Rider feature: Tom Dumoulin decided last Friday evening to take unpaid leave for an indefinite period. He takes a break in his career, because he has not felt happy as a cyclist for a year. Whether he will ever return to the peloton is now the big question. We look at the circumstances and hear from other riders.
Tom Dumoulin days before his decision
Since winning the 2017 Giro d’Italia, life has not been going Tom Dumoulin’s way. The split with his then team; Sunweb cost Dumoulin a lot of negative energy. A second place in the Tour de France was a confirmation of his obvious talent, but he felt that the team management did not respond to his wishes and his point of view. Then the knee injury in the 2019 Giro d’Italia was a big problem physically as well as mental. He didn’t race for 420 days.
The knee injury was the start of the doubts
The move to Jumbo-Visma was a big help, but he was now a team leader with the salary and expectations that that brought with them. After a successful return in the Tour de l’Ain, he was getting back to his old level with seventh place in the Dauphiné. Two weeks later he was at the start of the Tour de France in Nice as one of the favourites. But a saddle sore put an end to his overall dreams. But Dumoulin rode hard in the service of Primoz Roglič. In the NOS documentary ‘Code Yellow’ we see Dumoulin burst into tears.
Dumoulin took second place in the hilly time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles behind Tour winner Tadej Pogačar at 1:21 to finish in 7th place overall, but was this the start of his self doubt? To see these ‘young guns’ win so convincingly must have been hard. The abandonment of the Vuelta a España on stage seven was not a good way to end the season.
Now in January 2021 at his team training camp in Spain, he has decided a rest is needed and time to reassess his future.
Training with the team just last week
The Jumbo-Visma team made this announcement: Tom Dumoulin Takes a Recess
Tom Dumoulin has left the training camp of Team Jumbo-Visma to consider his cycling future at home. The Dutch rider won’t participate in races for the time being.
“I took the decision yesterday. And the team supports me in it, and it feels really good. It is really as if a backpack of a hundred kilos has slipped off my shoulders. I immediately woke up happy. It feels so good that I finally took the decision to take some time for myself. That says enough.”
Tom Dumoulin on his decision: “I have 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. I just want to do very well for very many people. I want the team to be happy with me. I want the sponsors to be happy. I want my wife and my family to be happy. And so I want to do well for everyone, but because of that I have forgotten myself a bit in the past year. What do I want? Do I still want to be a rider? And how?”
Trying out the new Cervélo time trial bike
Dumoulin asked for a meeting with the team’s staff on Friday evening. Team manager Richard Plugge, sports manager Merijn Zeeman, head trainer Mathieu Heijboer and team doctor Peter Verstappen sat with Dumoulin to hear his thoughts.
“At the beginning of the conversation you could sense a bit of doubt, but his message was clear that he actually no longer wanted to cycle in this way,” Merijn Zeeman told Dutch website WielerFlits. “Tom no longer felt happy as the cyclist Tom Dumoulin for a long time.”
“Where other riders enjoyed this training camp in sunny temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius, you missed the joy with him. He did not see the prospect of being on the road again for weeks after this training camp after a few days of rest for an altitude camp and then riding the Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-Sanremo. He didn’t want that.”
Tom Dumoulin – World champion and Grand Tour winner
Dumoulin’s decision came as a surprise to Zeeman. “If you had told me before this training camp that Tom would go home halfway through to temporarily stop his career, I would not have believed you. It had been clear to us for a long time that he had doubts. This has been going on for more than a year. During his first training camp with our team in Girona in December 2019, he was super happy. He enjoyed everything and was radiant all day long. He was also by far the best rider of the team in that camp.”
The team then flew back to the Netherlands for the team presentation in Amsterdam. “The day before that presentation, Tom probably ate something wrong and got sick. From that moment on he has continued to struggle. At the training camp in Alicante in January 2020, he was again not quite physically in order and eventually had to go home early.”
“Then the parasites started to play up in the intestines. In the subsequent first Corona lockdown, he went really deep mentally. Then he already had a very difficult time. We also arranged professional help during that period to help him with this. Fortunately, he was able to pull himself up towards the training camp in Tignes and then the Tour de l’Ain, Dauphiné and Tour de France.”
Jumbo-Visma’s Merijn Zeeman
Zeeman emphasises that on Friday evening Dumoulin and the technical staff jointly concluded that this ‘break’ is the best for the winner of the 2017 Giro d’Italia. “This life didn’t make him happy anymore. It’s about his luck. All that matters is his well-being. Tom has said emphatically that he would very much like to return to this team when he feels like cycling again. We are of course open to that. We want to help him where possible.”
Zeeman doesn’t dare to say whether Dumoulin will ever return to the peloton. “You don’t have to put a time limit on that now. That does not work. Only when he has completely relaxed and has distanced himself from the cycling world can he indicate what he wants to continue with his life.”
“Of course we hope that the sacred fire will burn again with him. That it is bubbling in his body that he wants to return. After all, it is a shame that someone with so much talent, who is one of the best in the world, does not use it now. The most important thing now is that Tom starts to feel happy again. The fact that after that decision he woke up with a smile on Friday evening and returned to the Netherlands with a sense of relief is currently the most important thing.”
Old teammates Marcel Kittel and Tom Dumoulin
Marcel Kittel had similar problems and in the end put a stop to his professional cycling career. “I know from my own experience how difficult it is,” the fast German spoke about his teammate via Instagram: “I’ve always admired Tom Dumoulin for his strength. On the bike when we were teammates and won Tour de France stages together. And off the bike for his clear opinion and honest critic.
Of course it’s sad to see him taking a timeout from cycling now, but he also stays true to himself to take the time he needs and figure out what who he is and what he wants. I know from personal experience how it feels and how difficult it can be when you’re doubting what you do and you want to look beyond your current life and identity. Only time will give you the answers and I hope for Tom that he’ll find them soon.
Until then I wish him the same strength that he has on the bike also for this part of his career and everyone else who is in the same situation and trying to learn more about his or her own identity. I know that it’s a big journey with uncertain destination but also a very important life lesson once you find that inner compass again, recalibrate and head into your future direction.”
Dumoulin and Kittel enjoying the 2016 Giro d’Italia
Marcel Kittel has been in contact with his former teammate about his decision to stop cycling. The former German sprinter spoke about it on the radio program Langs de Lijn. “I told him what it was like for me when I was in such a situation,” said Kittel, who himself retired twice in his career to think about what he wanted. After his first break in 2015, he had come back stronger. In 2019 he found no real reason to continue and quit. “I think it’s impressive how proactive Tom has been. He really wanted to address his problem. I am convinced that he will work hard on it.”
“I know exactly what it feels like when you start to have doubts somewhere in your career. You have experienced so much in such a short time, highs and sometimes lows. That also causes changes. That has also been the case with me and I think that Tom is now also in such a period in which he is very much looking for his identity. That is a very difficult phase in your life and it was the same with me.”
Kittel would like to see Dumoulin return to the peloton. “But I think it is especially important that he now takes the time for himself and sees what he wants. I am 100% convinced that he will come up with a decision that makes him happy. It can go in any direction. Tom was also very honest about that. I wish him a lot of strength and success in the coming period. Especially that he remains positive and is also very proud of what he has already achieved in his career.”
Van Aert and Dumoulin in the 2020 Tour
Wout van Aert spoke about the announcement Dumoulin after Saturday’s cyclocross in Hamme: “I hope this is a decision to come back stronger.” The news about Tom Dumoulin’s temporary retirement also came as a surprise to Van Aert. “But a less surprise than for the outside world. He has had a difficult year and has been away for a long time. Last year it went with ups and downs,” said the Belgian cross champion.
Van Aert only heard about his teammate’s decision on Saturday morning. “Then he made the decision. I think it was an informed decision. It would be a shame if such a great rider leaves through the back door. I hope for him that this is a decision to come back stronger,” Van Aert continued. “It is a difficult question whether I can understand his quitting, because I feel good about myself. I like to cycle, so it is difficult for me to understand that someone is losing their pleasure. Everyone has difficult times. We must respect that. I hope for him that this is not an end anyway.”
Dutch Giro and Tour winners – Tom Dumoulin and Jan Janssen
Jan Janssen was shocked by Tom Dumoulin’s decision: “This hits like a bomb. What? You are kidding me?” Janssen couldn’t hide his feelings when talking to Algemeen Dagblad: “Yes, it is a surprise. But now that I let it affect me for a moment: if you expect it from someone, then it is actually with Tom,” the 1968 Tour winner said.
Janssen understands the feelings of his younger countryman: “I also had periods when I thought: what am I still doing here on that bike. I’m just throwing that thing in the ditch. Always having to perform, that is very difficult for a person. The people only see that strong rider on the outside, not the weaknesses on the inside. Tom has been chasing himself for a year and a half. We no longer see the Tom Dumoulin who was so good in the Giro d’Italia and later in the Tour de France. He is a bear of a guy and after the previous physical discomfort he’s physically very strong again. But things are not right in his head. That breaks him now.”
The now 80-year-old Janssen hopes that Dumoulin can find himself again, and then reconnect with the world top riders. “But that will not be easy for him. The youth is arriving furiously. Some of the young boys are already well-heeled. I especially hope that he is doing well and that we will see old Tom again next year.”
Michael Boogerd – Been there
Michael Boogerd understands Tom Dumoulin and his choice to temporarily put a stop to his cycling career. In conversation with the Algemeen Dagblad: “I have seen it myself. The pressure, the expectations. I struggled with that too. People said to me: just look what you have. Healthy children, a beautiful wife, a generous salary, two big cars at the door. But it’s not that simple, is it? From that perspective, I have respect for the choice Tom is now making.”
The news did not come as a total surprise to Boogerd. “Of course you have seen for a while that he is not feeling well. He’s throwing a million wages aside. That is not nothing. I think it’s a brave decision. Between 2015 and 2018 he was on top of the world with a World time trial title and the win in the Giro. That is really amazing. After that it went less. If it goes well, all those opinions and reactions are nice. When things go wrong, it all becomes a lot more difficult. That’s why I don’t envy him right now.”
Boogerd does not know whether Dumoulin will get back to his old level, but according to him it shouldn’t be about that at all. “Let me say this above all: I now give him peace of mind. Getting back to a top level will not be easy. Physically that will not be the biggest problem. You see riders who also give up after a doping suspension. The biggest challenge will be mental.”
Grand Tour winners – Dumoulin and Zoetemelk
Winner of the 1980 Tour de France, Joop Zoetemelk, spoke about Dumoulin: “Hopefully he will come back, because I like to see him racing.” Zoetemelk, the second Dutchman to win the French Grand Tour, said Dumoulin’s move was a “brave decision”. “I find it difficult to speak for him, because only Tom knows exactly what he is feeling. If he thinks this is the right choice, then I can only respect it. Hopefully he will come back, because I like to see him cycling.”
Mathieu van der Poel – “I understand that sometimes you are done with it”
Mathieu van der Poel spoke about Tom Dumoulin after Saturday’s Flandriencross in Hamme: “I know him a little bit. I can understand his choices. Top sport is great fun, but I understand that sometimes you are done with it. If it still doesn’t work out, I can understand it.”
Will Dumoulin be back?
We can only hope that Dumoulin will regain his hunger to race during his break, but this is something only he can rediscover. If the strong Dutchman decided it’s over, then so be it and wish him happiness in whatever he want’s to do with his life.