Really, there is only one man who can lay a claim to the 25-or-under category this year, and that man is the Netherland’s own Tom Dumoulin. Tom, Tommy D, Doomy, The Butterfly of Maastricht — whatever you fancy calling him, you can’t deny the performances he’s put down this season. And, whilst he might have just missed out on that young rider grand tour victory, there’s plenty to reflect upon from this young man’s 2015 season.
Things started off well for Dumoulin in the very first tour of the year: he came in fourth place in a hotly contested Tour Down Under, behind the Aussie trio of Rohan Dennis, Richie Porte, and Cadel Evans (it was Cadel’s last ever pro tour). His next success was emphatic, with a win in the Vuelta Pais Basco (tour of the Basque country) individual time trial. He repeated his time-trial trick in the Tour de Suisse, taking both the prologue and the individual time trial, and coming in third overall.
But here’s where the plot thickens. After a relatively unspectacular fourth place in the Netherlands national time-trial, Dumoulin was ousted in the Tour de France opening TT by the big guns: Cancellara, Martin, and the record-breaking run from Rohan Dennis. There was to be no win for him on his own Dutch soil, but things really plunged into gloom for Dum during stage 3. A huge crash on the route from Antwerp to Huy brought down a third of the peloton, with Dumoulin sustaining tour-ending injury. He’d been favourite to take the jersey off the hands of Cancellara, who also left the tour after injuries in that crash. It was a huge blow to the Dutchman, and meant he had to rethink his season.
‘Rethinking’, though, does not do justice to what Dumoulin did next. Hitting the rollers and the training rides, Dumoulin didn’t race at all until the final grand tour of the season, signing on for the Vuelta a España. There was a cloud of uncertainty over him, given his return from injury, and the fact that Giant-Alpecin finished 19th out of 22 on the opening team time-trial put him off everyone’s radars. But the very next day, on a cat 3 finish, Dumoulin finished second to Esteban Chaves, and was 5 seconds off race lead. The commentators were ecstatic at what appeared to be a fluke — how had this enormous and powerful time trial rider managed to keep up with a pocket-sized climb specialist on a difficult uphill finish? It was not to be the last we’d see of Dumoulin, though.
Dumoulin held on to second place for the next few days, but, on stage 5, a split in the field benefitted him and he wore red for the first time. This was short-lived, as a charging Chaves reclaimed the jersey the very next day. Stage 9 arrived, and, with it, the first serious mountaintop finish. All eyes were on Chris Froome, which is why it was a surprise to everyone when Dumoulin not only managed to keep up with the Brit, but he actually got past him. The stage win and the red jersey were his again, and this time it was seen as a real game changer. This supposed time-trial specialist had come back from injury to win atop a category 1 climb, beating Froome, Rodriguez, Majka, Valverde, Pozzovivo, Quintana, Aru, Henao… every climber in the peloton except for Contador. How had he done this? What an achievement!
Dumoulin’s vuelta would continue in much the same vein. He lost the jersey again, but reclaimed it with an enormous margin on the stage 17 time trial. It looked like he’d be wearing it into Madrid for certain, but, ruefully, things panned out otherwise. Fabio Aru had been attacking day after day, wanting to take back seconds on his rival (especially after Nibali had dropped out of the tour), but losing more seconds than he gained. But, on the final two climbs of the final day before Madrid, Dumoulin cracked. The Astana team, thanks to brilliant tactics, managed to shatter the peloton into tiny fragments, and Dumoulin, too tired after a long season and a tough tour, lost seconds by the handful — over 7 and a half minutes worth by the end of the day. He’s started stage 20 in first place, he finished in sixth, and that is how his most successful and surprising grand tour campaign would end.
But let that sorry stage 20 result not dampen Dumoulin’s extraordinary season. At only 25, he has plenty of opportunities to shine ahead of him, and, though few were expecting it, he shone brilliantly for 19 stages in this year’s Vuelta. If he comes back, injury-free and smiling, in 2016, then we must surely expect him to last those final two days. Expect big things from the big Dutchman.
Honourable mention: Tiesj Benoot
At 21, Tiesj Benoot must surely be seen as a pick for the future, as one of the potential key names for the next generation of cycling. After all, when a Belgian finishes fifth in his first Tour of Flanders, everyone in Belgium takes notice. Here’s a little context for that claim: the rockstar of Belgium cycling Tom Boonen (three Flanders victories) finished 24th, aged 22, in his first ToF, and Boonen’s mentor and previous Belgian classics great Johan Museeuw finished 62nd in his first, aged 24. Fifth at age 21? This is exceptional.
Benoot also finished 6th in Dwars Door Vlaanderen the week before – showing strength and consistency during the classics season. He added to his strong one day performances with a handful of top ten finishes in the Critérium du Daphiné and the Eneco tour, proving he can pull out the big results on cobbled and non-cobbled roads alike.
A 5th and a 4th place at Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal and in Paris – Tours, respectively, revealed some great form at the end of a wearying season. Lotto-Soudal clearly kept him fit and motivated across the cycling year, as was reflected in his results. Expect him to step up during the 2015 classics season, and don’t be surprised if he’s nominated as co-leader for some of the Belgian races — Benoot first big win can only be a couple of years away at most.
Not a youngest ‘young rider’ anymore, though only just turned 25, Luke Rowe deserves a mention here not as a breakthrough rider but perhaps for most matured rider of the year.
His selfless performances throughout the year in driving the peloton forward have been a marvel to watch, and his presence in the final groups of the bigger one-day races has become customary. Finishing in ninth place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which was won by his teammate Ian Stannard, showcased his growing experience and hinted at his greatness.
He was able to carry this through the coming weeks, leading the charge over the Cipressa with Ben Swift in tow during the closing kilometres of Milano-Sanremo, and finishing just outside the top ten at E3 Harelbeke — a race won by another teammate, Geraint Thomas. Coincidence? We think not.
No wonder, then, that after Thomas crashed out of Paris-Roubaix it was Rowe who had the confidence, ability and strength to take the reins and finish in a remarkable eighth place — a position he described as a standout result in his career.
His inclusion in Team Sky’s Tour de France squad seemed inevitable with his role of chaperoning the team in the early hours of each stage perfectly suited to his talent. Unfortunately this meant his hard work was rarely captured on TV but his teammates were quick to praise his tireless efforts, impressed with how he rode, marshalled and coped during his debut Tour.
David Millar wrote in his latest book, The Racer, that he expects Luke Rowe to become, if he isn’t already, the defacto road captain for future Great British teams and it’s hard to argue with such praise. It is clear he’s matured to the point of excellence and can now use both is talent and experience in driving his domestic and national teams forward — as long as he makes sure to grab some wins for himself now and again.