In the bowels of the Roman Arena in Verona, Jai Hindley was still clutching the Trofeo Senza Fine even as he moved through the cramped mixed zone. Giro d’Italia winners normally leave the hardware to one side while they complete their media duties, but Hindley already had this prize slip from his grasp at the last before. No harm in making sure.
At the Autumn Giro of two years ago, Hindley also began the final time trial in the pink skinsuit, but with a lead over Tao Geoghegan Hart so minimal as to be virtually non-existent. The fractions of a second that separated them in the standings would fade away before Hindley even hit the outskirts of Milan. By the time he reached Piazza Duomo, dusk was already falling softly over the city and the maglia rosa on his back was no longer his own.
This time around, the general situation was familiar but the precise circumstances altogether different. On Sunday, Hindley was again defending the pink jersey against an Ineos rider, but he rolled down the start ramp with a heftier buffer of 1:25 over Richard Carapaz. He would concede just 7 seconds of that lead over the 17.4km course to ride into the Arena as the first Australian to win the Giro.
“With the experience of two years ago, I was a bit less nervous, I guess, but there was still a lot of tension there. I didn’t want a repeat of 2020,” Hindley said when he took a seat in the press room after the podium ceremonies.
“To come so close to the win and then to lose it on the last day, it was brutal, if I’m honest. It took me a long time to really get over that. To a lot of people, it was probably a surprise that I was in that situation at all, but to lose the race on the last day, it really hurt. I’ve thought about that day for a long time out training. It’s really been a big motivation, you could say.”
There was a muted feel to the finish of the pandemic-delayed Giro of 2020. Shutters were slowly being lowered across Italy that afternoon as Europe prepared to enter a new phase of lockdown, and Piazza Duomo was all but empty for the finale.
Just about everything was different here, from the crowds in the Arena singing along to Rino Gaetano to the fact that Hindley’s parents had been able to make the journey from Perth to witness the occasion. It was the first time they had seen their son since the start of 2020.
“Last year, I had quite an unfortunate year, and on top of that, I couldn’t make it back to Australia due to the COVID restrictions in Perth. When you’re going through all this on the bike and you also can’t see your family, it’s a really tough time,” Hindley said.
“After the Sun Tour in February 2020, I went back to Perth for less than 24 hours to see my family, then I packed my bags and came to Europe. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d go home for a couple of years, which is, when you think about it, pretty crazy. To get into the state was almost impossible. I think I booked three flights and they all got cancelled. It was pretty savage mentally to deal with that.”
Then again, such demands have always been placed on Australian cyclists who come to Europe, from Hubert Opperman to the Foreign Legion of the 1980s, from Cadel Evans to the riders of the present day. Hindley’s cycling journey is the latest in a grand tradition.
“I think you’ll find a lot of Aussie professionals are quite resilient mentally. Last year I really got beat around a lot on the bike and off the bike. It was a tough year but I think I came out better for it.” said Hindley, who described his friend and former teammate Rob Power as his “inspiration” as a rider.
“A lot of people take for granted how hard it actually is. It’s not like I can jump on a Ryanair flight on the weekend and go back home for 50 euro or something. It’s just not possible, and then when you throw covid into the mix, it’s really hard.”
This year’s Giro will be remembered in the annals primarily for the final 3.5km of climbing atop the Passo Fedaia on the penultimate day. After three weeks of stalemate with Carapaz, Hindley finally extricated himself from the Ecuadorian beneath the precipice of the Marmolada, just when it seemed the deadlock could not be broken. Winning a Giro is about strategy as well as strength, and Hindley showed patience in the final week.
“I knew that I had one bullet and if I fired, I had to make it count,” Hindley said. “Grand Tour racing is unique in terms of how calculated you have to be if you want to win overall. If you spend a lot of energy one day, then you pay for it the next day or the day after. It’s not like I planned from the start to hit it out on the last day, I just adapted to the situation.”
Hindley won atop the Blockhaus on stage 9 and marked himself as Carapaz’s biggest rival when he parried the Olympic champion’s offensive on the breathless stage to Turin a week later. From there, Hindley, so smooth of pedal stroke, never looked in difficulty when the road climbed. The only real moment of distress came when he punctured in the final 3km at Treviso on stage 18.
“I think the puncture in Treviso was a pretty scary moment,” Hindley said. “I didn’t know we were inside the 3km mark, so when I had that puncture, I was really stressing full gas. I looked up and saw 2k banner just in front of me and [my] heart rate dropped a bit. That was the scariest moment for me.”
Placing on the podium of the 2020 Giro, Hindley acknowledged, changed his cycling life. “It really opened up my mind to what I could do as a professional cyclist, but then I had the rough year with injuries in 2021,” he said.
Victory here opens up even more possibilities for the 26-year-old, though his programme for the remainder of this season has yet to be established. Challenging for the Vuelta a España is an obvious possibility. So too is participation in the World Championships on home roads in Wollongong.
“I’ll be super keen to get in that team, I’ll put my hand up for sure,” Hindley said. “But after today, I think I’ll take it easy for a bit. Sink some beers, park up and just really savour it.”
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