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Tom Dumoulin’s break from cycling reminds us of the fragility of 'superhuman' cyclists

25 Jan 2021

Dumoulin's decision to walk away should be applauded for its honesty and bravery

Words: Joe Robinson

There will be a Tom Dumoulin-shaped hole in the 2021 professional cycling season. On Saturday morning it was announced that the Dutchman would be leaving the Jumbo-Visma team camp with immediate effect, putting his racing career on pause.

Only a day after his team had plotted the 30-year-old’s route to this summer’s Tour de France, Dumoulin had retired from the sport of cycling. Albeit a temporary decision with a door open for his return, but for now, he is no longer a professional cyclist.

The 2017 Giro d’Italia winner had been struggling to keep his body in working order over the past 18 months. A crash that saw him leave the 2019 Giro had plagued him with knee issues for almost 12 straight months. He eventually returned in 2020 in the new colours of Jumbo-Visma, gaining a stealthy seventh overall at the Tour, but was not close to the levels he had achieved previously.

After abandoning the Vuelta a Espana eight days in, it materialised that saddle sores were the latest cause of his woes. Yet it is not the body that made the recent decision for Dumoulin.

‘I took the decision yesterday [to leave the sport]. 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,’ Dumoulin said in a press statement.

‘It feels so good that I finally took the decision to take some time for myself. That says enough. 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?’

For a brief moment, the cycling world was at Dumoulin’s feet. A world-class time-trial specialist who after a close call with the Vuelta a Espana in 2015 realised Grand Tour glory could be a realistic dream. Hard work and determination materialised in the form of a maglia rosa in 2017 and the rainbow stripes of time-trial World Champion later that season.

By 2018, he looked like the only rider who could feasibly compete with the hurtling juggernaut of Team Sky as he finished second in the Giro behind Chris Froome and then second in the Tour behind Geraint Thomas. Dumoulin was the rider who was going to end Team Sky’s tyranny at Grand Tours.

Strong-jawed, always giving an honest answer to the press, Dumoulin was willing to take on his competitors publicly for wrongs that he saw during the race. He is an undeniably likeable figure who appeared to be a rock on the bike as well as off it.

But for now, Dumoulin is another rider joining an ever-growing list of those to have left the sport not because of their body but because of their mind.

One of the first to empathise with Dumoulin was former teammate Marcel Kittel. The German sprinter himself called time on his career early aged 30 after falling out of love with the sport following a troubling two seasons at Katusha.

Marcel Kittel interview

‘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 and who he is, and what he wants,’ Kittel said in response to Dumoulin.

‘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. I know that it's a big journey with an uncertain destination but also a very important life lesson once you find that inner compass again, recalibrate and head into your future direction.’

Dumoulin, Kittel, Pete Kennaugh. There are others too. Repeated reminders of the very human individuals that are capable of such superhuman feats. Pushing the body to its absolute limit. Sacrificing almost everything in order to be the very best. A multiple National Champion, the best sprinter in the world, a Grand Tour winner.

It should be no surprise that sometimes ‘being human’ catches up with them. Because the sacrifices made in order to achieve theses superhuman feats ultimately come at a very human cost. In fact, it is incredible that not more follow the path of Dumoulin, of Kittel, of Kennaugh.

Maybe that's because only recently has it really been deemed acceptable to confront these issues. Barriers to cycling are not something that only manigest physically. It's actually okay to admit when you are not okay; it's even okay to walk away from the situation for your better self.

Those who can endure the most pain thrive most in the sport of cycling and it is often what defines the good from the great but maybe now we are learning that there is a limit. Who knows, maybe more will follow Dumoulin?

As Dumoulin wakes up a happier man, he may soon rediscover his love for the sport of cycling and we may see him back competing at the very top in no time at all. But we may also never see him return to the sport again. And that is absolutely fine because in doing what he has done, deciding to step away from the sport while at the absolute peak of his powers, he has proven it is okay to say you are not okay.