The bald truth revealed by the Stelvio repeated itself just as fiercely on the road to Sestriere, as the three strongest men of this most unusual Giro d’Italia again came to the fore. Two of them, Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb), will contest overall victory in Milan on Sunday. The third, Geoghegan Hart’s teammate Rohan Dennis, will have done more than anyone else to influence the outcome.
On the Stelvio two days ago, Dennis’ incessant pace-making ended João Almeida’s (Deceuninck-Quickstep) tenure in the pink jersey and slashed Wilco Kelderman’s (Team Sunweb) lead over the rest of the contenders. The Australian repeated the dose on Saturday, dropping everyone bar Geoghegan Hart and Hindley with his remarkable show of force four kilometres from the top of the penultimate ascent of Sestriere.
Dennis was still in front when they reached the same point on the third and final time up the climb, and he eventually placed third on the stage, 25 seconds down on Geoghegan Hart, who is second overall but locked on the same time as maglia rosa Hindley ahead of Sunday’s final stage.
“I think it speaks for itself. He was incredible, he was like a machine,” Geoghegan Hart said of Dennis, who joined Ineos Grenadiers this year after a brief, troubled stint with Bahrain-McLaren. “He was super focused on the job he wanted to do. It was spectacular and I’m really indebted to him. He blew the race up on the Stelvio and again here today. What an honour to have a two-time time trial world champion working for me.”
Geoghegan Hart began Saturday’s stage just 15 seconds off the maglia rosa of Kelderman and three behind Hindley. Ineos’ strategy was brutal but effective, as they piled on the pressure once the road began to climb, sensing that Kelderman, already on the ropes on the Stelvio, would crumple to the canvas here.
The decisive blow was dealt by Dennis with 30km, but come the final ascent, the onus was suddenly on Kelderman’s teammate Hindley to go on the offensive in order to secure a more comfortable buffer ahead of Sunday’s concluding time trial.
Hindley duly delivered a combination of five accelerations in the final three kilometres, but Geoghegan Hart was able to absorb those jabs. He then scored some points of his own, sprinting to the stage victory and picking up the bonus seconds that moved him level on time with the new maglia rosa.
“I was super comfortable. I knew it wasn't up to me to force it,” Geoghegan Hart said. “I was focused on the stage. I knew we had a lot of time on the riders behind, so it was up to him [Hindley] to make the difference. I knew that he couldn't once he made his first attack.”
Dual at time trial
Geoghegan Hart has never scaled to such rarefied heights in a Grand Tour before, and he began this Giro in the service of Geraint Thomas. Even when Thomas was forced out of the race following his crash on stage 3, Ineos initially seemed intent on chasing stage victories rather than repurposing Geoghegan Hart as a leader. As the days went by and the general classification took shape, the 25 year old moved steadily up the standings.
After he outsprinted Hindley and Kelderman to stage victory atop Piancavallo a week ago, Astana Directeur Sportif Giuseppe Martinelli picked him out as a potential winner even if Geoghegan Hart himself was more circumspect. That attitude surely changed on the Stelvio on Thursday and now, 15.7km from the end of the Giro, he is in line to become a most unexpected winner.
“Certainly, before the race, I wasn’t expecting this to happen. Without a doubt I didn’t expect how the race has gone. Now we’ve got 15km or so to finish the Giro,” said Geoghegan Hart, who finished behind Hindley in the opening time trial in Palermo – a stage conditioned by strong winds – but beat him soundly in the Valdobbiadene test last weekend.
“That was 20 stages ago, on very different parcours and a very different day,” Geoghegan Hart said. “I think I showed my TT legs in the last TT. We'll see what happens tomorrow, we'll give everything and what will be will be.”
When the 2020 season resumed after the coronavirus lockdown early August, debate was rife over whether Thomas, Chris Froome or Egan Bernal would lead Ineos Grenadiers at the Tour de France. Few could have imagined that two of that triumvirate would fail to make the start, while the third would be forced to abandon.
Fewer still would have envisaged that Geoghegan Hart, whose best placing in a Grand Tour was 20th at last year’s Vuelta, would be in a position to deliver Giro victory for the British team. His strength has been evident over the second half of this race, however, with Trek-Segafredo coach Paolo Slongo reckoning that the top three here are producing more impressive power data than the best riders at the Tour.
Geoghegan Hart was unconvinced, meanwhile, by the theory that the emergence of a younger generation of talent in this year’s Grand Tours was an effect of the interrupted season.
“I don’t know if that’s anything to do with it,” he said. “Last year some there were also some unexpected young guys performing well in Grand Tours. I think it’s that, rather than a strange year with COVID. I think cycling has definitely changed a bit in the last few years. I don't know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s how it is.”
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