Just when he thought he was out, it pulled him back in. A little over a year ago, when Tom Dumoulin embarked on a sabbatical from cycling, it was easy to assume that his career had come to an end.
The demands of competing at the top level had become increasingly extreme during his time in the peloton and, long before his decision press to pause, Dumoulin had openly questioned the essential absurdity of his profession. “You have to find new ways of smashing yourself and find new places of pain, and why do you do that?” he wondered aloud in an interview with Procycling in the spring of 2019.
For a Grand Tour winner sitting in the hallway of the Parador Hotel atop Mount Teide, such an utterance felt something close to a thoughtcrime. Dumoulin continued to ride up and down the volcano that spring in preparation for an ill-starred tilt at the Giro d’Italia, but the burden of repeatedly doing so eventually became too much to bear, and he stepped off the carousel altogether in January 2021 .
After a few months on hiatus, Dumoulin was tempted back to the fray by the prospect of competing for in the time trial at the Tokyo Olympics, but even when he landed a silver medal in Japan, the idea of returning to his former, monastic existence As a Grand Tour contender seemed fanciful. And yet here he is in Budapest, leading the line for Jumbo-Visma at the 2022 Giro.
“Part of my fun is also getting the best out of myself,” Dumoulin told reporters on Thursday afternoon by way of explanation. “I would not say that doing GC is the most fun in terms of preparation, because you need to watch your weight, train very hard, and you have the pressure of going full gas every day. But I get the fun part out of getting the best out of myself. That’s what motivates me.”
The loneliness of the Giro contender must feel almost absolute in training camps in the opening months of the season, and Dumoulin admitted that he prefers the rather more sociable confines of the race itself. “I like the racing; I don’t like the preparation,” he grinned. This time, Dumoulin at least created a sense of adventure by traveling to Colombia in January and February before taking up residence in his usual Tenerife cloister for a second altitude camp last month.
Dumoulin has been limited to just twelve days of racing so far this season after illness forced him to abandon the Volta a Catalunya. 6th place at last month’s Volta Limburg Classic was his best showing of the year, but there are few reliable competitive indicators of his condition given that he was hindered by a back injury at the UAE Tour in February.
Then again, Dumoulin had just thirteen race days in his legs before he won the Giro in 2017 and only eleven the following year when he placed second overall in Rome. This year’s Giro, however, will be his first Grand Tour since he placed 7th overall at the 2020 Tour de France. For all his confidence in his preparation, Dumoulin knows that he is venturing into the unknown.
“I’ve had a few podiums in Grand Tours, so I don’t think it would be crazy to repeat that. But with my preparation in the last couple of months, it’s a big question mark,” Dumoulin admitted. “But in the past, I’ve done it without having a good feeling in the races beforehand. I’ve been able to pull something out when it really mattered, and I hope to be able to do the same here.
“Will it be possible to be at my best? I’m 100% sure that it is possible, so let’s see.”
Dumoulin lines up at the head of a Jumbo-Visma team that also includes Tobias Foss, 9th overall a year ago, but the Dutchman sets out from Budapest as the squad’s clear figurehead. This Giro also presents him with an early opportunity to lay down a marker in the general classification, with a 9km time trial on stage 2. While his fellow countryman Mathieu van der Poel is favorite to take the first pink jersey in Visegrad on Friday, Dumoulin – winner of the opening time trials in 2016 and 2018 – could well take it off him 24 hours later.
“On paper the time trial here looks very nice already,” said Dumoulin, even if the Budapest traffic means he won’t be able to recon the route until Saturday morning. Whatever the outcome, a more reliable gauge of Dumoulin’s prospects across three weeks will arrive when the Giro reaches Italy next week, with the familiar summit of Mount Etna on the horizon on stage 4.
“I think it’s always good to start with a big day pretty early in a Grand Tour because it creates a little bit of calmness in the bunch once everybody knows more or less what is going to be possible or not. But also for me, I can know more after the Etna stage,” said Dumoulin, who insisted that the pressure to perform was no different than in years gone by.
“I’m curious to see where this Grand Tour will lead me but that was not any different in other Grand Tours. I always approach it a bit the same. There are always question marks before and then as soon as the race gets underway, you quickly find out and that’s it.”
In the build-up to this race, Dumoulin has claimed that he had scarcely looked at the route map and he has also gently pushed back against assessing his rivals. “I can worry about what Carapaz has won in recent years and what I can do in return, but what’s the point?” he said. “I’m going to ride to the finish every day for three weeks and that’s it.”
It seems difficult to imagine, mind, that Dumoulin, a noted Italophile, hasn’t at least glanced at where this corsa rosa will take him over the next three months. “It feels special to race in Italy,” Dumoulin said. “The people are very passionate, chaotic. But I like it, it’s like my character: chaotic and passionate. And very direct…”
In other words, if Dumoulin was ever going to take up the burden of competing for Grand Tours again, it was always going to be here. For good or for ill, his Italian adventures have never been dull. That’s part of the appeal.
“A happy man goes a long way…” he said. “It’s always good to be in a place you like. It definitely inspires me to get the best out of myself.”