Gone to shit? Hardly. Vincenzo Nibali’s empathic victory on the Queen Stage was a thing of beauty, and the perfect illustration of why the Sicilian is a jewel we should all treasure, but Tom Dumoulin’s unfortunate nature break aside, this year’s Giro d’Italia is still his to lose.
The Dutchman limited his losses with a heroic ascent of the Stelvio, and held his own on the final kilometres as Nibali, a peerless descender, drilled the downhill. And all that, after two weeks of defying the forecasts, and riding against the coming tide of uphill finishes.
With his lighter rivals nipping at his heels, he refused to crack on Blockhaus, central Italy’s most revered mountain, where Eddy Merckx took his first grand tour stage win, half a century past. And then, Stage 14, from the home of Fausto Coppi to Oropa, the scene of what was perhaps Marco Pantani’s last truly happy moment on the bike, the Dutchman produced a victory that was more impressive than that of il Pirata in ’99.
Not as frantic, not as demonstrative, but then (we’d hope), not doped, either. All that from someone who’s a relative giant compared to the man he beat, Nairo Quintana. Dumoulin left the Colombian in his dust with a forceful, confident sprint in the final metres, the kind of display that the leader’s jersey deserves, but all too seldom sees. So much for him being (just) a time triallist.
But after the Stelvio, new questions present themselves. Did we expect too much of a 26-year-old? Hardly. He’s been knocking on the door for years now. Was it unreasonable to think that someone, relatively large in stature for a GC rider, could win a grand tour? Bradley Wiggins would disagree.
And what about the idea, put forward by many, that a person who grew up in a country where almost all of the landmass is at or below sea level could never compete with Quintana, born in the Andes? For that, see Signor Nibali of Messina, a city so close to the Mediterranean sea that he could easily wash his bike in it after every training ride. [To the nerds: I’m not advocating washing your bike in salt water; calm down.]
Was that emergency stop, and the subsequent cramps on the final descent to Bormio, just the symptoms of a difficult day? Or the sign of a valiant effort, coming undone?
It remains to be seen if that surprise constitutional was the breaking of Dumoulin’s Giro, but overall, this race has been the making of a future champion. He’s won stages in the past, but the 2017 model of Maastricht’s favourite son has made it clear that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the coming seasons, regardless of what happens come Milan next weekend.
“So far, so good,” says Laurens ten Dam, Team Sunweb’s GC veteran turned road captain. “We can’t complain. We have the pink jersey, and two stage wins, so I’ve had worse grand tours.”
And as a rider who was never the standout leader in a team, but who still managed top-10 finishes at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, he’d know what a good Grand Tour looks like. But Ten Dam’s modesty aside, in the context of a peloton where a distant top-five finish merits GC expectation – no disrespect to Domenico Pozzovivo or Tejay van Garderen – Dumoulin’s race isn’t going to poorly.
“For me, it’s different,” continues Laurens. “I’m not in the centre of it all, so it’s a lot less pressure. For Tom, it’s another thing. When I’m done, I can cruise to the finish. I give everything until I have nothing else to give, but it’s less demanding than being the leader.”
Ten Dam has been Dumoulin’s training partner for years, and before the Giro he was riding in Tenerife with his current leader and former team-mate, Bauke Mollema, which led to a pithy observation on Twitter during the first week of this year’s Giro: “Turned out I trained and chilled on ‘el teide’ with the current number 1 and 3 of the @giroditalia gc. No wonder they kicked my ass!” In that context, it’s fair to say that the 36-year-old is well-placed to comment on Dutch cycling’s current renaissance.
“Fuck! I’m as impressed as you are,” he laughs. “I remember doing the Giro and being 28th, and I was the best placed Dutch rider. Now it’s different! I’m not the best guy any more. So that’s great. I hope a lot of young Dutch kids start riding bikes.
“Tom’s stage to Oropa was a bit of a surprise, but to be honest, back in 2013 I told him, ‘Man, I think you’re the closest to the top that Holland has, back then people were talking more about Robert Gesink, Mollema, but for me even back then, with his TT skills, when you think of the Tour that Bradley Wiggins won, it was a possibility. But more recently, he’s impressed me. And this year, the way he rides in the mountains? It’s a good surprise.
“He’s doing pretty good with the pressure. He’s already won stages at the Tour, the Giro, and the Vuelta, and he’s held the leader’s jersey before, so it’s nothing new. For me, it was the same in 2014, when it wasn’t new any more, it was easier. He’s handling it really well, for a 26-year-old, it’s incredible.
“Losing Wilco Kelderman was hard for the team, I’d be a lot more confident with him here, because I think we’d have one of the strongest teams in the mountains, he was in such good shape, but that’s racing.
“In the high mountains is hard to know. We’ll see how everyone else reacts. It’s still too close to call, but honestly, we’re better than I would have hoped for.
And the last week?
“Oh, man! I didn’t even dare to look!” More laughter. “I don’t know how well we’ll go. The team feels good, I feel good. There’s so much to come. If I stopped to think about about it… ” There’s a pensive pause. “It’s too much. We’re taking it day by day. And we’ll calculate at the end of every stage, see how it is, and start to make plans for the day after. That’s the right approach. And so far, we’ve had it under control by going like that. So, I think we need to continue the same way.”
Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Race, by Colin O’Brien, is published by Pursuit. The latest edition of Rouleur, featuring Giro d’Italia content by Paolo Ciaberta and Colin