It is late summer 2015 and nobody knows that Tom Dumoulin is on the verge of a breakthrough. Not the 24 year-old Dutchman himself, nor his team-mates at Giant-Alpecin. It doesn’t figure in his employers’ plans. The top tens of Grand Tour contenders put out by magazines and websites ahead of such races do not feature him. The best three-week riders in the world might know his name but have no idea he is set to join their ranks.
Dumoulin has shown promise in week-long races, winning stages at the Tour de Suisse and the Eneco Tour, placing twice overall in successive years at both. He finished second to Tony Martin in the penultimate stage TT at the previous year’s Tour de France – by more than a minute but still, Tony Martin. A podium at Paris-Nice, maybe Romandie, would be a logical goal, though Dumoulin has already said his target for 2016 is an Olympic medal. A gold one.
He is thought of by his team as an exciting prospect for the future but they see him, for now at least, as “a world class time triallist who’s very good on the hills”. He can make it over the high mountains (more or less) but he is not expected to challenge in them.
That is about to change.
Chaos Theory is said to be the science of surprises. While much of science deals with the linear and the predictable (X causes Y), chaos theory addresses complex, non-linear systems in which connections are countless, outcomes infinite.
The one principle of Chaos Theory most manage to bluff their way through is the Butterfly Effect. The name originates from the title of a lecture given by the American mathematician Edward Lorenz in 1972: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? It describes a seemingly insignificant event which, in a chaotic system, is the ultimate origin of a dramatically more significant one.
The 2015 Vuelta a España marked Tom Dumoulin’s arrival as a Grand Tour contender, but the butterfly that flapped its wings was a Giant-Alpecin team-mate who caused a massive pile-up at the Tour de France seven weeks earlier. As the peloton powered its way along the road to Huy, some 50 kilometres from the day’s finish, Warren Barguil navigated his way down the right-hand side of the tightly packed bunch. As he passed William Bonnet, Barguil’s rear wheel glanced the FDJ rider’s front tyre. The faintest flick of his handlebars was all it took to detonate a catastrophic explosion of carbon and flesh.
It was a crash of uncommon scale, several seconds long from start to finish, reaching deep into the belly of the bunch.
Maillot jaune Fabian Cancellara was its most notable casualty with Dumoulin, wearing the white jersey of best young rider, little more than a footnote. A dislocated shoulder ended the Dutchman’s race. He would next pin a number to his back on August 22 in Puerto Banús.
All this matters because it meant Dumoulin had unfinished business. With the Netherlands city of Utrecht hosting the Tour’s Grand Départ, he had harboured hopes of winning the prologue and wearing the yellow jersey in his home country. Despite falling short, the short steep finish to stage 3, on the Mur de Huy, had offered a second chance to take the race lead.
And had Barguil passed Bonnet with a few millimetres more between them, Dumoulin might have achieved his aim. Perhaps he would have gone on to Paris and ended his season there, a spell in the maillot jaune marking respectable reward for a season’s work. Or he may have dropped out further down the three-week road, still travelled to Spain but in different (or indifferent) form, with less to prove to himself. The rider he is today might have emerged later or not at all.
For the opening stage of the 70th edition of the Vuelta a España, the organisers had gone all out, designing a prologue-length team time trial course that seemed to resemble an inebriated evening’s stagger along the shoreline. Launching from a jetty at sunset the teams would race along 7.4km of the Costa del Sol, over a variety of unlikely surfaces, including brick, marble and a wooden bridge, before finishing in Marbella.
Unfortunately, what might be suitable for flip-flopped sun-seekers is not necessarily appropriate for eye-wateringly expensive, board-stiff carbon time trial bikes fitted with 25mm tubeless tyres. Nor is it for their even more precious human cargo.
The riders revolted. The race relented. The stage would go ahead, but with the general classification neutralised. It would be up to the teams themselves to decide whether to take it steady or to go all out for the victory.
For Giant-Alpecin’s riders, who dismissed the course as “a spectacle”, “unworthy of a time trial”, it was the correct call. For Tom Dumoulin, a late addition to the nine, it was a physical relief. His shoulder had largely recovered but he was not yet completely free from pain.
His injury had, however, healed well. He had maintained much of the form he had built up for the Tour de France, and been able to spend some time at altitude in the weeks prior. Nonetheless, from the team’s point of view, for him, “the objective of this Vuelta was purely with an eye to the future.”
At that point in his career, Dumoulin himself may not have even gone that far. “I thought I would just progress myself as being a time trialist and as somebody who can maybe go for the win in one-week races,” he says. “But GC in a Grand Tour was never really on my mind.”
Arriving at that Vuelta, there was no doubt about the singular purpose his team had. Giant-Alpecin’s line-up was designed entirely around their German sprinter, John Degenkolb.
“You look at the squad that we brought there and it was all big lead-out guys,” says Lawson Craddock. Koen de Kort, Luka Mezgec, Zico Waeytens, Tom Stamsnijder… the only real outliers were Craddock himself, and Tom Dumoulin, though neither was exempt from Degenkolb duties.
Giant-Alpecin, Craddock points out, “had always been more of a sprinters’ team, based around having a really good lead-out train, supporting Kittel and Degenkolb and a handful of other sprinters too.”
Before the 2015 Vuelta, few of the team’s riders had experienced the rigours of riding all-out for the GC. None was expecting to have to do so for the first time there.
There’s rarely much on the menu for sprinters at the Vuelta but five stages of the 2015 edition seemed to offer opportunities and besides, Degenkolb had won four the year before. Dumoulin would be allowed some freedom, and whatever assistance the team could afford, but not much and not carte blanche. Although the individual time trial on stage 17 was an obvious target, everyone agreed he was riding primarily, like the rest of them, in service to Degenkolb.
To say expectations of Dumoulin were low would be to overstate them. Pre-race, bookmakers were offering odds of 1000-1 on him winning. Whether or not he was, as team-mate Tom Stamsnijder suggests, “just keen on riding his bike”, the 2015 Vuelta was for him what it so often is for riders: a chance to salvage something from the season.
The folly of the team time trial over, the Vuelta would begin properly the next day. Hilly rather than mountainous, with a punchy finish the stage was not one worth the true GC riders starting a squabble over, but perfect for an energetic young buck not thinking about tomorrow.
“He told me that he felt pretty good,” Stamsnijder remembers, “that I should put more in on the front to keep him there. I didn’t think anything about it, just that it was good to see him fighting for his position. And then he just goes for it.”
Go for it he did, launching into a gallop three kilometres from the finish at the Caminito del Rey. Nairo Quintana and Nicolas Roche followed his wheel through the cinematic Gaitanes Gorge, before they were all overtaken by a surging Esteban Chaves. The climb’s steep final third whittled the contenders down to just Dumoulin and Chaves. As the finish flattened out Chaves put in one more hard push of the pedals, enough to beat his opponent, claim the victory and the race lead.
Eurosport’s lead commentator could barely believe his eyes at the sight of this rangy Dutchman matching Orica-Scott’s diminutive Colombian pound for pound, on a slope that clearly suited one more than the other. He shouldn’t have been so surprised – Dumoulin’s record showed he was more than capable of performing on a finish like that. Moreover, he had a point to prove: “I wanted to get the disappointment from the Tour away then, so I was fighting for it on the first day, to show everyone that I trained well and that I was ready for races again.”
Iwan Spekenbrink, then-general manager of Giant-Alpecin, says it would not have happened if the likes of Froome and Aru had deemed Dumoulin a threat. “That they gave him some space,” he says, “showed that they did not see him as a GC contender.”
It could easily have been a one-off. Perhaps it should have been. Certainly no-one imagined there was more to come.
For the rest of the riders the result “already made our Vuelta” but as far as they were concerned, nothing had changed. Protecting and providing for John Degenkolb remained the priority. Dumoulin, much less than a protected rider, was obliged to help in the lead-out. As the team’s road captain Johannes Fröhlinger points out, “a rider who can win a Grand Tour is not part of leadout for a bunch sprint stage”.
The following day offered the first real opportunity for the sprinters to take a bite out of the race. Despite a committed lead-out from a train that included Dumoulin, Degenkolb could manage no better than third, behind Peter Sagan and Nacer Bouhanni. Two days later, the German was beaten into second by Grand Tour debutant Caleb Ewan. A late split in the peloton also allowed Tom Dumoulin to snatch the few seconds he needed to take the race lead from Chaves.
Although Dumoulin would hand the red jersey back to the Colombian after just one day, following another thrilling stage 5 finish, shorter but similar to that of stage 2, this was the first time his team had to contend with dual responsibilities. The maillot rojo came, as leader’s jerseys do, with a duty to honour it, by riding on or near the front of the peloton. It was still only week one, and it was barely detectable, but the pendulum had started to swing…
Sundays in Grand Tours are often selected by race organisers as the showcase finale to the week’s events. Weekends mean bigger audiences – both in person and on television. In 2015, the Vuelta’s stage 9 was therefore the first glimpse many were granted of Tom Dumoulin going toe to toe, and coming out on top, against some of the best climbers in the world.
Travelling north from Torrevieja and tracing almost the entire length of the Costa Blanca, the route was relatively undemanding until it reached the final climb. The race would tackle the soaring Cumbre del Sol, which was appearing in the Vuelta for the first time, twice. It was another stage that Tom Dumoulin liked the look of and one that suited a strong team with few climbers. Fröhlinger committed his men to the cause. “We knew the run-in to the climb and the finish very well,” he says. “We wanted to give Tom the best possible support.”
Dumoulin’s team-mates duly shepherded him through the stage until the first, partial ascent of the Cumbre, after which he was on his own. By the second time around he was with the group of favourites and feeling the effects of a crash a few hours earlier. Although he appeared at one point to have been distanced, “I was just doing my own tempo.”
By riding at a sustainable rhythm, refusing to push himself beyond his anaerobic limits, Dumoulin was able to stay in touch and claw his way back into contention. He forced one attack 1,700 metres from the line but Chris Froome countered around the final bend and on to the steepest section of the climb. With Froome leading a quartet of favourites, the maillot rojo of Esteban Chaves not among them, most watching thought it was all over. Dumoulin, however, “knew I had something left”. With the finish line, and Froome, in sight, “I thought it was now or never, so I just smashed everything out of my legs and it was enough.”
Even with a big stage win and the leader’s jersey on his broad shoulders, neither he nor his colleagues would get ahead of themselves. If the team, now known as Sunweb, were to adopt a motto, it ought to be “day by day”. Each one of the riders who contributed to this story offered it, unprompted, as characterising their entire approach to that Vuelta.
Yet if there was a single point when Dumoulin was forced to acknowledge that he might be a general classification racer, it came three days later.
Billed as “the hardest Grand Tour mountain stage ever”, stage 11 was the brainchild of Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez and contained no fewer than five climbs afforded category 2 status or higher. It was too tough, arguably, for any of the favourites to risk an early attack and they stayed largely together until the last mountain. With eight kilometres to go, Fabio Aru made what would prove to be decisive move. Dumoulin handed over the jersey to the Italian, but by limiting his losses to three minutes, when the Andorran dust had settled he was a mere 30 seconds behind Aru and still in a podium position.
Now more than halfway through the Vuelta, and with a high mountain stage successfully negotiated, Dumoulin had to admit that he was at least in the game. “If I can handle a stage with 4,500 metres of climbing,” he told himself, “probably the hardest one of that Vuelta, I must be all right.”
Teams frequently find themselves reduced to bystanders, as general classification plans crumble away to nothing. Rarely does the opposite happen. Similarly, it is seldom that a modest plan A – stage wins, points competition, polka dots – must make way for a more ambitious plan B.
That was the situation Giant-Alpecin found themselves in as the 2015 Vuelta approached its third week. The team did not redistribute every resource from Degenkolb towards Dumoulin, but with the Dutchman going so well and not looking like fading, found a solution to suit both.
According to Stamsnijder, “John and Tom made a gentlemen’s agreement that they would go full for each other and see where we were at the end.”
Stage 12 offered the last chance for Degenkolb before Madrid. He finished an untidy sprint in fifth position.
Over the next few days the physical demands of the race began to take their toll on the team. Fröhlinger was one who fell ill with a stomach bug, and barely made it to the finish of stage 16. “It was not the healthiest thing to finish this Vuelta,” he admits, “but we had the jersey to defend.”
Everything seemed to hinge on the next day’s 38-kilometre time trial around Burgos. Dumoulin was in unknown territory. He had performed well in comparable Grand Tour time trials before, but on those occasions he had not also been racing for the general classification. When a particular stage is a rider’s only target, says Spekenbrink “he can save some energy on the days before and after. But in the GC you have to go full every day.”
In the end, Dumoulin blew everyone away, winning by more than a minute, re-taking the overall lead by just three seconds. Craddock recalls the atmosphere on the team bus afterwards as being somewhere between amazement and elation.
“I think all of us sat there and were like, ‘Oh jeez… Maybe he can actually win this?’ It was completely new to everyone on the team. No one had been in a position to win the overall at a Grand Tour before.”
If anything might have dampened spirits, it was that Aru had performed beyond anyone’s expectations. Dumoulin “did an amazing time-trial,” says Spekenbrink, “but relatively one could have expected he would take more time on Aru.”
Fröhlinger agrees with Craddock that Dumoulin’s performance in the time-trial transformed the mood in the camp. That, he says, was the first time they allowed themselves to believe “that we were going for something special in a Grand Tour: victory.”
For the week prior the team had sought to balance resources between Degenkolb and Dumoulin. “At that point,” says Craddock, “we went all in for the GC.”
Luka Mezgec, one of Degenkolb’s lead-out lieutenants, remembers his role changing overnight: “All of a sudden we were a team who has to defend the jersey, all day in front, pulling in the wind.”
There were no easy days in that final week. No drifting back and rolling in with the gruppetto. “Instead I tried to go as deep as possible, to go over the climbs and just to support [Dumoulin] as long as possible,” he says.
Mezgec, says Fröhlinger, along with Koen de Kort and John Degenkolb, suffered massively to make it over the climbs in the last week. Having the race lead, he says, “changed completely their goals and they gave everything they could.”
On stage 19 to Ávila, Dumoulin was able to double his lead from three to six seconds. Spekenbrink specifically credits Degenkolb for his work on the cobbled run-in to the medieval city.
For the most part the stories Dumoulin and his team-mates tell of that Vuelta are in close alignment. Where they most diverge is in their recollections of the crucial stage 20, a day before the race’s conclusion.
Road captain Fröhlinger believes that had Dumoulin had a better team he could have hung on. “Tom himself was strong,” he says “and still good enough to win the Vuelta.” Ultimately, he adds, “we didn’t have the team to defend the jersey.”
As they predicted it would, the stage started at a blistering pace and Astana were able to despatch a couple of their strongest climbers into the large early break. Among them was the Spanish rider, Luis Leon Sanchez, who would later provide valuable assistance to Fabio Aru. Giant-Alpecin were unable to send anyone up the road with them.
Craddock, whose role that day was to stay with Tom as long as he possibly could, didn’t make it as far as he’d have liked. At 23, he was as deep into a Grand Tour as he had ever gone, having abandoned the previous year’s Vuelta on stage 14. “I just didn’t really quite have the legs and I think I left him exposed for the last crucial part of the race,” he says.
Dumoulin himself would counter that nothing anyone else could have done could have helped him save that race. It’s true that Giant-Alpecin “didn’t have the manpower to send our guys up in the break,” he says, “but even then it wouldn’t have mattered. I was completely done.”
He had been getting sick over the previous days: “I didn’t recover well anymore. Eventually I couldn’t really eat and I had no energy on the last day… It was too much, too much for me to handle.”
Spekenbrink’s analysis is more measured and analytical. Closer to that of Dumoulin, but not that close. He does, however, agree that no one else could have helped him: “The moment you cannot follow those wheels a team-mate is not going to make much of a difference.”
At the same time he disagrees with Dumoulin’s view that it was his physical limitations that cost him the Vuelta. All the riders were broken, he argues, with Dumoulin no worse off than anyone else.
For the Giant-Alpecin boss, if there was a single event that, more than any other, decided the race, it was when Dumoulin was unable to stay with Aru at the top of the second climb of four, the Morcuera.
Had he been able to put in one more effort, suffer for a few extra seconds, hang on “for ten more metres” it would, says Spekenbrink, have produced a completely different outcome. Dumoulin could have recovered on the descent, fought through the valley, hung on to his rivals for longer on the final climbs. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone all the way. But perhaps. He would surely have lost less than the 3 minutes 52 seconds that left him five places lower at the end of the day than at its beginning.
Spekenbrink does not blame his rider for not being able to do it. He accepts that Dumoulin probably needed to have had that experience to enable him to push through it.
But if the Butterfly of Maastricht had flapped his wings one more time…
The following evening in Madrid, Giant-Alpecin’s riders were all in for Degenkolb.
Tom Dumoulin’s fever had worsened overnight, so much so that he came close to quitting with one stage left. His team-mates persuaded him to at least take the start and see how he felt. They had started the Vuelta as a team on the Costa del Sol, ridden as one for three relentless weeks, and wanted to end it that way.
Theirs was the only squad at the finish in numbers, with even Dumoulin somehow finding the strength to contribute to the effort. Their train controlled the sprint from start to jubilant finish. Round the final turn at a kilometre to go, Mezgec was the second to last rider to peel off the train. Koen de Kort laid everything down before propelling Degenkolb into the action. No other rider stood a chance. As the German crossed the line, his arms were already rising from his handlebars to celebrate.
Tom Dumoulin did not win a Grand Tour that day but that day they all believed that, one day, he would.
The next season Tom Dumoulin concentrated on the Olympic time-trial. He came home from Brazil with a silver medal, rather than the gold he had hoped for. In 2017, he became the first Dutch rider to win the Giro d’Italia.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 18.6