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Jai Hindley rolled down the start ramp of the last stage of the Giro d’Italia wearing the maglia rosa and a fair bit of pressure on his shoulders. 15.7 km later, he’d relinquished both to Tao Geoghegan Hart, claiming second overall in this strange season’s second Grand Tour.
In a turbulent and at times tense Giro, the two had emerged as the strongest riders of the race, each taking a significant step forward in their careers.
Speaking to media including CyclingTips on Friday, Jai Hindley reflected on how it had been to act as a protagonist in one of the tightest Grand Tours in recent years, where he saw his career evolving, and how it felt to be part of a new wave of Australian talent competing in the WorldTour.
Hindley, a 24-year-old from Perth, Western Australia, is at the end of his fourth season in the WorldTour, with experience that belies his youth. Landing on the podium of a Grand Tour, however, is a marked evolution for Hindley. A week later, Hindley says, he’s still absorbing it.
After the podium presentation in Milan, Hindley returned to his home in Girona, Spain, where he’s spent the first week of his off-season unwinding. “I haven’t got off the couch since,” Hindley says with a laugh. “It’s been nice just doing nothing. I haven’t even ridden since the last TT – I’ve had a bit of a mental break from the bike, shut it down and just relaxed.”
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster since I’ve been back. The amount of messages of support – it’s been pretty overwhelming – it feels really crazy at the moment.”
Ascending to leadership
Hindley had come into the Giro d’Italia as a “shadow leader” for Team Sunweb – “[Wilco Kelderman and I] were both protected riders, but if it came down to it, I was going to work for Wilco. The team – also me – just assumed I’d go alright, but not get onto the podium. So that was a surprise for me and a surprise for them,” Hindley says.
“A pretty nice surprise for me,” he adds with a chuckle.
After a bumpy opening week of the race, which saw pre-race favourite Geraint Thomas (Ineos) felled in a crash, along with positive COVID-19 results forcing the withdrawals of Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), the race was wide open. The Sunweb duo of Kelderman and Hindley emerged as animating forces of the final week, with Hindley climbing to third overall on the 15th stage, one place behind his teammate. Poised a place further back was Tao Geoghegan Hart, who’d assumed the mantle of team leader at Ineos.
“I think I flew under the radar big time, actually. It wasn’t like I just slipped up the road on any one day, cause that’s not really what happened,” Hindley explains. “A lot of the other GC guys were surprised I was up there and riding like that.”
By stage 18, Kelderman moved to the race lead after Joao Almeida finally cracked and ended his 15-stage stint in the maglia rosa. But it was Hindley who proved to be the fresher of the two, winning the day on the race’s queen stage over the Stelvio, ahead of Tao Geoghegan Hart.
“After that Stelvio day, that made me think I can potentially win the thing, but at the time that was also crazy to wrap my head around,” Hindley says. “It still is. Still is, that I almost won it. It was a crazy three weeks, and especially the last week – that was one hell of a rollercoaster.”
On the slopes of Sestriere two days later, the Australian and Tao Geoghegan Hart again soared clear of the rest of the race, with the Londoner this time emerging triumphant, setting up a climactic final time-trial. Neither rider had featured in the list of pre-race favourites, leading to commentary that it was a weaker field.
Hindley concedes that these are “fair comments… But at the end of the day, it was still incredibly hard racing. I did some of my best power numbers ever at this race – not just one day, but every day I was doing some of the best numbers I’ve ever done.
“So, I mean, you could look at it and say, you know, three of the top favourites abandoned super early… blah, blah, blah. But at the same time, if you really know what you’re looking at, then you can see it’s still really hard racing even though the big names weren’t there.
“I think at the end of the day, the actual race itself was really good – what I’ve heard from people, they just really enjoyed watching the racing.”
A place in the pantheon
Hindley’s second place overall finish puts him in elite company in the Australian cycling pantheon – he joins Richie Porte (third at this year’s Tour) and Cadel Evans (podiums at all three Grand Tours, plus a Tour win in 2011) as just the third-ever Australian to step onto a Grand Tour podium. “I got messages off heaps of guys – Cadel, Richie, Simon Gerrans… for a young guy like me to get those messages… I haven’t had much to do with Cadel, but he’s been a massive influence,” Hindley says, a little awed.
But Hindley’s place in the Australian Grand Tour lineage may have more to do with the next generation of riders than the last.
He points to the volume of Australian talent coming through the ranks: “you look at the WorldTour and the amount of Aussies… it’s the most I’ve ever seen, I think.
“There’s a massive group of Aussie talent racing in the Vuelta at the moment – guys like Ben O’Connor, Lucas Hamilton. For me, everything clicked and came together at the Giro and it was incredible, but I also think there’s a lot of other guys out there that are also in a similar boat,” Hindley says. “You never know who it’s going to be, but either way, they’re going to be well supported. I really felt that at the Giro – I just had the full nation behind me.”
While Hindley says that the next Australian Grand Tour winner may be “just around the corner”, he’s clear-headed about his own path. For the coming season, he doesn’t necessarily see himself getting the green light to have team leadership. “I would like to go into races leading up to a Grand Tour as a leader – to target GC at one week race,” Hindley says. “To go into a Grand Tour as a sole dedicated leader I think is pretty crazy, but I’d definitely be up for the challenge.”
Having had a taste of the thrill of leading one of the world’s biggest races, Hindley has catapulted up the list of fancied Australian riders and will not fly under the radar so easily in the future.
“It was a pretty insane feeling to be dressed head to toe in pink, rolling down the start ramp in Milan and have every man and his dog on the side of the road yelling your name, and to finish in front of the Duomo… to be there it was just dream material,” he says, smiling.
He’s still waking up from that dream, but will be hoping to have it again.