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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Poole

A Celebration of Tom Dumoulin

Realisation sets in for Dumoulin at losing the maillot rojo. © Tim de Waele

Saturday 23 January, whilst I am out on a snowy ride that takes in both Yorkshire and Lancashire, trembles are sent through the cycling world as 2017 Giro d'Italia champion Tom Dumoulin announces his indefinite break from cycling. In a move that shadows that of his former teammate Marcel Kittel in 2019, Dumoulin appears to have been worn out by the constant grind of this most brutal of sports. Whilst the cycling world reels from his departure from the peloton and the cycling media focuses on this news, I had the desire to write a piece celebrating the career (hopefully not at its end) of 'Big Tom', a rider who I have loved and followed since the 2015 Vuelta a España.

The image that precedes this piece is the perfect header for me, as it displays the mental toil of being an elite cyclist, whilst also being a representation of the start of Dumoulin's remarkable rise to being both a Grand Tour contender and later a Grand Tour champion. May he find peace in his life and find happiness in whatever his next chapter entails. For now, let us enjoy the memories Tom Dumoulin has given us.

Dumoulin rides Amstel Gold, the race that brought him to the sport. © Cor Vos

Dumoulin first came to the attention as a budding time triallist who could also be relied upon in the sprint lead-out for Marcel Kittel in his Argos-Shimano/Giant-Shimano/Giant-Alpecin days. This is what led to his nickname- The Butterfly of Maastricht. After his first Tour de France appearance in 2013, an article was put out on him, describing him as transforming from a nobody to an exciting prospect, hence the relation to the butterfly. In Dumoulin's own words, "in the post-Tour criterium, the speaker called me 'The Butterfly'."

In those early days, The Butterfly was regularly seen in one days and one-week stage races, where he performed admirably in taking results at the Tour de Suisse (5th in 2014, 3rd in 2015) and the Eneco Tour (2nd in 2013, 3rd in 2014). Alongside a bronze medal at the ITT World Championships in 2014, the signs were pointing in the right direction for a future as a reliable team man, an accomplished time traillist and an occasional stage-race contender. This was all turned on its head at the 2015 Vuelta a España, where I first came across Dumoulin and he quickly became established as one of my favourite riders to watch. The big man showed guts, intelligence and a raw engine in a Grand Tour that saw him spend 6 days in the leader's jersey.

Dumoulin romps to stage 9 victory ahead of Froome. © Tim de Waele

Coming into the Vuelta, Dumoulin had crashed out of the Tour de France and had failed to take the opening day's time trial, of which he was one of the favourites. He did not wait long before asserting himself on the year's final Grand Tour, in attacking on stage 2's final run to Caminito del Rey. Nicholas Roche and reigning Vuelta Champion Nairo Quintana followed his wheel tracks, although fellow new-found talent Esteban Chaves danced past them all. As the final kilometre of the climb appeared, the front of the race was whittled down to just Dumoulin and Chaves, setting up the extraordinary three weeks of racing that were to come.

Whilst Chaves took the stage victory and maillot rojo that day, the scene had been set for an epic rivalry between Chaves and Dumoulin, a rivalry which not a single person could have predicted before the Vuelta began. At the start of proceedings, Chaves was an unknown quantity, but had the slight build and Colombian heritage to identify him as one to watch on the mountains. He was a previous winner of the Tour de l'Avenir and had promising results behind him in Italy as a Neo-pro. Dumoulin, on the other hand, was a big unit and could be expected to put in a good time trial, whilst also serving as a reliable hand in the lead-out train for John Degenkolb. It was Degenkolb, after all, whom Team Giant-Alpecin had built their team around for this edition of the Vuelta. This race had me falling in love with both Chaves and Dumoulin, as despite their starkly different physical makeups, they both raced with the same passion and guts which set them out apart from the bunch. Despite being relative nobodies in the WorldTour field, they attacked the established pros and rode with a tenacity that meant they outperformed what others thought was physically possible of them. Over the course of the three weeks, two new cycling superstars had emerged as they went toe to toe, trading blows, before neither of them eventually won the race. It was a blockbuster Grand Tour with new protagonists, a Grand Tour that would live long in the memory.

A split in the peloton on stage 4 gave Dumoulin his first maillot rojo by just a second to the displaced-Chaves. However, in a sign of the ding-dong battle still to come, Chaves regained his leader's jersey the following day as he won stage 6's uphill finish. Chaves had now won two stages and Dumoulin had showed his fight on stage 2 as he attacked the bunch- an ordinary Grand Tour this was not to be.

The defining moment of the Grand Tour for Dumoulin, to my eyes at least, came on stage 9 as the riders climbed the Cumbre del Sol twice, with the second ascent forming the day's finish. It was the first time that the climb had featured in the Vuelta and had been identified by Giant-Alpecin as a stage to target, a move that signalled that their team's priorities were starting to shift due to Dumoulin's surprising form. Teammate Johannes Fröhinger recalled in an interview with Rouleur that they, "knew the run-in to the climb and the finish very well... we wanted to give Tom the best possible support". It was a stage finish that would go on to define Dumoulin's style as a rider, a style that should be applauded for its restrain and intelligence. Despite being distanced a times, Dumoulin rode at a sustained rhythm that allowed him to avoid blowing up. Little by little, he ground his way back to the leading group that included two-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome. 1.7km from the line, Dumoulin initiated an attack but was rounded by Froome on the final bend. Froome looked destined to take the stage victory but faded as he approached the line. In contrast, Dumoulin grew stronger and pedalled with all his might against the brutal gradient, taking him around Froome and even dropping him as he reached the line. As Dumoulin recalls, "I knew I had something left... I thought it was now or never, so I just smashed everything out of my legs and it was enough".

Punching the air as he crossed the line, Dumoulin takes both the stage victory and the leader's jersey once more. In his post-race interview, he appears a mixture of elated and surprised, making sure to thank his teammates for encouraging him following a tough stage 8.

This interview and victory form an early indicator of why we will come to love Tom; with his relaxed and open English-speaking interviews, we get to understand, and grow fond of, the man behind the superb rides that often see him alone and managing his effort. Whilst there is undeniable beauty in the rider that attacks on passion and this is often their downfall, one's mind turns to Alberto Contador, there is also beauty in the determined refusal to exceed their limits that results in a grind to regain contact at times, ala Froome and Dumoulin.

Stage 11 sees an example of why Dumoulin's surprise rise will serve to hamper his efforts to win the overall race. Given that his team is one made up of riders selected to help Degenkolb take sprint victories, Dumoulin is the only race favourite to not have a man up the road in the break. In a day billed as the Queen's stage of the race and containing 6 climbs, the inability of his team will leave Dumoulin isolated and vulnerable to more natural climbers. This is how the day plays out, with Dumoulin losing the leader's jersey to Fabio Aru, who finishes second behind his Astana teammate Mikel Landa. Despite the losses on the final climb, Dumoulin digs deep and maintains a consistent effort in order to minimise his losses, ending the day only 30 seconds behind Aru. Whilst the day is one of defeat for Dumoulin to some, to the masses this day is one of victory, as Dumoulin limits his losses in the mountains and provides himself a perfect platform going into stage 17's time trial.

Dumoulin wins the time trial to regain the maillot rojo. © Tim de Waele

In the time trial it is a one man show, as Dumoulin storms his way to a second stage victory, this time beating 2nd place Maciej Bodnar by more than a minute. It is a textbook display in time trialling by the former Dutch National Time Trial Champion, taking a lead of 3 seconds over Fabio Aru going into the final few days of the Vuelta. Subsequently on stage 19, Dumoulin doubles his lead to 6 seconds after attacking on the final cobbled climb. Prior to this Vuelta, Dumoulin had finished only two Grand Tours, placing 41st and 33rd at the Tour de France. Yet here he was with one day of competitive racing to come, in the lead of the race by 6 seconds. To say it was unchartered territory is to put it mildly; from being a reasonably promising stage racer, Dumoulin was now on the verge of winning a Grand Tour that had seen the field include Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. Through extraordinarily limiting his losses in the mountains to Aru and Joaquim Rodríguez in the race's final week, Dumoulin had allowed his time trial to put him on the cusp of glory, this was to be his moment, a most unexpected moment.

Alas, it was not to be as Dumoulin lost 3 minutes and 52 seconds on stage 20, tumbling his way down to 6th overall. Yet again, Giant-Alpecin could not send any men up in the day's break, though Dumoulin contends that this would not have made any difference, insisting that he "was completely done... I had no energy on the last day... it was too much, too much for me to handle". Fabio Aru romped to Vuelta victory and had gapped Dumoulin over the top of the day's penultimate climb. This was one day too far for the Butterfly of Maastricht, who had shot to stardom and announced himself to the world. With his gutsy displays in the mountains, clinging onto riders seemingly half his size and weight, and tenacious stage victories, he had earnt a new raft of supporters, myself included. It would not have been a surprise to see Dumoulin return to his previous incarnation as a reliable stage racer following these three weeks, after all, so-called one-hit wonders have come and gone before him. But this was not just a one-off three weeks of remarkable riding, this was the beginning of the rise for Tom Dumoulin that would culminate in him winning a Grand Tour, becoming the first Dutch rider to win a Grand Tour since Joop Zoetemelk in 1980.

After victory in the opening time trial, Dumoulin takes his first maglia rosa. © Kristof Ramon

2016 was an unusual year for Tom as it was an Olympic year. For someone who exploded onto the Grand Tour scene in the previous year's Vuelta, the normal route would be to build and improve on that in the next year's Grand Tours. However, aiming for the Olympic Gold in the time trial, Dumoulin was insistent on avoiding a GC run in 2016 and instead focused on preparation for the Olympics.

The year started in blockbuster fashion for the Vuelta 2015 star, as he took the maglia rosa after the Giro d'Italia's opening stage in the Netherlands. This glory tempted Dumoulin into a GC push, as he wore the jersey for two days, until losing it to Marcel Kittel, and regaining it for a further four days. His racing was brilliant once more, until he was forced to abandon any overall hopes on stage 11 with saddle sores, a problem that hampered him at last year's Tour de France and also saw him abandon the 2020 Vuelta.

Once more Dumoulin shrugged off any ideas of pushing for overall victory at the Tour de France, but this did not stop him taking two stellar stage victories along the way. On stage 9 he was part of a breakaway on the Tour's Queen stage, including the likes of Thomas De Gendt and Thibaut Pinot. On the final 10km ascent, he attacked the group and dropped Pinot and co, soloing to the top of the climb and taking his first Tour stage. Once more he was all smiles after the finish and looked equally as surprised as he did after his stage 9 success at the aforementioned Vuelta.

"It's a dream and it came true! I cannot even speak right now, I am so tired..."
Tom Dumoulin after winning stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France

Stage 9 success was followed up by a dominant victory in the individual time trial 4 days later, where he put a minute into second-placed Chris Froome over just 37.5km. This was an almighty show of strength and an intriguing battle between two riders who would soon become rivals over three week races. Moreover, it was a show of intent by Dumoulin ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio.

Despite breaking his wrist in the build up, Dumoulin managed to win the silver medal in the Rio Olympic's time trial, losing to Swiss-great Fabian Cancellara. Tom Dumoulin was no one-hit wonder; in the space of 6 months or so he had won one stage of the Giro d'Italia, worn the maglia rosa for the first time in his career, won two stages of the Tour de France and won the silver medal at the Olympic Games. All this was just the prelude, however, to greater success. 2017 would see Dumoulin reach the heights that had been foreshadowed by his mesmerising 2015 Vuelta heroics.

Dumoulin wins the stage 10 time trial in his Dutch National Champion colours. © Tim de Waele

In 2017 Dumoulin would return to the Giro, but this time with ambitions for the GC. This was to be the first Grand Tour Dumoulin had ever started whilst harbouring hopes to pursue overall spoils. It would prove to be his first success, as he won the 2017 Giro d'Italia, bringing joy to a Dutch nation that had last experienced Grand Tour victory with Joop Zoetemelk at the 1980 Tour de France.

His race began in fine fashion with a combative third on the summit finish to Blockhaus, only losing 24 seconds to soon-to-be rival Nairo Quintana. At Blockhaus that day he finished alongside Thibaut Pinot, a natural climber who has conquered the likes of Alpe d'Huez in his career. Whilst it is a true joy to behold the slight climbers dance their way up mountains, there is a certain romanticism with less naturally-gifted riders turning themselves inside out in a bid to match the smaller guys on the climbs. This is the case with Geraint Thomas, whom it was a pleasure to watch win up Alpe d'Huez in 2018, and also with Tom Dumoulin, who has skinned off his natural body weight ala Bradley Wiggins in order to reach 69kg and climb with the very best in the business. Whilst maintaining a terrific time trialling ability, this makes him the prototype Grand Tour contender in this modern age. This was proved in the two time trial stages at the 2017 Giro, where he won stage 10's ITT to take the race lead by 2 minutes and 23 seconds, before finishing 2nd on stage 21's ITT to take overall victory.

However, this was not a Grand Tour victory simply down to his powers as a time triallist, this was a victory down to his sheer tenacity and engine to sustain efforts over long duration, without going too far into the red. The most impressive moment of Tom's Giro success came on stage 14's mountain top finish at Santuario di Oropa, upon which he took the stage victory and put 14 seconds into Nairo Quintana. Dumoulin faced troubles on the climb, as Quintana attacked from the bunch and quickly built up a 10+ second gap. As the maglia rosa, it was down to Dumoulin to lead the chase and he sat on the front of the main bunch for kilometre after kilometre in a sustained effort which saw him reel Quintana in little by little. Rather than losing his head under such crucial circumstances, he maintained his composure and avoiding exceeding his anaerobic limits, before finally catching Quintana, who now looked depleted and demoralised. At this point the Butterfly of Maastricht smelt blood and upon catching Quintana, immediately attacked over the top of him.

“Here comes Dumoulin… and he goes and Zakarin goes with him! Dumoulin is going for this, he wants to win up a mountain! He doesn’t want to just be a time triallist, he wants to be a hero!”
Carlton Kirby commentating on Dumoulin's attack upon catching Quintana

A hero he did become, if not immediately. Digging deep into his depleted reserves, Quintana was able to tag back onto the group containing Dumoulin. However, as they reached the final 500m of the climb it was time for Dumoulin to grind out one last almighty attack, just as he had done to punish Chris Froome on stage 9 of the 2015 Vuelta. Sensing weakness, he attacked and bulldozed his opponents to win the stage, taking another 14 seconds over Quintana.

“It’s Dumoulin! Dumoulin, king of this mountain, he’s slashed everybody down with him… and he might just come through to take the day, oh he’s going to, here he goes, picks it up, Dumoulin has done it! King of the mountain! King of the hills! King of the time trial! And I think, King in waiting of this Giro d’Italia!"
Carlton Kirby's words to this stage victory will raise goosebumps

All roads in Dumoulin's career lead back to his fantastic but doomed 2015 Vuelta 6th place; whilst he repeated his glorious high power finish of stage 9 when he put Quintana to the sword at Santuario di Oropa, the question remained over his finish to a Grand Tour. On stage 20 of the Vuelta, he had collapsed physically after falling ill for a couple of days- do not forget that he had never been in a position to challenge for overall victory after three weeks before. Coming into the 2017 Giro, he had never produced a strong performance on the final blows of a Grand Tour, so whilst the final day's time trial should have played to his strengths, it was uncharted territory for Dumoulin, Would he have the energy to produce a time trial that would take him from fourth place to overall victory? Before we look back upon this glorious final day, it would be remiss not to mention the infamous stage 16 of that Giro...

© Cor Vos

The Passo dello Stelvio produces extraordinary moments, as we saw in last year's Giro with the onslaught of Rohan Dennis and Tao Geoghegan Hart, but it also played host to a most unexpected drama in 2017 on stage 16. Dumoulin looked comfortable in the maglia rosa with the final day's time trial to come following a couple of mountain tests. Should he stick with the favourites on the Stelvio stage, a tough task in itself, he should have been fine to see his victory home to Milan. However, all that came undone following the second ascent of the Stelvio, as the confused commentary team bare witness to Dumoulin stopping at the side of the road. It was confusion, until he began removing his clothes at least... described graciously by Dan Lloyd and Carlton Kirby as 'an upset stomach', Dumoulin had suffered from a bad case of the Laura Trotts, succumbing to temptation in a roadside ditch as the cameras frantically tried to pan away before revealing too much. Borrowing loo roll from Orica-BikeExchange's Matt White, the Butterfly had all of a sudden become far more human, more human than we particularly needed to see!

Whilst the group of main favourites initially appeared perplexed as to what to do, The Shark of Messina soon got to work; Vincenzo Nibali called his Bahrain-Merida teammate to begin pacesetting on the front, the attack was on. Just as in 2015, Dumoulin was without teammates as his Sunweb team did not have the budget to assemble a sufficient cast to help him challenge for Grand Tour victories, no doubt a factor in his 2019 move to Jumbo Visma. In the face of these difficulties, Dumoulin had to dig deeper than he probably ever has in his career, as he was left to ride alone for the remainder of the stage in a battle to limit losses. This was no short task, given he still had to climb and descend the Umbrail Pass. In another example of his determined riding in the face of adversity, Dumoulin was able to limit the damage to 2 minutes and 16 seconds lost to Nibali, the stage winner ahead of a heartbroken Mikel Landa. 31 seconds was now Dumoulin's lead over Quintana, a scenario which could have been far worse given the circumstances.

Although, this only opened the door for more speculation on how Dumoulin would fare in the remainder of the third week; not only had Dumoulin never finished a Grand Tour in a strong way, he was now faced with stomach troubles which had obviously become all-too great. Perhaps in a sign of ensuing weakness, Dumoulin was dropped on stage 19's summit finish in Piancavallo, but he did battle hard to limit his losses to the trio of Nibali, Pinot and Quintana. Following these rough few days and more time lost on stage 20, Dumoulin lay fourth place going into the final day's time trial.

The realisation of a dream in Milan. © Kristof Ramon

After three weeks of severe highs and lows, it was a forgone conclusion after 5km of the final time trial, as it became obvious that Dumoulin was on a blinding day. Although four riders had gone into the final day with the chance to win, something that had never happened before at the Giro, Dumoulin laid down the marker and finished second on the stage, moving himself from fourth to first place overall in the process. It was a victory full of everything that has made Dumoulin a pleasure to support: tenacity, passion, relentlessness and that square-jawed smile we have all come to know and love. On the top step in Milan, holding the 'never ending trophy' aloft, Dumoulin had achieved something that he could not have dreamt about just two years earlier. It was a remarkable rise that saw him reach cycling's top echelon and win so many supporters along the way. Whilst the pressure that has come from this increased fame is a motivating factor in his decision to take a break from cycling, let us not forget the incredible moments that he delivered along the way.

In some ways, the Giro d'Italia would define Dumoulin's career after his 2015 breakthrough in Spain. The 2018 edition saw him take the maglia rosa for the third year in succession after tasting victory on the opening individual time trial in Jerusalem. As defending champion, Dumoulin was understandably a big favourite for the race, but two surprises dented these hopes. The first of these surprises was the exceptional performance of Simon Yates, who seemed able to drop anybody at his will on the race's climbs, amassing a lead of 2 minutes and 11 seconds over Dumoulin before stage 17's time trial. The second surprise that thwarted the Butterfly was the remarkable recovery of Chris Froome, whose 80km solo attack on stage 19 saw him leapfrog Dumoulin in the standings and take the maglia rosa from Yates. Despite the best efforts of Dumoulin on stage 20, it was too late to gain the time back on Froome and resulted in a second placed finish.

In chase of Froome on the extraordinary stage 19. © Gruber Images

A second placed finish would befall Dumoulin once more that year, this time in the Tour de France to winner Geraint Thomas. Although it was a disappointment to come so close and yet so far from winning, his victory on stage 20's time trial in the World Championship bands must have tasted sweet. Dumoulin had won the time trial rainbow bands at the 2017 World Championships in Bergen, Norway, after becoming a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau in The Netherlands due to his Giro success.

The 2019 Giro d'Italia would be the last of Dumoulin's career, as of now. The race would define Dumoulin's 2019 and perhaps the remainder of his racing career, as he sustained a knee injury on stage 4 that would rule him out of the race the following day, and also rule him out of competitive racing for over a year. In the middle of this break, Dumoulin made a move which many believed would see him become a Tour de France champion, in transferring to rising super-team, Jumbo Visma. Unfortunately his return to the WorldTour with his new team was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. He was unable to return until after the season restart in August 2020, where he lined up at the Critérium du Dauphiné and achieved a commendable 7th placed finish. Dumoulin looked on the rise once more and ready to sit alongside Primoz Roglic in Jumbo Visma's two-pronged attack. Alas, early time losses would unfortunately soon put paid to the idea of Dumoulin challenging for last year's overall title.

The majority of my words have been devoted to the 2015 Vuelta a España and the 2017 Giro d'Italia, as I see these two races as the highlights of Dumoulin's racing career. However, this is not to say there were not other moments of joy that Tom brought to us. Indeed, despite a 2020 hampered by saddle sores and a lack of racing days, the Butterfly of Maastricht spread his wings in one last moment of glory, that despite not sealing a stage victory, certainly gave us a glimpse at the return of the rider we know and love.

© Cor Vos

Stage 20 of last year's Tour de France was disastrous for Jumbo Visma on the face of it, with Primoz Roglic losing his maillot jeune to Tadej Pogačar. But it was only the once-in-a-lifetime ride by Pogačar that stopped their very own Tom Dumoulin from taking the stage honours. On that day at last year's Tour, we were lucky enough to see the Tom Dumoulin of old back once more, spreading his wings and flying to a second placed finish, with a time trial that produced numbers up there with his very best. Whilst the career of Dumoulin has stalled and prematurely stuttered since his 2019 Giro d'Italia crash, he rose once more to his greatness on stage 20's time trial, we should count ourselves lucky to have witnessed that, especially if it proves to be his glorious farewell from the sport.

"On that TT day that was the old Tom Dumoulin again and that made me very happy".
Tom Dumoulin reflecting on his stage 20 time trial performance

Since watching the Amstel Gold race near his home at the age of 15, Dumoulin has been in love with cycling. But since his delayed comeback to racing last year, it seems as though Tom has lost his love for cycling, and our sport will be all the worse for his loss. Though rather than looking at his break with sadness or remorse, we must celebrate all the good times that Tom Dumoulin has provided to us over the years. #Creatingmemories was the slogan for Dumoulin at Team Sunweb; well I am happy to say he was successful in creating memories for us all, whether it be his remarkable rise at the 2015 Vuelta, or the realisation of his potential at the 2017 Giro. Away from his inspiring work on the bike, his infectious smile and engaging interviews off the bike have endeared him to so many of us. It has been clear to us for a while that the enthusiasm and spark had faded from Dumoulin in the past year, and chapeau to him for having the bravery to take a step back. Let us hope that Tom regains his smile and we see the Dumoulin of old once more, the Dumoulin that stopped an interview with Richard Moore to learn the meaning of the word 'intertwined'. His joy and pleasure at adding this word to his English vocabulary points to the rounded character that Dumoulin has away from the bike. Perhaps this break will see him finally able to study medicine further, a passion he had as a child, or perhaps we will see him taking the start line of the Tour de France in late June. Whichever train Tom decides to jump on next, let us hope that it brings a smile to his face and lets the Butterfly of Maastricht spread its wings once again. In the meantime, we will certainly miss him.

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