This has been a very unusual year for the Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin – and it has nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic. In January, the 30-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider decided to take an indefinite, unpaid time-out from the sport.
“It is really as if a backpack of a hundred kilos has slipped off my shoulders,” he said when announcing his move. “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.”
Dumoulin made the decision to step away from the sport just after Jumbo-Visma had announced that he would be given a leadership role at the Tour de France alongside Primož Roglič.
The Slovenian crashed badly on stage three of the Tour and was forced to quit before stage nine, apparently leaving Jumbo-Visma without a GC contender. But the young Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard stepped up and surprised the racing world by finishing second behind Tadej Pogačar.
Dumoulin’s pressing of the ‘pause’ button on his career came as something of a shock, as it came after two excellent years. He won the Giro D’Italia and the World Championship Time Trial, both individual and team, in 2017 and finished second in the Worlds, the Giro and the Tour the following year. He seemed to be on the verge of joining the elite of Grand Tour riders when the pandemic struck and disrupted the racing calendar. An excellent individual time trial (ITT) racer as well as climber, he has the necessary tools to become a champion. What was missing, suddenly, was the motivation.
Whatever Dumoulin did in the five months he was away from racing apparently reignited his passion for road racing. He returned to the sport in late June of 2021 for the Tour de Suisse, happy to work as a domestique for his teammates.
“I had forgotten what I liked and didn’t like. Now I know that again. That period without racing was very instructive for me. I know again what kind of rider Tom Dumoulin is.”
He then won his national ITT for the fourth time and finished second in the Tokyo Olympics ITT, behind Roglič. He was training for the Road World Championships when he got into an accident and broke his wrist, putting an end to a truly topsy-turvy season.
💬 “My season is finished. That’s a big deception, because I just got really good at it again." – @tom_dumoulin
Get well soon, Tom! 🍀
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) September 9, 2021
“That’s a big deception, because I just got really good at [racing] again,” he said in a team statement at the time. “I had a lot of confidence that I could ride a very strong month.”
Though the year ended badly for Dumoulin, his decision and what came of it has been a revelation in a year that has seen other elite athletes, such as Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles pause their athletic schedules due to the pressure they felt.
The right network
It was important for Dumoulin (and for Biles) that he had a supportive team that went out of its way to accommodate and support him.
— Tom Dumoulin (@tom_dumoulin) July 28, 2021
“He has been rock bottom and the most important thing is that he doesn’t get to that again,” Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Merijn Zeeman told Cyclingnews.
“We adapt as a team to his ambitions and there are multiple options. We can go in any direction but the only thing is that he’s happy in what he’s doing, and then he can go and get results. The most important thing is that he combines happiness with being an athlete.”
Probably the biggest lesson for all, including Dumoulin, is that sometimes you have to stop doing what you are doing to understand how much (or how little) it means to you.