Tom Dumoulin’s Giro success ended the Netherlands’ 37-year wait for a Grand Tour victory and launched him to superstar status in his expectant homeland
The French sports paper gave the Dutchman two stars out of five, ranking him below Nairo Quintana with five, Vincenzo Nibali with four, Thibaut Pinot and Geraint Thomas with three, and alongside compatriot Steven Kruijswijk and Britain’s Adam Yates.
Explaining this rating, L’Equipe stated: “His qualities as a climber still need to be proven/A very dangerous last week/No top 5 in 6 Grand Tours (4 Tours, 1 Vuelta, 1 Giro).”
Speaking to the press before the race kicked off in Sardinia, Dumoulin effectively offered support for this assessment when he admitted: “I’d sign for a podium finish right now.”
Dumoulin, of course, went on to not only finish on the podium of the 100th Giro, but to top it, upstaging former champions Quintana and Nibali and delivering the Netherlands’ first Grand Tour victory for 37 years.
While L’Equipe’s pre-race assessment was fair, there was good reason to suppose that Dumoulin would sustain a challenge all the way to Milan.
Although it was his sixth Grand Tour, the Giro was only the second, after the 2015 Vuelta, the Team Sunweb rider had started with his focus on GC.
In that race, the tall, chiselled Dutchman with the good looks of a 1950s film star had been the leader going into the penultimate stage, only to fail the final mountain test and fall to sixth overall.
Like Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, he was also hoping to take advantage of the Giro’s 70km of time trialling, using gains there to cover his losses to the specialist climbers in the final week as best as he could.
The Dutchman affirmed that he’d never been a poor climber and might not lose as much time in the mountains as many suggested, his optimism supported by the loss of between two and three kilos during long pre-Giro stints on the volcanic slopes of Mount Teide in Tenerife.
He wasn’t the same rider who had crumbled at that Vuelta.
Interestingly, Movistar’s highly experienced team manager, Eusebio Unzue, recognised this too.
“He lost due to his naivety, as a result of tactical mistakes, and not because he failed from the physical standpoint,” Unzue said of Dumoulin’s defeat at the 2015 Vuelta.
Subsequently, although Dumoulin did have two notable setbacks during the final week in Italy, his performances in the mountains were superior to those of his rivals in the time trials, and as a result the Netherlands netted its first ever victory at the Giro, which also happened to be Dumoulin’s first stage race success since turning pro in 2012.
The ending of that 37-year drought triggered a huge wave of enthusiasm back home in the Netherlands.
“It really captured the public’s imagination. The day after he won the hashtag #wearpinktoworkday was trending and lots of people responded to that.
“Everybody was talking about it, even the king used his Facebook page to congratulate Dumoulin on his victory,” says Dutch Eurosport’s cycling commentator José Been.
“We’ve had a few near misses in recent years, which has been frustrating for cycling fans here. But at the same time, it did make them believe that a Grand Tour win wasn’t too far away. And when it came, it was huge.
“Every news outlet, every talkshow, everybody was talking cycling, and normally they don’t do that outside the Tour de France.
“Dumoulin’s victory had a much, much bigger impact than, for example, Niki Terpstra’s win in Paris-Roubaix — it was way beyond that.”
Hailing from Maastricht, the start city for the Amstel Gold Race, Dumoulin’s first love was football.
However, when it became clear the extent of his enthusiasm didn’t match his talent, he began to look for other sports in which he might excel.
He turned first to athletics, then to ice hockey and, ultimately, to cycling, joining a touring group set up by former pro and two-time Tour stage winner Ad Wijnands.
“Tom radiated passion and willpower, and was actually capable of very high speeds right from the off. You could certainly describe him as a natural talent,” Wijnands told De Telegraaf.
Dumoulin, though, was far from fully committed to cycling. He focused primarily on studying medicine with a view to becoming a surgeon, but quit when he realised he stood out more for his ability on two wheels than as a student.
Dumoulin admits that a key moment was his victory in the Nations Cup event in Portugal in March 2010.
Only 19, he raced a time trial bike for the first time, having received some tips on position from a team-mate and beat 2009 world U23 time trial runner-up Nelson Oliveira.
He had not only found his new passion, but also excelled in it.
“I still find it thrilling to push myself right to my limits. I can go very deep when I’m racing alone,” Dumoulin has said of his time trial prowess.
“I like to decide myself how hard to push and that can be done in a time trial.”
Dumoulin has progressed steadily since entering the pro ranks with what was then Team 1t4i in 2012.
Winner of two national time trial titles and a regular podium finisher in week-long stages races, he was best known for that 2015 Vuelta near-miss until he won two very different stages at last year’s Tour de France: the summit finish at Arcalis in Andorra and the time trial to Caverne du Pont d’Arc.
That offered substance to the growing belief in the Netherlands that Dumoulin could end the country’s Grand Tour hoodoo, which stretched back to Joop Zoetemelk’s 1980 Tour win.
“As soon as I saw this year’s Giro route I thought it would suit Dumoulin perfectly,” says José Been.
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“The two long time trials offered him the chance to gain time on the specialist climbers. His team looked stronger too, having gradually switched its focus from sprinters such as Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb to stage races.”
Of course, the question everyone in the Netherlands is asking now is whether Dumoulin can go on and emulate compatriots Jan Janssen and Joop Zoetemelk by capturing the Tour crown.
Those two greats of Dutch cycle sport believe he can, assuming he can deal with the greater pressure he will face.
“Giro winners don’t automatically become Tour winners,” Janssen told Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad.
“People will now make a Tour winner of him, but he is intelligent enough to handle that. He knows exactly what he is doing.”
Zoetemelk agreed: “You can’t really compare the two races as in terms of media and stress the Tour is very different.
“But I think Tom can also win it. He reminds me of Miguel Indurain — good in the time trials and never ready to give up on the climbs.”
Been also sees Dumoulin as a future Tour champion, assuming the race organisers serve up a route similar to the recent Giro or the 2012 Tour:
“If they design a Tour route like the one that Bradley Wiggins won [in 2012] with 90 kilometres of time trialling, then he could definitely win. If the route’s got at least 50 kilometres of time trialling, then why not?”
She believes, however, there is good reason for circumspection: “The problem in the Netherlands is that we pile a lot of pressure on guys like Dumoulin.
“Robert Gesink suffered the most, having finished in the top 10 in the Vuelta quite early on in his career. He was immediately branded a future Tour de France winner, just like riders so often are in France.
“Dumoulin has had some trouble coming to terms with his sudden fame. He tweeted something about not wanting fans to come to his home.
“I can understand why, but from a PR perspective it’s not that smart because it makes him come across as a little bit arrogant.
“If there’s one thing the Dutch don’t like it’s people who are arrogant. In the Netherlands, the most important thing is to be normal.
“It’s a very Calvinist way of behaving. Of course, he just wants some peace and quiet, but he’s a big star now. He’s got the same kind of profile as the athlete Dafne Schippers and F1 driver Max Verstappen, but he has to deal with that in the right way.”
Been insists that Dumoulin’s Sunweb team, the Dutch media and Dutch fans all need to play a role in this by keeping cool and not piling pressure on the Giro champion.
This will, she says, assist his chances of success on the greatest stage of all:
“Although he’s proven he can maintain a challenge over three weeks, he’s only 26, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect him to start winning the Tour in 2018.”
Yet she acknowledges that Dutch interest in October’s presentation of the 2018 Tour route in Paris will be higher than ever before.
“Dumoulin and every Dutch fan are sure to be watching it very closely. He needs the long time trials to be a contender, and they’re what we’ll all be hoping for.”