Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
“It really is as if a backpack of a hundred kilos has slipped off my shoulders. I immediately woke up happy,” Tom Dumoulin said of his decision to take an immediate and indefinite break from cycling.
It may have been a shock, even to his Jumbo-Visma team, which less than 24 hours earlier had announced that the 30-year-old Dutchman would be targeting the Tour of Flanders and lining up once again as one of their leaders at the Tour de France, but Dumoulin has clearly done the right thing by deciding to devote some time to himself and his family.
“I’ve been feeling for quite a while that it is very difficult for me to know how to find my way as Tom Dumoulin the cyclist – with the pressure that comes with it, with the expectations of different parties,” he added, his words echoing those of Marcel Kittel when the German sprinter also decided to step away from racing in May 2019. Like Kittel, there has been a sense of a creeping disenchantment with racing, that it was Dumoulin’s sense of enjoyment rather than his ability that was diminishing.
In his statement, Dumoulin pointed to his struggles to get back to his best from the knee injury that forced him out of the 2019 Giro d’Italia. In the aftermath of that, his relationship with his Sunweb team deteriorated, resulting in a bitter split.
Even though the subsequent move to Jumbo-Visma appeared to suit both parties, the biggest Dutch star joining the increasing potent Dutch powerhouse of a team, Dumoulin’s struggles continued. Set back by intestinal problems in the spring and also by the impact of the coronavirus, he admitted during the Critérium du Dauphiné that he was still unable to reproduce the stage racing consistency that had enabled him to win the Giro in 2017 and finish second at both the Giro and Tour a year later.
He started the Tour as Jumbo’s co-leader and lived up to that billing during the first week, reaching the Pyrenees in fifth place, just 13 seconds down on yellow jersey Adam Yates. Yet he was already being hampered by a saddle sore and slipped out of contention towards the end of stage eight, the first day in the Pyrenees.
It wasn’t until December’s release of Code Yellow, the NOS documentary film charting Jumbo-Visma’s bid to win the Tour crown, that the full extent of Dumoulin’s suffering was revealed. At the end of one stage, he’s caught on camera crying on the team bus, head hanging low. “I sit on my bike with so much pain. This is no longer possible. I’m sitting just so cramped on my bike,” he says, continuing: “Really, I get pain everywhere. My whole body. I’m being dropped on the descent. I just can’t…”
Somehow, Dumoulin did reach Paris, second place in the final time trial boosting him to seventh overall. But he subsequently admitted that he was close to calling a halt to his career then such was the extent of his disillusion. Instead he rode on, lining up at the Worlds, the Ardennes Classics and the Vuelta a España, which he quit after a week due to fatigue.
Reflecting on Dumoulin’s long battle to get back to his best after a hugely debilitating injury and his calvary at the Tour, what’s most extraordinary about it is there aren’t many more riders who come to the same conclusion as the Dutchman, that stepping away, even temporarily, might be the best way forwards. His travails aren’t by any means unusual in cycling. In fact, most riders within the pro peloton will have had similar experiences.
While financial imperative may have forced some to keep racing, others may have continued because that’s simply what pro cyclists are expected to do. In what is arguably the toughest of sports from the physical and psychological perspective and where two-year contracts are the norm, there’s traditionally been no allowance for any kind of perceived weakness. Indeed, the savaging of Fabio Aru by his UAE Team Emirates manager Giuseppe Saronni when the Italian quit the 2020 Tour in the Pyrenees suggests that attitude remains within some squads, Saronni declaring that Aru “has problems, also psychological problems. He doesn’t react to difficulties, he goes down, he doesn’t have that character.”
Thankfully, most team managers don’t seem to have Saronni’s character and attitudes like these increasingly seem anomalies rather than the rule. Just weeks before Kittel announced his decision to step away from racing in 2019, British rider Pete Kennaugh said he was taking an indefinite break from the sport with the backing of his Bora-Hansgrohe team. “I want to be going forward and to re-discover happiness, motivation and enthusiasm in my day to day life,” said 2012 Olympic gold medalist.
At the end of that same year, Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina, who had contemplated retirement, said he was turning his back on the WorldTour to focus on gravel racing, citing a quest for “freshness, joy, progression and longevity.”
Dumoulin clearly wants to savour these qualities too. While I would love to see the Dutchman return to racing, as he’s always been great to watch as well being one of the most honest and engaging of riders, one that you relished speaking to because he didn’t serve up pat answers, more than anything I hope that finds the path that’s right for him.
“I really need the time to get things clear in my head about what I want and how I want it,” he said on his Twitter profile. “I’m going to do a lot of thinking and talking to a lot of people and I’m very confident that I will find the answers in the coming period.”
I’m sure we’d all wish him the very best of luck with that.
If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, available to buy here.