Dumoulin’s not so Grand Tour ambitions
January 17, 2019
When Team Sky are at full strength they win the Tour de France. They are effectively unbeaten there since 2012 when they seemed to crack the code of victory with Bradley Wiggins. They’ve won it every year since through either Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas with the exception of 2014. That was the year of Vincenzo Nibali after Froome had crashed out of the race before it had even begun.
Rival teams may have different tactical approaches toward taking on the might of Team Sky but at the very least, they need to ensure that they are physically at full strength themselves. This is why Tom Dumoulin’s decision to ride the Giro d’Italia again this year is baffling.
He is now 28 years old. The average age of a Tour de France winner throughout the history of the race is 28.5. He should be at the peak of his powers and yet he has decided for the third year in a row to place the Italian Grand Tour on to his race schedule.
Last year alone provides enough evidence for the case against riding the Giro before the Tour. Dumoulin himself only missed out on a Tour win by 111 seconds. He probably expected it to be Froome ahead of him rather than Thomas. It must have surely niggled at Dumoulin over the winter what may have been if he had trained specifically for the Tour, rather than flogging himself trying to win the Giro. Could he have made up those 111 seconds on Thomas.
Froome also rode the Giro last year, and unlike Dumoulin, he won it. But he was clearly below par at the Tour where he slowly but surely lost the leadership of his own team before losing the Tour itself. For each and every one of the first 13 stages, Froome finished behind Thomas and by that stage it was too late. Team Sky had a new leader.
The four-time champion must also be wondering ‘what if’. Has he now lost his chance at adding one more Tour to join the list of all-time greats on five wins? At least Froome could console himself that he had added the Giro to his palmares. But Dumoulin had already done that in 2017, the first Dutch rider ever to do so. Which makes it all the more confusing why he has chosen to return to Italy once again.
Some say it’s simply due to the strength of Team Sky. That taking on a team who can count on someone like Egan Bernal as their third man is hopeless. But Dumoulin was a Geraint Thomas mishap away from winning it last year – a Geraint Thomas mishap which in other years has usually been forthcoming. Is a top sportsman like Dumoulin really avoiding the opposition until that opposition disappears, as could be the case with Team Sky unless they find a sponsor? There will always be strong teams at the head of the Tour de France.
Besides, Dumoulin has said himself that his decision to prioritise the Giro over the Tour was a result of analyzing the route of both races. In and of itself, an analysis of this year’s editions could easily yield the conclusion that the Giro suits Dumoulin more. He is after all, a time trial specialist, a former World Champion at the discipline. And there are 58.5 individual time trial kilometres spread across three stages at the Giro compared to a single individual time trial stage of 27km at the Tour.
But examining one year shouldn’t be enough when making a decision like this. Concluding that there aren’t enough miles against the clock at the Tour this year to justify his focus, supposes that there will be more for the time triallists at the Tour in the near future. If Dumoulin genuinely believes that this will happen, he must know something the rest of us don’t.
Since Christian Prudhomme took over as head of the Tour de France in 2008, the time trials have been less and less a feature of the race. Prudhomme has always seemed to prefer anarchic racing over terrain which encourages riders to make the racing more unpredictable. A purposeful move away from the Tour routes of his predecessor Jean-Marie Leblanc which very much favoured the time triallists. The 2008 race had 82.5km of individual time trials and the trend has been going slowly downward to a low of 13.8km in 2015 and back up to 36.5km in 2017 and 31km last year.
The one outlier was 2012 when Wiggins’s gains were based almost entirely in the time trials of which there were three (the only time there have been three individual time trials in a Prudhomme Tour) adding up to a total of 101.4km. But this was something of an aberration. Is that what Dumoulin is holding on hope for? An anomalous Tour route which bucks the recent trend? If so, he’s playing a game of risk with his own career as his own biological clock ticks slowly onward.
Since that 2012 Tour we have also seen the emergence of two French favourites Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, neither of whom are among the very best time triallists in the peloton. As long as those two riders are willing and able to race the Tour, common sense would tell us that Prudhomme will bend the route in their favour to give a helping hand to finding a French successor to Bernard Hinault almost 35 years ago. While Dumoulin may have the upper hand on Froome and Thomas when it comes to age and could gamble that those two will simply fall away before Dumoulin finally has a proper crack at the Tour, he doesn’t hold that same advantage over Pinot and Bardet. All three of them were born within six months of each other.
As always with cycling, there is also the commercial aspect to consider. The sporting ideals do not always take precedence over the financial ones. Plenty of Grand Tour specialists over the years have favoured racing either the Giro or Vuelta rather than the Tour due to pressure from sponsors. Throughout the 90s and 00s, the Giro was won year after year by Italian riders on Italian teams sponsored by Italian companies who would much prefer their star riders to perform in May rather than July – Ivan Gotti, Gilberto Simoni, Stefano Garzelli, Paolo Savoldelli, Danilo di Luca.
Back in the 80s, there was always huge pressure on Sean Kelly to race in Spain in the early part of the season – Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Vuelta a Espana (when it was held in April). This was because his team sponsor was KAS, a Spanish soft drinks manufacturer. Kelly himself always wanted to prioritise the classics. But KAS had no interest in advertising themselves to Belgian farmers. Consequently, Kelly ended up riding (and often winning) everything in Spain and Belgium. But it meant that by the time the Tour de France came around in July, he was goosed. The best he ever managed on G.C. was fourth place.
Sunweb, the sponsor of Dumoulin’s current team, have no explicit affiliation to Italy. They began life as a Dutch company but are now very much an international brand. The Netherlands have no Grand Tour of their own, so it’s difficult to conclude why having their star rider try to win the Giro would achieve more commercial goals than sending him to the Tour de France in the best shape possible for a realistic chance of winning the biggest prize in cycling.
Back when the Giro-Tour double was still a realistic possibility, way more riders would ride both. Take 1993 for example, the second of Indurain’s back to back doubles, of the top 10 riders at the Tour, seven rode the Giro and four of those also finished in the top 10 there too. Conversely, if you look at the top 10 finishers at the 2017 Tour de France, the only one who also rode the Giro was Mikel Landa. Which could lead to the conclusion that the double was a possibility back then because way more riders would race both.
It is generally accepted now that riding the Giro before the Tour is a bad idea if you want to be in top shape for the latter. Dumoulin and Froome bucked the trend somewhat last year, but prior to them very few riders have performed well in both. Gilberto Simoni tried it in 2003. Having won the Giro he talked himself as the only rider capable of ending Lance Armstrong’s reign at the Tour. He finished 83rd. Ivan Basso had one hand on the Giro trophy in 2005 before he capitulated through illness and faded out of the top 20 before recovering to finish second at the Tour. He tried again in 2010 after he won the Giro for the second time and went to the Tour but never challenged before finishing 31st. The best effort in the years between the last double by Marco Pantani in 1998 and last year when both Dumoulin and Froome went relatively close was by Alberto Contador who sauntered to a Giro win in 2011 before finishing fifth at the Tour. Although both results were subsequently expunged due to his Clenbuterol positive at the 2010 Tour.
Whatever way you slice it, Dumoulin’s decision seems to be an odd one. His comments on this year’s Tour route also seem to be predicated on the notion that it’s a ‘Tour for the pure climbers’. This notion in any year, is another fallacy. There can be varying amounts of climbing at the Tour, but the Tour is rarely won by a pure climber. How many have there really been in the past 30 years? Pantani? Carlos Sastre? Pedro Delgado?
The Tour is usually won by a rider who is excellent against the clock and who can contain well in the mountains. Riders like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and, yes, Tom Dumoulin. For those of us wanting to see him take on the Tour de France properly, let’s hope he isn’t waiting year after year in Italy until he gets 100 kilometres of individual time trialling. He’ll be waiting a long long time.