When Tom Dumoulin decided to take a break from professional racing in January 2020, he did not know whether he was waving goodbye to his career as a professional cyclist for good. Making a comeback to win a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics was a dream he hadn't had yet, all he wanted was a break.
The Dutchman rides for top world tour team Jumbo-Visma and is a world and national time trial champion and winner of the Giro d'Italia, and by January 2021 he was mentally and physically spent.
"I was very ready to say: 'Ok this is it.' If that was it, I would have been a very happy guy looking back on a great career," he told ESPN. "It [my career] wasn't as long as some other riders but I was very happy with what I achieved. It was not only a period to be happy about what I achieved but also to be a happy person again. That was way more important at the time. That's actually always way more important."
Dumoulin, 30, was overtrained. A syndrome that many athletes will experience in their careers when their mind and body cannot recover from an exceptional level of exertion. There are different levels and it can affect people in different ways. The early stages can be purely physical fatigue and a drop off in performance but for others there can be deeper psychological effects which begin with losing the love and enjoyment for the sport, leading to a downward spiral of poor mental health and depression.
Cycling is a sport which continually pushes the limits of human endurance, whether it be against the clock in a time-trial over any given route, or over a three-week grand tour (in which time trials are included). Riders live on a knife edge of pushing themselves to perform at their peak, constantly.
"Last year I was already a couple of times on the limit," he said. "I noticed and I felt that coming back from injury in 2019 was very demanding. Looking back now for a couple of years I was already on the edge of being physically and mentally done with performing every time and coping with my ambitions and also the ambitions of the team and everybody around me.
"I think it was a weight on my shoulders for a couple of years. Last year, I'd struggled a lot already and then in the winter I didn't recover any more from the season. I wanted to restart and build up for this season but I noticed quite soon that I wasn't recovered, even after four weeks holiday.
"I was hoping that feeling would go away and I trained and I built up and I tried to get better but in January I had to pull the plug because I was draining myself both mentally and physically."
Dumoulin took a five-month break from cycling to recover from overtraining and re-frame how the sport and his career fit into his life, and remember who he is off the bike.
For the most part he slept and walked his dog a lot, went for hikes and spent time with his wife and close friends who, with the normal chaotic period of spring classics and training camps, he wouldn't have seen for months.
"Just talking about life and what I wanted," he said. "But also finally being interested in other people. I have had many periods in my life where I've been so focused on my goals in the cycling world that it was always difficult to keep up friendly relationships with other people.
"I had friendly relationships but it was always really difficult to be interested in what they were doing. I felt like a normal person, it was nice."
Back to normal life :) pic.twitter.com/auwGOUROAY— Tom Dumoulin (@tom_dumoulin) May 30, 2017
He didn't pick up his bike again until April when he started heading out, leisurely, and never doing more than two hours at a time. He was invited to the Amstel Gold Race as a guest -- one of cycling's one-day spring classics and a big event in the Netherlands for the Ardennes Classics - a race which is close to his heart because as a kid growing up in Maastricht, it was the only one he watched come past his house every year.
Although Dumoulin was at peace with retiring from cycling, going to Amstel Gold as a guest coincided with him realising he still had fire-in-the-belly and a passion for the sport. He wasn't done.
Months down the line, he was now feeling better physically and mentally and his ambitions started to grow. He phoned the national team coach and asked about the possibilities of targeting Tokyo 2020. By May, he was selected for the squad despite having not raced competitively, the coach was confident he could pull it off even if Dumoulin himself wasn't.
Jumbo-Visma were also happy to welcome one of their key riders back, but he needed to do things differently this time around with a new focus and mindset.
In winning the Giro d'Italia in 2018, Dumoulin had proved himself to be a serious grand tour contender, but when defending his title the following year he crashed out on stage four and was unfortunately plagued by injuries which in turn scuppered any chance in the Tour de France. By 2020 with new signings, he started to play the role of domestique.
"I don't think it is the stress and the goal of going for a grand tour which affected me a lot in the last few years, it was the way to it," he said. "Many times I felt very stressed about performing and if I can release that stress a bit, I'd still like to go for the maximum possible in the biggest races.
"I'm looking forward to doing more races this year but future goals -- I really don't know actually. That is a question that I'm going to ask myself this winter. Do I still want to go for four GC's [general classifications] and grand tours? I don't know yet."
Boarding his flight to return home from Tokyo 2020, he finally has time to reflect on the year so far. He says his (second) silver medal has a gold edge to it, since his Jumbo-Visma teammate, Primoz Roglic, who is undoubtedly the world's best time-trialist, won gold. However, he couldn't have won his without first having a break.
"It was definitely a fast-track train that I was sitting in, going from goal to goal never really looking back. Now is the first time that I'm looking back at my medal from Rio and for the first time I'm thinking 'but you got a silver medal in the Olympics -- how cool is that.'
"I feel very fortunate that I'm able to do these things and that I'm physically gifted that I can pull this off. I feel very privileged also and I don't think I looked at it that way in the past."
In cycling, riders go from race to race every other weekend for around 10 months of the year often abroad and in different time zones, there is rarely any time to celebrate the present result before team buses are packed up and the next race is looming on the horizon. Before you know it, years have passed by.
"For a few years I was going from cycling goal to cycling goal and that was pretty much my life, without looking left and right. That was necessary and good sometimes but this period opened my eyes that I enjoy life, and I enjoy life around me," he said.
"I need a better balance in the future between my cycling life and my normal life. It [having a break] definitely gave me a better view of me in this world and in the cycling world."
Although mental health was thrown into the spotlight at Tokyo 2020, in his usual humble way, he stresses that he is not a pioneer -- he did what he needed to do at that point in his life for his own wellbeing. Though, if he had one piece of advice, he would encourage people to "take a step back and take a look at your life."