Cycling’s three-week Grand Tours are a sort of long, slowly unfolding lesson in the truth of Mike Tyson’s prophecy about how everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Every nine-man team charts out how they want their race to go, but 21-stage races are so chaotic that most get dashed to bits rather quickly. Sometimes you get disappointments, like when everyone crashed out of the 2014 Tour and sometimes you get fantastic historical quirks, like when Chris Horner won the 2013 Vuelta at age 41.
Which brings us to the strange case of Tom Dumoulin, who is leading the Giro d’Italia after one week of racing. The Dutch time trial specialist came to the race ostensibly to try and win the pink jersey on the opening day, but he said that he had no designs on an overall win. He went all-in at the Vuelta (a much weirder race less suited to his talents) last year and he missed out on the overall win only at the very end. This Giro has a stronger field, and Dumoulin has been understandably coy about his prospects of beating Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa, and others, but he came out guns blazing on today’s first uphill finish and showed his cards. Dumoulin isn’t supposed to win races like the Giro, but he’s swinging for the fences, and if he manages to win, he’ll be the strangest winner in a long time.
The type of rider who wins a Grand Tour is a bird-skinny climber who can time trial a bit; Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, you know, waifish endurance machines. Dumoulin isn’t that sort of rider. He is an engine, a time trial expert who is one of the best in the world at churning through 40 kilometers of solo racing. He’s a powerful brute of a rider, which you wouldn’t assume from his balanced frame and impressive cheekbones (he is nicknamed the Butterfly Of Maastricht, after all). His biggest wins have all been time trials and the only stage racing success he had before the 2015 Vuelta was at the Eneco Tour, a quirky lowlands Spring Classics rehash of a race.
Ryder Hesjedal winning the 2012 Giro was deeply strange, but Hesjedal is still a climber. To win the general classification (GC), Dumoulin is going to have to scorch everyone on both flat time trials, probably take some time at the uphill time trial, and hang tough in the mountains, particularly in the last week as the race vaults into the Alps. As you can see, the race gets spikier as the weeks go by.
After Tim Wellens won this morning’s Stage 6 from a breakaway, the GC contenders swarmed in about a minute later. On the steady slopes of the finishing climb, Dumoulin smartly baited Team Sky into chasing down an attack from Nibali before he countered with an move of his own that succeeded and earned him some time on most of the other contenders. He gouged out 21 seconds from Nibali and Landa, and took 14 from Alejandro Valverde. If the first semi-mountain stage of the race is any indication, Dumoulin is truly about it. He basically confirmed that he was throwing his hat in the ring, saying that if he has to give up the Maglia Rosa, someone is going to have to take it from him:
“I always said that I hadn’t prepared for the high mountains and for GC but I surprised myself today, I didn’t think I would be this good,” Dumoulin said afterwards. “Of course when I worked for the Giro d’Italia I worked hard but only at home, I didn’t do any mountain training camps.”
“I didn’t think my training would be enough [for the mountains], apparently up until now, though, actually it is.”
“I just have to see how long it lasts. Nothing will change for the coming two weeks, I will try and defend the overall classification as long as possible. Maybe at one point there is a day I feel really bad in high mountains and I lose everything. But until that day comes we’ll defend the jersey.”
His pursuit of the GC win is definitely helped by whatever the hell happened to Astana today. Vincenzo Nibali is Astana’s leader and the best Italian cyclist currently riding, but his team is remarkably unsettled. Teammate Jakob Fuglsang followed Dumoulin rather than stay back and tow Nibali up, and there are serious questions about which rider will lead the powerhouse team over the next two weeks of racing, especially if Nibali continues to struggle..
Dumoulin doesn’t have the mountain support that Sky or Astana have, so if he’s going to win, infighting is a crucial point in his favor. Giant-Alpecin is more set up to control flat or rolling stages, but they do have some talent, most notably, young American Chad Haga. Astana trying to attack Dumoulin as he was trying to take a piss this morning shows that they consider him a legit threat to win the damn thing. This year’s queen stage is a brutal roller coaster of a bike race that will test Dumoulin’s ascending abilities, but the dude is slighter than most time trial specialists, and he’s a ferocious rider. I hope he takes it.