In the final reckoning, the difference was around 500 metres. Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb) had just swung onto Via San Paolo when the countdown clock hit zero and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) was confirmed as the winner of the Giro d’Italia.
A race of unprecedentedly tight margins eventually ended with some daylight between the top two riders in the concluding time trial. Just 36 seconds was the final margin, and as gloom turned to darkness over Milan at the end of this novel, Autumn Giro, Hindley took his place on the second step of the podium while Geoghegan Hart was feted in the maglia rosa.
“It’s been a hell of a ride and real roller coaster,” Hindley said when he visited the mixed zone at the end of the interminable podium ceremonies. “It’s been really good fun and a hell of an experience. It’s bittersweet at the moment, but eventually it will sink in. It’s also an incredible feeling to be standing on the podium outside the Duomo in Milan. It’s amazing.”
Hindley and Geoghegan Hart began the final, 15.7km test locked on the same time on the overall standings, but the Australian held the pink jersey by virtue of a countback of split seconds from the two previous time trials. The inseparable pair sat just a couple of metres away as they waited their turn by the start house in Cernusco sul Naviglio, but Hindley sportingly bridged the divide by standing up and offering his adversary a fist bump.
Their past displays against the watch suggested that Geoghegan Hart would claim the Giro, though Hindley, who appeared the strongest climber in the race, had cause for hope. In the final weekend of a Grand Tour, and especially at the end of a riotous season like this, anything was possible.
For the opening two kilometres or so, Hindley still had reason to dream. An unofficial early check had the pair still locked on the same time, but gradually Geoghegan Hart drew away. Hindley was pedalling a more agile gear and taking a tighter line through the route’s occasional corners, as though desperately trying to eke out the inches that might keep him in the maglia rosa. The race got away from him, but the occasion didn’t pass him by.
“Oh, man, it was fucking unreal,” Hindley laughed. “I had people screaming in my ear the whole time. It was not reality, man, it was crazy.
“I wouldn’t say it was terrifying, but it was something else. I wasn’t thinking so much of the win, I just wanted to do the best time trial I could. I did that, and unfortunately it wasn’t enough, but I’ll be back.”
Tactics and future plans
The 24-year-old Hindley entered the Giro ostensibly in support of Sunweb teammate Wilco Kelderman, but also with the freedom to pursue his own overall ambitions. Strong showings at Mount Etna and Roccaraso put him in contention for the top 10, but his race suddenly took on a different hue when he rode everyone, bar Kelderman and Geoghegan Hart, off his wheel at Piancavallo.
At that juncture Kelderman looked the Giro favourite, but, paradoxically, the Dutchman’s status diminished on the very day he took the maglia rosa. Hindley won at Laghi di Cancano after withstanding Ineos’ forcing on the Stelvio, though afterwards, Kelderman wondered if the Australian should have been asked to wait for him in light of the time trial in Milan on the final day.
The situation repeated itself at Sestriere on Saturday, however, where Kelderman’s challenge floundered irrevocably and Hindley, the weaker time triallist, moved into the overall lead. Rather than racing to try to win the Giro in Milan, Kelderman was competing simply to save his podium place, a task he completed without fuss.
“We both finished on the podium and that’s good but on the other hand it feels strange,” Kelderman said on Sunday.
“From what I’ve seen on Twitter, we’ve copped a lot of shit as a team,” Hindley said. “I mean, I think as a team we didn’t put a foot wrong. Tactically, with the riders we had and the riding ability we had, we did a really nice race.
“Sure, we have two guys on the podium and people will say why didn’t you win, blah blah blah, but actually I think the directeurs made the right calls every day. I don’t think we could have done anything more, to be honest.”
Hindley’s immediate disappointment was as evident as it was understandable as he rolled back towards the podium after he completed his time trial, but within an hour of completing his Giro he was able to place his performance in context.
Second place at the Tour de Pologne last year and victory at the Herald Sun Tour this season were small steps, but this Giro ushers Hindley into a new dimension. With Kelderman and Sam Oomen departing Sunweb this winter, he will be the centrepiece of his team’s stage racing plans in 2021 and beyond.
“I’m not like some special person or something. I’m just a guy from Perth. I just had a dream when I was a kid to be a pro bike rider and that dream came true. To be at a Grand Tour racing for the win, it’s insane,” said Hindley, before answering a question that barely needed asking.
“I’d like to come back to the Giro. I love this race. It’s brutal, but it’s also beautiful. I’ll definitely be back.”