Image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

A most likeable champion: An ode to Giro d’Italia winner Jai Hindley

Hindley's Giro win is a milestone moment for Australian cycling, but that's only part of it.

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In the small hours of July 2011, millions of Australians sat glued to their television screens watching Cadel Evans make Tour de France history. They watched as Evans battled to save his GC on the Galibier on stage 19, as he reeled in the Schleck brothers in the stage 20 time trial to take the maillot jaune, and as he made it safely through the final stage in Paris to become the first Australian winner of the Tour de France; of any Grand Tour.

Few watching those moments are likely to forget them. The same will be true of Jai Hindley’s exploits on the roads of the Giro d’Italia in recent weeks.

The West Australian’s plucky win on Blockhaus on stage 9 which rocketed him up the GC. His destructive 3 km on the Marmolada on Saturday evening where he cracked Richard Carapaz and rode into pink. His rock-solid time trial on Sunday evening to defend the maglia rosa and become the first Australian to win the Giro d’Italia.

His victory is a momentous occasion for Australian cycling, perhaps only eclipsed by Evans’s Tour success of 11 years prior. But Hindley’s victory isn’t just a win for Australian cycling; it’s a victory that all cycling fans can appreciate.

Hindley and Carapaz share a moment on the final podium. (Photo by Sara Cavallini/Getty Images)

It was hard not to sympathise with Hindley after the 2020 Giro. He’d ridden into pink on the penultimate stage, locked on the same time as Tao Geoghegan Hart. But his time in the maglia rosa would be limited to those 15.7 km final-stage time-trial kilometres around Milan where Geoghegan Hart was 39 seconds faster and nabbed the Giro at the last possible moment.

“It was brutal to lose on the last day,” Hindley said this past weekend, looking back. “It took me a long time to get over that.”

Hindley had the right to be disappointed. Second at the Giro was the pinnacle of his career, but, frankly, it wasn’t clear how many more opportunities he’d get at Grand Tour success. He’d seemingly benefited from a heavily depleted GC field.

But these past three weeks, Hindley has shown that his 2020 Giro performance was far from just a fluke.

He started the 2022 Giro several rungs down the favourites’ ladder in a race headlined by several former Giro champions. He soon emerged as one of the race’s top climbers, and by Giro’s end he’d defeated all challengers, finishing more than a minute clear of 2019 winner Carapaz.

In returning to the Giro and exceeding expectations – in banishing those demons from the 2020 Giro – Hindley has won himself a legion of new fans. Not least because the period between Giro podiums was such a difficult one for Hindley; perhaps the toughest stretch of his career. Illness, crashes, broken bones – it all left the young Australia despondent. To return not just to his previous best, but to exceed that high water mark at the critical moment? It is redemption stories like these that make sport so compelling.

Hindley congratulates Geoghegan Hart after losing the Giro on the final stage in 2020. (Photo by Jennifer Lorenzini – Pool/Getty Images)

There was much to like about Hindley’s ride on a more granular level too. He was patient when he needed to be, happily biding his time for the key moments. Waiting until the final 2.6 km of stage 20 to make his move is evidence of that. But he was also willing to be aggressive when that’s what the situation required, trading blows with the likes of Carapaz, Mikel Landa and others whenever he saw value in doing so. There are few better ways to attract fans in cycling than by racing aggressively.

And his stage 9 victory on Blockhaus was the definition of tenacity. Dropped by Carapaz and others, Hindley hung on, bridged back across late, then backed himself to lead out the sprint from the front, and won the day.

Hindley’s Bora-Hansgrohe team earned itself many new fans as well. The German outfit’s audacious stage 14 raid was one of the defining moments of this year’s Giro – a team taking the fight to its bigger rivals, with Hindley vaulting into second overall after several attacks of his own.

Stage 20, too, was a Bora masterclass, with Lennard Kämna’s offering crucial support for Hindley from the early breakaway.

To many viewers, witnessing Hindley’s success will be all the more enjoyable for the fact the Ineos-Grenadiers were denied in the process. The team that so many love to hate for its often-stifling approach to Grand Tour racing – and its success in doing so – the team that took the maglia rosa off Hindley’s back 18 months ago, was left reeling as an underdog team claimed its first Grand Tour victory.

Bora-Hansgrohe had much to celebrate at Giro’s end: a couple of stage wins and the overall victory. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

But the joy of Hindley’s success is about more than just his performance on the bike, as impressive as that has been. Off the bike he’s warm, friendly and forever smiling, exuding a positivity that’s easy to get behind.

In interviews, he errs on the side of brevity. And yet, within that brevity often lies something endearing or compelling. “We’re not here to put socks on centipedes” he said on the second rest day, much to the amusement and confusion of many. “I’ll die for the jersey tomorrow,” he said emphatically after wrestling the maglia rosa away from Carapaz on stage 20.

But despite his conviction, there’s a humility to Hindley that makes his success all the easier to appreciate.

Back in February 2017, on stage 1 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, a 20-year-old Hindley finished second on the 30 km climb to Falls Creek, dropping the likes of reigning Tour de France champion Chris Froome, Kenny Elissonde, Esteban Chaves and more. Despite his landmark ride – the biggest moment in his career to that point – Hindley wasn’t about to big-note his performance nor get ahead of himself. He was clear about his place in the pecking order.

“It was pretty scary, eh?” he said of trying to ride away from Froome and co. “It’s pretty unreal racing guys like Chris Froome and Chaves like that. Froome’s won three Tour de Frances [sic] and Chaves’s podiumed at a few [Grand Tours]. Riding with those guys is awesome.”

Three summers later, at the 2020 Sun Tour, Hindley was even more endearing in his humility. On the outskirts of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Hindley was speaking to the gathered media, having turned two mountain-top stage wins into overall victory in Australia’s oldest stage race. As the interview ended, Hindley took it upon himself to go around the media huddle and shake hands with each reporter, offering his heartfelt thanks for covering the race.

Such a show of friendly respect was both unnecessary and remarkable. It was a simple gesture but one that spoke volumes about Hindley as a person, not just the bike racer.

Hindley after winning the 2020 Sun Tour in Melbourne.

As the dust settles on the 2022 Giro, many of the headlines have honed in on Hindley becoming the first Australian to hoist the Trofeo Senza Fine. And rightly so: this victory is a true milestone moment for Australian cycling. It comes 70 years after the first Australians took part in the race, and 20 years since Cadel Evans became the first to wear the maglia rosa. Nine other Australian men have worn it since, but only Hindley has been wearing pink by Giro’s end, breaking new ground for his country.

But Hindley’s victory is more than just a landmark win for an Australian. It’s a comeback win for a true fighter, it’s a win for an underdog who prefers to silence his critics with his legs rather than his mouth, and it’s a win for a most likeable champion.