses to do, he can only be lauded for making the decisions that were best for him, and for what he gave to the sport.

There’s no better legacy than that.