At last October’s race, after all, when he found himself on the cusp of a surprise overall victory he carried himself with the demeanour of a man enthused by the opportunity rather than overwhelmed by the occasion.
From the moment the chance began to develop, Hindley evinced nothing but calm. After outlasting his nominal team leader Wilco Kelderman on the Stelvio to win atop Laghi di Cancano, Hindley jokingly diffused any in-house tension. “Mate, he's in the pink jersey. I'm going to put my arse on the line for him,” he smiled after taking a seat alongside Kelderman in the press conference truck.
Two days later, Kelderman was again unable to follow, at Sestriere, and the maglia rosa was suddenly Hindley’s with just the final time trial in Milan to come. The Australian had never raced for such high stakes, yet there wasn’t the faintest note of trepidation. “I’m going to do the best time trial of my life tomorrow,” Hindley said.
Low, grey skies and word of an imminent, renewed coronavirus lockdown lent an air of gloomy solemnity to that final afternoon in Milan but Hindley broke the tension outside the start house by walking over to his rival Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and offering him a fist bump of solidarity. He lost the pink jersey 16 kilometres later but won plenty of admirers – including on rival teams – during that remarkable Autumn Giro d'Italia.
Six months on, Hindley returns to the Giro with Team DSM among an extended list of contenders for overall victory, even if the illness that saw him abandon the Volta a Catalunya and the crash that forced him out of the Tour of the Alps mean that he arrives in Turin for the Grande Partenza without a general classification result of note so far this season.
“It wasn’t really ideal crashing out of the Tour of the Alps but that’s just bike racing,” Hindley tells Cyclingnews in a video call from his home in Girona.
The crash on the final descent of the penultimate stage to Pieve di Bono denied him a top 10 finish that would have been a boon to his morale but he insists that lost day of racing and the injury itself haven't significantly impeded his Giro preparation.
“Not really, in my opinion. I mean, it would have been good to have done the last day of the Alps and just mentally to be up there for the end result, but it’s not the end of the world, I guess. I was going to have some easy days after the race anyway, so I just had some forced time off with the knee and the stitches, but it’s all good, no stress.”
The Tour of the Alps was a late addition to Hindley and the team’s schedule. The Volta a Catalunya was initially expected to be his final race before the Giro, but when he abandoned through illness after three stages, he realised he was in need of more race days before the centrepiece of his season. The Italian national team’s withdrawal opened a spot at the Tour of the Alps and DSM sent the bones of their Giro squad, including Hindley and his co-leader Romain Bardet.
“A few of the guys were pretty keen to get some more race days because they’re pretty hard to come by these days, so you just have to take what you can get,” Hindley explains.
“We’d just done over two weeks at altitude and everyone decided, the team and the riders, to leave the camp early and head to the Tour of the Alps. It was really nice that we could start there. It was also really nice for me to ride with Romain for the first time there, it was good fun.”
A similar build-up
A man cannot step in the same river twice, but he can use the same causeway to cross it, and Hindley’s build-up to this year’s Giro has replicated, in so far as possible, his approach to last season’s rescheduled event.
The most obvious divergence came during the off-season which Hindley spent in Europe for the first time as Australia’s stringent coronavirus quarantine rules prevented him from returning home to Perth.
On a human level, Hindley missed the time spent with family and old friends in Western Australia but from a purely sporting viewpoint it removed the temptation to train too hard and too soon for January events on home roads.
“In that regard it was a really different build-up, really slow and gradual,” said Hindley, though the season itself has largely mirrored the months leading up to the 2020 Giro.
Hindley’s limited diet of fifteen race days so far in 2021 – 18th overall at Paris-Nice plus his truncated outings at the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour of the Alps – corresponds precisely with the fifteen days of competition he had between the lockdown hiatus and the start of last year’s Giro in Palermo.
As in 2020, he has also had two extended training camps at altitude – in Kühtai, Austria last summer and at Mount Teide this time out – and the philosophy underpinning his preparation is largely the same. With the Giro’s most arduous stages packed into the second half of the race, Hindley was, by design, some way short of his best as the Tour of the Alps began two weeks ago.
“We went there straight from altitude so I wasn’t expecting to blow anyone’s socks off the first few days,” he said. “For me personally, I was just getting better and better each day and I felt like I was really coming into my own towards the end, but still not at that peak level, you know.”
Indeed, there was even a parallel between Hindley’s result in the key mountain stage there (6th at 1:17 behind winner Simon Yates) and in the summit finish at Sassotetto at Tirreno-Adriatico (8th at 1:05, again behind Yates) before last year’s Giro. It now remains to be seen if Hindley and his DSM team can continue on that schedule and hit their stride by the third weekend of the Giro, as they did so notably at Piancavallo last Autumn.
“I think it’s going to be pretty crucial how you time your form for that back half of the race,” Hindley said.
“Last year, the team did that with all the guys and, personally, I think we did it really well. We came in with a pretty good level but then really came into our own in the last week. Hopefully we can do that again. Like I said, I’ve done all the build-up leading in and it’s been pretty similar to last year in terms of training, so we’ll see.”
The key question, of course, is whether Hindley can replicate or better his result from 2020. A man who capable of leading a Grand Tour after 3,345.2 kilometres of racing and over 45,000 metres of climbing, as Hindley did last October, can surely dream of winning one, even when the field includes men like Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep). Asked what would quantify a successful Giro, however, the 24-year-old prefers to think in terms of performance rather than position.
“I think it’s more about the level of performance. I think I just want to be able to ride how I rode last year, on a similar level,” he said.
“Of course you want to do well and the end result is pretty important. But I think for me it’s about doing what I did last year – or maybe even better, you never know. So I’d just like to consolidate my ability more than anything, I’d say. If I can do that, it would be a big achievement.”
DSM 'not 100% sure' Hindley will stay beyond 2021
Hindley lines out at the Giro with a co-leader in Bardet, who arrived from AG2R in the off-season. DSM maintain that there is no preordained hierarchy before the race gets underway. As with Kelderman on the Stelvio and Sestriere, the road will be the ultimate arbiter of their status.
“He’s a really nice guy and a classy bike rider,” Hindley said of Bardet. “I really enjoyed racing with him at the Tour of the Alps, and I don’t think the Giro will be any different. At the end of the day it’s just about getting the best result as possible for the DSM jersey.”
It has been suggested in recent weeks that Hindley might not be in a DSM jersey for much longer, with Het Nieuwsblad reporting that the Perth native is set to join Trek-Segafredo when his contract expires at the end of this year.
The UCI prohibits riders or teams from confirming transfers prior to August 1 – though neither Chris Froome nor Israel Start-Up Nation were censured for jumping the gun on their announcement last summer – and Hindley is, understandably, simply unable to address the rumours.
“I won’t speculate too much on it at the moment,” he said apologetically. “All I can say is I’m really happy with where I am at the moment and I’m super appreciative of what the team’s doing for me now in the lead-up to the Giro.”
It is clear that Team DSM would prefer to keep Hindley on board, particularly given the lofty names who have exited over the past two years, but they offered a strikingly open acknowledgement of the realities of the transfer market and the Australian’s future plans in a statement to Cyclingnews this weekend.
“We would be very happy to keep Jai with the team, but we are not 100% sure if that will be the case,” said Team DSM. “He is a good athlete and a good guy and is definitely a valued team member. There does appear to be another team willing to offer him a big GC role to bring home GC results in the Grand Tours. We would love to keep Jai on board but the challenge is that we have a group of GC riders, as well as GC potentials coming through, and Jai would be part of that group who race as a block. Our plans and strategy are not for our entire GC ambitions to be spearheaded by one rider."
Tom Dumoulin, Michael Matthews and Warren Barguil are among the riders to have left Iwan Spekenbrink’s team before the expiry of their contracts over the years, having expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the squad’s rigid structures.
Mechanics, soigneurs and directeurs sportifs are routinely rotated to prevent the creation of distinct groups within the team, riders have to pre-race 'homework' while even Grand Tour leaders must wait their turn at the massage table. But if Hindley does leave DSM at the end of this season, it won’t be expressly because of that culture, quite the opposite.
“I actually quite like that about the team. I like that no one is bigger than Ben-Hur,” Hindley laughs.
“Everyone’s super professional there, and everyone just gets on with the job. I actually like the no special treatment. It’s just the way the team operates and I think it’s actually not a bad system to work with, in terms of not putting one guy above everyone else. I think it makes for a really good environment.”
Thoughts of stepping outside it will be put to one side for the next three weeks. Hindley will be in Turin by the time he celebrates his 25th birthday on Wednesday, already immersed in the Giro. He hasn’t had a chance to reconnoitre any of this year’s route in person, but perhaps there’s no need. Hindley already seems well versed in the rhythms of a race he smilingly characterised as “brutal but beautiful” as darkness fell over Piazza del Duomo on the final afternoon last year.
“The fact there’s only two time trials is pretty nice for me,” he said of this year's route. “I’d definitely say it’s a real climber-friendly Giro, a lot of big mountain days, especially in that final week. I’m really looking forward to it.”
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