Tom Dumoulin was not supposed to be here. The 2017 Giro d’Italia was supposed to host a fierce battle between the world’s best climbers, a large group of whom chose not to target the Tour de France this year in order to give perennial winner Chris Froome a wide berth. Previous champions Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali looked set to contest the general classification, with a host of second-tier contenders like Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot, and Fabio Aru ready to push them on the high mountains. Dumoulin, a time trial genius without much of a climber’s profile, flirted with a Giro win before, but he dissolved in the third week and seemed like the sort of rider who could take the leader’s jersey with a dominant time trial but inevitably lose it once attacked.
Dumoulin ran into trouble as soon as the racing hit the mountains. In the run up to the first imposing uphill finish of the race, a policeman failed to get his oversized motorcycle all the way off the road, causing a devastating crash that took out Thomas and half of Team Sky, as well as Wilco Kelderman, Dumoulin’s best lieutenant in the mountains. The Giro hadn’t even really started yet, and the Dutchman was already isolated. He took the pink jersey after the first time trial with a truly devastating ride, but even then, it was hard to get the sense that his rivals took him seriously.
Dumoulin is unlike most riders who win Grand Tours. Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champions tend to be tiny climbing specialists who rely on powerful teams to keep them safe and protected. Dumoulin has always been a decent climber, but only at best has he ever seemed capable of surviving on the loftiest of mountains in the Alps, Dolomites, and Pyrenees. He’s got an Olympic silver medal in the time trial, and while that’s impressive and indiciative of his strength, he never showed any pop in the mountains. The thought of him trying to peg back a vicious attack from someone like Alberto Contador probably seemed ludicrous, and when Nibali and Quintana started joining forces to shake him on the later mountain stages, the subtext was clear: let’s lose this barnacle so we can get on with the real racing.
The clearest sign of Dumoulin’s diminished status came on Stage 16, when he abruptly stopped to take cycling’s most controversial shit of the decade. When a race leader has a mechanical issue, etiquette dictates that the peloton slows down and doesn’t seize on the leader’s bad fortune by riding away. Now, taking a big crap is in a gray area, since it’s a physiological issue, not a mechanical one. If Dumoulin had stronger teammates (or, at that point, any teammates), they could have negotiated a detente amongst contenders. If this was the Tour and Chris Froome had butt problems, you know that Sky would do everything short of physically blocking the road. To his credit, Dumoulin limited his losses and didn’t make excuses after the stage ended, but he’d opened a window that didn’t seem to exist after he dominated a mountain stage two days earlier and shown up Quintana and everyone on their turf.
And still they came for him. On Stage 19, Dumoulin got caught lollygagging on a descent and lost the pink jersey to Quintana. With a time trial looming on the final day, all the contenders knew they’d have to put minutes into Dumoulin on the final mountain stage, and despite the Quintana-Nibali alliance’s best efforts, they only managed to take 12 seconds from Dumoulin. Nibali, Quintana, and Pinot would need the time trials of their lives to lock up their podium spots.
Alas, nobody is better in the race of truth than Dumoulin, and he stamped out another fearsome time trial to capture the Giro d’Italia on the final day, beating Quintana by just 31 seconds. He’s the first-ever Dutch winner at the Giro, and also the first Dutch Grand Tour winner since Joop Zoetemelk won the 1980 Tour de France. Chris Horner’s 2013 Vuelta a España victory still feels more preposterous than Dumoulin’s win, but Horner didn’t do it against this good of a field. Dumoulin defeated Grand Tour winners at every turn, even when he his teammates got knocked out or he had to take a crap. Dumoulin is a worthy champion, and one hopes he’ll set his sights on the Tour de France in the next few years.