Editor’s note: To close out 2017, we named our 30th annual VeloNews awards in the November/December issue of VeloNews magazine.
Race of the year: Giro d’Italia, stage 16
There was no shortage of great bike races in 2017. Yet one day of racing stands above all others for its combination of intrigue, high stakes, difficulty, beauty, and one man’s poise under fire.
Tom Dumoulin nearly lost — but ultimately saved his chance to win — the Giro d’Italia during the epic, three-climb, 222-kilometer stage 16 over the Mortirolo, Passo dello Stelvio, and Umbrailpass, which was punctuated by his very public and inopportune call of nature. In the middle of the most important stage of his life, the Dutchman succumbed to a mildly embarrassing and potentially disastrous case of the … well, he “needed to take a dump,” as he said after the stage.
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By stage 16, Dumoulin had already won two stages and boasted a firm grip on pink, leading by 2:41 over Nairo Quintana (Movistar). To have any chance of winning, the Colombian needed a repeat of the surprise attack he sprung on Chris Froome in the 2016 Vuelta a España stage to Formigal.
As many had predicted and as race organizers had hoped, the infamous Stelvio would produce the Giro’s decisive mountain battle.
We spoke with the lead protagonists for a deeper understanding of how the most exciting stage of the 2017 season unfolded.
Sunweb sport director Aike Visbeek had no doubt what was on the line that morning in Rovetta, where stage 16 began: “We were a bit nervous about the stage. We were afraid that Tom would be attacked on the first climb up the Stelvio, so we had Laurens [Ten Dam] up the road. He really made the race for us that day.”
‘The situation was looking perfect for us’
Sunweb slotted road captain Ten Dam into the day’s breakaway; he would provide key help later in the stage. American Chad Haga paced Dumoulin up the Mortirolo, and everything seemed to be going to plan.
Haga: “There was no hint that Tom was in trouble, and he was super strong up the Mortirolo. I was leading the peloton over the top, and there was a kicker there, and I popped a little wheelie, ‘Wheeee!’ I finished the stage, and I had already cleaned up, showered, and was ready to have my massage before I even found out what had happened.”
Dumoulin safely negotiated the climb up the fearsome Stelvio from Bormio. There were a few dangerous riders up the road, but he was marking the aggression from his direct GC rivals. And then he felt an unexpected and unwelcome tinge in his stomach.
Dumoulin: “The legs were great, but I started to feel bad in the stomach on the descent off the Stelvio. It was a nervous moment.”
Visbeek: “The situation was looking perfect for us. As we came down the Stelvio, he came right up to the car and said to us, ‘I have a problem.’ I looked at him and he did not look well. ‘I have to make a nature call.’ I asked if he could get over the final climb [of the Umbrailpass]. He said that was not possible.”
Visbeek immediately realized the Giro could be lost. Movistar and Bahrain-Merida were pressing the action as the peloton approached the start of the final 13-kilometer climb. The situation was precarious.
Ten Dam: “I didn’t see him the whole stage, because I went away on the Mortirolo. And when I came back to him after the first Stelvio, he wasn’t the same Tom. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I need to shit.’ And I said, ‘Oh, shit!’ First, we tried to stop it, and then we had to get rid of it. It came on at a bad moment.”
Dumoulin: “It could have been a combination of the altitude, and eating more gels than normal. You cannot eat bars on climbs like that. It was a big fight with myself, to try to manage everything.”
‘Shit happens. What can you do?’
With about 32km to go, still several kilometers short of the start of the hardest part of the Umbrailpass, Dumoulin swerved violently off the right side of the road. It quickly became clear that he had a serious problem.
BMC Racing sport director Max Sciandri, driving in the first team car to support Tejay van Garderen, witnessed the entire thing: “I wouldn’t have stopped there. I would have stopped further up on the climb. The group always accelerates to hit the base of a climb, so in that valley the race was full-on. He probably lost a bit more time by stopping where he did.”
Visbeek: “The same thing had happened to Caleb Ewan a few days earlier, so when the Orica-Scott car drove by, they gave us some extra rolls of toilet paper.”
Dumoulin did the best he could under the circumstances. He returned to his bike as quickly as possible, and was soon chasing through the team cars with Ten Dam leading the way.
Sciandri: “Every team packs toilet paper, wipes, and some spare clothes. They handled it in their own way. I saw him coming through the team cars. He wasn’t panicking. Shit happens, what can you do?”
Nairo Quintana: “I didn’t attack Dumoulin when he was in difficulty. I was respectful of the maglia rosa, but the other teams wanted to make their own race. They were not trying to profit from his misfortune, but simply looking to take advantage of the opportunity of the stage.”
‘The race was on’
There was confusion in the bunch. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) attacked and Movistar slowed a bit, but the race was on as the small GC group hit the Umbrailpass. LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk, still an outside GC threat, was up the road as part of the day’s main breakaway, along with Sky’s Mikel Landa and Movistar’s Andrey Amador. Vincenzo Nibali, who had circled this date on his calendar, wasn’t going to miss his chance. While online pundits immediately opened the debate of whether they should wait or race, there was no such hesitation within the peloton.
Nibali: “It was a confusing situation. The race was unfolding. The other teams were pushing the pace. There were attackers up the road. When I crash or I puncture, I just get back on the bike again, and keep racing. I never expect anyone to stop for me.”
Dumoulin: “The race was on. Kruijswijk was attacking, so I cannot expect them to wait, and give him three minutes. I don’t know what happened in the front. I was trying to get moving again as fast as possible.”
Ten Dam: “Once he got rid of ‘it,’ he really had good legs. He was yelling, ‘Go faster! Faster!’ I was tired from jumping on the Mortirolo and over the first pass of the Stelvio so I could not help him as much as I wanted to.”
Visbeek: “For a few moments you think you’re in a very bad movie. Tom could have lost everything right there. We said to him, ‘You still have the time advantage. Just ride your race.’ It turned into a time trial for him.”
‘He kept his cool’
Now alone, Dumoulin raced to limit his losses as his GC rivals pressed the pace. With Landa distancing the other early attackers, Nibali attacked and brought Quintana with him. Dumoulin’s pink jersey hopes were quickly unraveling.
Dumoulin: “I just had to fight, fight, fight all the way to the line, and then take the conclusions there. I was very disappointed. I was thinking, ‘Now I will lose the Giro for taking a dump!’”
Visbeek: “Everyone thinks Tom could have lost the Giro there, but this is where Tom won the Giro. It was a moment when he could have panicked or when he mentally breaks. Tom never did that. He kept his cool in a very complicated situation. He stayed focused. The only time he lost was when he stopped. He was just as strong as those guys up the [Umbrailpass].”
Nibali outsprinted Landa for the stage win and Quintana crossed the line 13 seconds back. Dumoulin finished 2:18 back. His lead to Quintana was trimmed to 31 seconds — but he still had the pink jersey.
Dumoulin: “I knew I could have stayed with Nibali and Quintana on the final climb. I still had the final time trial, but instead of nearly three minutes’ lead, I only had 31 seconds. That day made the rest of the Giro a very different race.”
‘He was still the best guy in the race’
At the finish line, an angry and disappointed (and soiled) Dumoulin didn’t want to talk to the press. Veteran Sunweb press officer Bennie Ceulen convinced him to clean up and answer a few questions. Dumoulin couldn’t hold back his disappointment.
Visbeek: “To be honest, we didn’t talk too much about the incident. We focused on making sure Tom was feeling okay. The guys were disappointed, but we talked to the veterans on the team — Ten Dam and Simon Geschke — and said to them, ‘Tom rode up the climb as fast as Nibali and Quintana.’ It might have been a silly way to lose time, but he’s strong enough to win the Giro.”
Haga: “Tom was pretty dejected after his GC lead took a huge blow, but that’s when Laurens really stepped up as team captain and said, ‘Hey man, you stopped, you did your business, and you still kept the leader’s jersey.’ He put it back in Tom’s head that he was still the best guy in the race.”
For Dumoulin, the character he showed on the Stelvio carried him through the final week. Seven days later in Milano, he secured the pink jersey in the final-stage time trial. Dumoulin became the first Dutchman to win a grand tour since 1980, and the first to win the Giro. A happy and relieved Dumoulin could even make light of the unplanned rest stop.
Dumoulin: “I will go down in the history books for winning the Giro after shitting in the woods. It’s quite amazing.”