Every Day, I Think About the UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race: Tom Dumoulin’s 30 Seconds of Payback
[Author’s Note: This is a piece about a bicycle race, however, it’s not meant to be a piece of sports journalism — rather it’s better classified as a work of creative non-fiction. We can never know what goes through a cyclist’s head when they race. We can never truly understand their motives, their inspirations — yet their actions tell a story, and my goal here is to distill those storytelling elements into a broader, if somewhat embellished narrative.]
Tom Dumoulin’s 30 Seconds of Payback
Tom Dumoulin quite literally comes out of nowhere.
In fact, nobody’s really sure where he’s been all day, which is odd because the Dutch team leader is among a handful of contenders with the potential to win this race.
During the height of the French Offensive, with 63 kilometers left to go, the NBC commentators say that they’ve lost contact with Dumoulin and assume that he’s been dropped. Ten kilometers later, shortly after Pogačar’s bike change at the autodrome, the commentators report that Dumoulin’s in a grupetto — far behind the peloton where the cameras do not go — with the hero of our first chapter, Yukiya Arashiro, and the two Kiwi cyclists Patrick Devin and Finn Fisher-Black. However, is that true?
Miraculously, it’s not. At the autodrome, as the peloton begins the penultimate lap, sandwiched in the middle of the speeding mass, one can clearly spot the celeste green handlebar tape of Tom Dumoulin’s black Bianchi bike.
In addition, immediately before the commentators make their pronouncement (at 54.1 kilometers to go) that Dumoulin is in the grupetto with Arashiro, one can clearly see him nestled safely within the peloton as the camera pans to Tadej Pogačar moving his way back up through the ranks.
Let’s be honest. Is Dumoulin near the rear of the bunch? Sure. Is he in a far-off grupetto with the likes of Arashiro? Definitely not. (Humorously, the commentators predict in the same moment that Dumoulin will not stay in this race for much longer.)
It is unclear whether Dumoulin was actually in a trailing group prior to the autodrome. Maybe he was and he recovered on the flat of the racetrack. Honestly, it’s unclear if he’s been dropped to begin with. During the French Offensive, the footage is so focused on the front of the race that whatever happens in the middle and the rear of the bunch remains a mystery.
50 kilometers to go, as the riders reach the base of the Mazzolano, the commentators finally spot Dumoulin as he slips to the tail end of the peloton, punished by the blistering pace set by the leaders vying for control at the front. However, as they round a corner, Dumoulin is able to recover and before long, he’s safely in the wheels of the rider ahead of him — again near the back, but in the bunch nevertheless.
A narrative of Dumoulin is being painted by the commentators, which, to some extent, is confirmed by the man’s own riding: he’s struggling; he’s not long for this world; in general, he’s having a rather rough go of it. Only time will tell whether or not this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but for now, in the few glimpses the cameras give us, we catch Dumoulin in and out of the saddle, body rocking from side to side, jaw slack with exhaustion. However, in those same few glimpses, one also sees the Dutch team leader slowly but surely move his way forward, grabbing on to whatever wheel he can as the peloton grinds up the Cima Gallisterna. 41 kilometers left to go, the camera’s view compresses, captures the front of the race in a single shot, and we finally get a decent look at Dumoulin’s face.
It’s true — the man is tired. One can see it in his heavy shoulders and in his parted lips. His eyes, however, tell a different story. As he battles gravity on the Cima’s brutal gradient, Dumoulin’s expression is not one of anguish or even of weary resignation.
It’s one of true grit.
Tom Dumoulin’s having a bad day. In fact, he hasn’t had a particularly good day since his wreck in the fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia last year, which caused significant damage to his knee. Sure, he attempted to ride the Criterium du Dauphine afterwards, but the writing was on the wall and he quit after stage six. That ill-fated Dauphine was his last race of the 2019 season as well as his last with Team Sunweb, the squad behind Dumoulin’s victory at the 2017 Giro and his second place wins at both the Giro and the Tour the following year. In 2020, he joined Team Jumbo Visma to serve as a team leader alongside Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk.
Dumoulin’s 2020 season hasn’t been terrible — he finished 7th in both the Dauphine and the Tour de France — but his crash last year seems to have shaken his confidence somewhat. Rather than compete to lead Team Jumbo Visma in either the Dauphine or the Tour, he quickly relinquished his place in the hierarchy, choosing instead to serve as a super-domestique for Primož Roglič. By all accounts, it’s a role he excelled at. In the Tour, Dumoulin was instrumental in putting Roglič at the top of the General Classification early on and critical in keeping him there as the race continued. When Roglič loses to Pogačar in the Tour’s final time trial, it’s Dumoulin who’s on the ground beside his beleaguered teammate waving away the cameras with one hand, the other resting on Roglič’s shoulder, comforting him.
However, when Dumoulin arrives at Worlds a week later, it’s clear the man is tired. For a rider who claimed the rainbow bands in the 2017 World Championship Individual Time Trial and a silver medal the following year, his 10th place showing in this edition of Worlds is, by comparison, lackluster. (Dumoulin did not compete in 2019.)
Indeed, Dumoulin’s season-ending 2019 Giro crash appears to have changed him, both athletically and as a person. If one watches interviews of Dumoulin prior to that event, one sees a confident, if not outright cocky man with the utmost faith in his ability to dominate the competition — a man very different from the quiet, introspective one depicted in more recent footage.
This new Dumoulin does not see himself as some grand hero conquering nature, physics, and his fellow man. Instead, he sees himself as a mere bike racer, and he sees bike racing as nothing more than a job. As he put it in a particularly poignant interview with Soigneur:
“I find it odd when people cheer for me, because I don’t think that what I do is so special. It’s more what other people make of it. For me, a doctor who saves a life does something really special, but no one stands to cheer for him. Everyone stands to cheer for the guy who can ride a bike fast. That is actually really dumb.”
Imagine being Tom Dumoulin. Imagine having your career upended by a single bad day in Italy, deciding to quit the team that’s given you all your successes because things just aren’t working out. Imagine finding yourself riding alongside a new squadron of cyclists just as strong as you are, perhaps even stronger, and just not having the legs to lead. Imagine going from being a three-time grand tour podium finisher to riding as a domestique in the Tour de France. Imagine putting in a brutal effort day in and day out, only for the man you’ve been shepherding through treacherous crosswinds and hellish mountains alike to be annihilated at the last possible second by a debutante almost a decade younger than him.
Imagine that, a week later, you’re riding in the World Championships as the leader of the Dutch team — all eyes on you, no more Roglič to shield from the wind — but there’s no joy, no pride in it because you are exhausted. You rode a bad time trial yesterday, and today, it’s a struggle to merely cling to the back of the same peloton you used to dominate two seasons ago. With 42 kilometers still left in the race, you’ve fought tooth and nail to claw your way up to the front of the bunch, succeeding only because the peloton slows to a more relaxed, if ephemeral, pace. Right after you start to feel a little better — breathe a little easier, catch up a little more — comes the penultimate climb of the Cima Gallisterna, and guess what? The same 22 year old kid that just humiliated your team leader a week ago is breaking free.
Imagine being Tom Dumoulin in that moment.
You’d probably be pretty fucking pissed.
When Tadej Pogačar breaks away, the tempo of the peloton accelerates dramatically as the Belgians try desperately to reign the newly-crowned Tour de France winner in. Their attempt fails, and with 42 kilometers left in the race, Pogačar goes clear. Dumoulin is caught off guard, sinks to the rear of the group, but he’s still there, still manages to hang on. The pace is feverish and when it enters the descent, the peloton unwinds into one long strand, dangling threadlike behind the Belgians through every blistering corner.
Dumoulin’s out of the saddle, big head popping up through the crowd. Whether he’s trying to get a look around at the situation unfolding ahead of him or simply squeezing every ounce of power out of his legs is uncertain.
32 kilometers to go: Pogačar enters the autodrome, extends his lead back to 15 seconds. Dumoulin moves forward a little, but he’s patient. He’s found a good place to be, protected from the wind, taking comfort in the slipstreams of the riders around him. He’s joined a few minutes later by his teammate Dylan van Baarle, and the two appear to have a chat as they meander their way around the racetrack’s gentle corners.
The bell dings. It’s the final lap.
27 kilometers to go: Julian Alaphilippe drops back to talk to Guillaume Martin, his second in command. This will be important later on.
25 kilometers to go: Spain moves on the offensive, splitting the bunch into two side-by-side groups, one led by the Belgians, one by the Spanish. Roglič is in the middle, Dumoulin’s road captain van Baarle comes to the front, perhaps to do a little bit of reconnaissance for his teammate before dropping back again. The French assimilate and fan out between the two groups — Julian Alaphilippe in the middle with Molard and Elissonde as Valentin Madouas leads Guillaume Martin up the left-hand side. On the right, Dumoulin rides patiently, casually meandering his way forward on the right.
23.8 kilometers to go: Dumoulin tries a different approach, snags the wheel of Danish team leader Jakob Fuglsang as he is led up the left-hand side by his domestique Michael Valgren.
The Dutch team leader has one goal: he wants to get to the front as soon as possible. It’s imperative that he’s in position at the beginning of the Mazzolano.
All of Tom Dumoulin’s mental and physical energy is devoted to the intricate weaving of his bike, his eyes wandering as he waits to see who’s going to slip up just enough to let him through. He finds success behind the Italian road captain Damiano Caruso, who’s just to the right of the bunch. It’s the perfect place to be when Mikel Landa comes forward to threaten the Belgians, who suddenly jerk to the left in an attempt to cut him off.
Meanwhile, Tadej Pogačar finally reaches the foot of the climb. He’s grinding every last bit of wattage he can out of his aching legs, desperately trying stay ahead as the gradient grows steeper and steeper, slowing him down. The end, for him, is nigh, but he keeps fighting, refuses to give up.
21.9 kilometers to go: Caruso moves to the left to cut off Roglič, who’s sneaking his way to the front in a last ditch attempt to play wingman for his beleagured teammate further up the road. In doing so, Caruso gives Dumoulin the opening he’s been waiting for. The gradient ticks up to 9% and Pogačar’s lead evaporates.
The race is about be torn into shreds.
21.8 kilometers to go: Tom Dumoulin seizes his opportunity. He can faintly see the shape of Tadej Pogačar up ahead, which encourages him, makes his task more palatable. When Dumoulin arrives midway up the Cima Gallisterna, he’s not thinking about anything except the need to close the gap. The adrenaline coursing through his veins erases his exhaustion, melts away any residual inhibition, any nagging insecurity. He’s got one moment of glory in this race and its time has finally come.
Tom Dumoulin fucking goes for it.
It’s an explosive attack, well-timed, intense, executed to perfection. Instantly, he’s gapped the peloton, and soon, he’s gone.
It takes him less than thirty seconds to catch up to Pogačar. He jumps ahead of the younger man and locks him down. Once he gets there, Dumoulin is alone at the front with Tadej for less than minute, if that. The peloton looms too closely behind them, the climb is simply too steep, and thus, just as quickly as this important sequence of events begins, it’s over — for both of them.
Tom Dumoulin’s 30 Seconds of Payback
Why does Tom Dumoulin do it? Why does he blow himself up catching Tadej Pogačar, knowing full well that he’ll be unable to fight his way to victory after such an insane, powerful attack?
The answer is simple. It’s payback.
It’s payback for a lot of things. It’s payback for Pogačar beating Dumoulin’s teammate Roglič on the hills of the Tour’s final time trial. It’s payback for this bullshit season he’s had. It’s payback (albeit inwardly directed) for being unable to achieve once more the prime form he’d had before that stupid knee injury last year. It’s payback for being relegated to domestique duty. (In this way, it’s payback against Roglič, too.)
It’s payback for all the times someone’s claimed today that his legs are dead in the water, that he’s weak, that he’s going to fall off the back of this race without ever doing anything of importance. It’s payback for his mediocre time trial yesterday. It’s payback for being forced to represent his country with a team so poorly composed that the peloton easily whittles the squad’s eight men down to just van Baarle and himself. It’s payback for the lingering pain in his knee and the burning in his lungs and the fact that he still has two more classics and the fucking Vuelta after this. Finally, it’s payback for the punishing tempo set by the overpowered Belgians and the mischevious French and everyone else left in this god-forsaken peloton. He wants them all to suffer.
Tom Dumoulin knows when he attacks that his is the move that will change everything. He knows that the men behind him won’t see it coming. He knows that what transpires afterwards will set off a chain reaction, blowing this race to smithereens.
When Tom Dumoulin attacks, he says to himself: Well, at least I’ve done something.
The Moment of Truth
The Belgians (who at this point are kicking themselves for having wasted so much energy chasing Pogačar after they let him get away) are hell-bent on reining this back in. In the ensuing chaos, they let Guillaume Martin, the French road captain slip by on the left hand side. Martin is clever. He’s planned for this; he’s been waiting in the wings for so long. He’s an especially deft bike handler on climbs like these, and when he sees the opportunity to strike unveil itself, he grabs it with both hands.
It’s so quick, so efficient, that it takes several replays to catch a glimpse of him weaving his bike through the mess, sneaking away undetected until it’s too late. In an agonizing handful of seconds, he captures Dumoulin and Pogačar, the rest of the bunch quick to follow. Thus, the race comes back together and that’s it for Tom Dumoulin. After less than a minute, his scintilla of glory is smothered out. As the peloton reclaims him, Tom smiles to himself — laughs, even — because he knows he’s gotten one thing right.
Just as he predicted, the second after he and Pogačar are caught, all hell indeed breaks loose.
In every bike race, there is a moment where the winners and losers are decided. This moment is often chaotic. It’s a moment where everything happens at once, where all the dominoes fall into place, one by one; where the precise conditions responsible for that inevitable, final outcome align perfectly.
With 21.4 kilometers left to go in the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race, that moment is finally upon us.