In the first week of the Giro d’Italia, their team briefings were delivered with military precision. By the final days, a glance was enough, as Michael Hepburn and Svein Tuft – Orica-GreenEdge’s last men standing – made their made to Trieste.
The Australian squad’s race was garlanded with early success – a week with the pink jersey and three stage victories – and then beset by ill fortune, as crashes and illness forced seven of the men who won the opening team time trial in Belfast out of the race.
"We didn’t really have any briefings this week, it was just all about survival and trying to get through each day in as good a shape as possible," Hepburn told Cyclingnews in Gemona ahead of the final stage. "We certainly didn’t expect to arrive in the last week with just two guys, the two guys who were maybe the worst climbers in this Giro squad."
Teammates sharing a bus for the three weeks of a Grand Tour can rub along uneasily at the best of times. For the last four days of the Giro, following Ivan Santaromita’s withdrawal, Hepburn and Tuft had just one another for company on transfers and at the dinner table.
"It’s lucky Svein and I get along really well otherwise it would be a different story," Hepburn joked. "Svein and I can see the lighter side of all the situations. We’ve been doing it for each other as well, the last few days we’ve battled in the mountains. I wasn’t going to pull out because I owe it to him and vice-versa."
In those final days in the high mountains, Tuft and Hepburn more often than not found themselves side by side out on the road, too, among the haunted faces of the gruppetto. "There were days when I was struggling and Svein was there for me, and I helped him when he had his crash earlier in the race," Hepburn said. "It was never an option for us to pull out. We owed it to one another. We said we were going to the line no matter what."
The Giro was also the maiden Grand Tour of Hepburn’s career and on the opening weekend in Ireland, the 22-year-old was faced with the same stark realisation that slowly dawns on all neophytes in the early days of racing – there were still four more Sundays until the finish.
"You look at the race and see 21 days and it’s quite daunting," Hepburn said. "The longest race I’d done before was eight days so I had to break it up. It was the Tour of Ireland to start with. Those were days we were targeting and having the pink jersey made it a little easier.
"I just broke it into blocks after that, and from the last rest day on Monday, we could start to see the finish line – you just put your head down and keep pedalling most of the time."
Hepburn reached Trieste over five hours down in 154th place, one spot ahead of Tuft. After the high of defending Tuft and Matthews’ in the maglia rosa early on, the Australian began to struggle in the second week, but recovered as the race drew closer to a conclusion.
"The hardest days for me were probably day 8 and 9 when I had a stomach issue and couldn’t eat on what were two hard mountain stages," he said. "I was pretty nervous as it was so early but I came through that. Day 18 [over the Stelvio] was another bad day for me but there was never really a day when I thought I was going home – or felt that it was an option."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.