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Hindley insists Kelderman remains Sunweb leader at Giro d'Italia

Team Sunweb rider Netherlands Wilco Kelderman L and Team Sunweb Australians rider Jai Hindley 2nd R ride uphill at Passo dello Stelvio Stelvio Pass during the 18th stage of the Giro dItalia 2020 cycling race a 207kilometer route between Pinzolo and Laghi di Cancano on October 22 2020 Photo by Luca Bettini AFP Photo by LUCA BETTINIAFP via Getty Images
Team Sunweb duo Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley follow the Ineos surge on the Stelvio (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

And in its dying days, this most unpredictable Giro d'Italia throws up a strikingly familiar plot line. Old tropes repeat themselves endlessly at the corsa rosa, but somehow, they always feel new. Wilco Kelderman took over the pink jersey at Laghi di Cancano on Thursday, but his teammate Jai Hindley won the stage and was, by some distance, the stronger of the Sunweb duo on the Giro's most rigorously impartial adjudicator, the Passo dello Stelvio.

In the overall standings, Hindley is just 12 seconds behind his leader, with three stages remaining. The summit finish at Sestriere on Saturday favours the Australian. The short final time trial in Milan the following day benefits Kelderman. As with Roche and Visentini, Simoni and Cunego, and every other intra-team rivalry in the history of the race, it begs an obvious question: who's the boss?

"Can I win this Giro? Aw, I think realistically for me it's pretty hard at the moment. One, because I want Wilco Kelderman to win, and two, my time trial isn't particularly great at the moment," Hindley said after taking a seat alongside Kelderman in the press conference truck behind the podium. "Like I've been saying from the beginning, I'm here for Wilco. He's in the pink and I want him to win."

Kelderman, for his part, declared his satisfaction at taking the maglia rosa from long-time leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), but confessed to a degree of bemusement that Sunweb hadn't ordered Hindley – who began the day almost three minutes down – to wait for him atop the Stelvio.

Instead, the Australian stalked Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) all the way to the windswept summit, down the frigid descent into the valley, and then back up the tightly-stacked hairpins towards Laghi di Cancano. Hindley won the sprint for the stage, but Kelderman expressed concern that Geoghegan Hart is now third overall, just 15 seconds behind.

"I think for sure it was better if [Hindley] waited, then I was further ahead on GC," Kelderman said. "But he's won the stage here, and now we're both close on GC, so you can see it from both sides. For me, it's maybe less good, but now we are both close on GC."

Sunweb's intensity from the base of the Stelvio saw Almeida distanced from the front group around the midpoint of the climb, along with grandees like Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo). When Rohan Dennis took up the reins for Geoghegan Hart, however, Kelderman betrayed signs of discomfort, and he eventually loosened his grip on the wheels with 7km of the fearsome ascent still to go. Hindley kept following the leaders, while Kelderman was left to his own devices, battling against the mountain to reach the top, 45 seconds down.

That gap expanded on the valley ahead of the final climb and it briefly looked as though it might yawn out inexorably when Kelderman's pedalling slowed dramatically on the first ramps to Laghi di Cancano. Kelderman managed to right his course enough to take the maglia rosa, though he continued to ship time all the way to the finish, reaching the lakes at the top in fifth on the stage, 2:18 down.

"We spoke yesterday about the scenario. We wanted to go full gas all day to drop Almeida on the Stelvio and we succeeded in that," Kelderman said. "Ineos was pretty strong as a team. I couldn't follow them, but Jai could. I would have loved to have had him back with me to pull in the valley, but the team had different plans."

Team strategy

Kelderman was the first Sunweb rider to arrive in the press conference truck after the finish, but there was no sign of tension when Hindley sat down alongside him and jokingly corrected a reporter who mispronounced his name as 'Jay' in a question to the maglia rosa. Asked if he feared Hindley, Kelderman said: "He's doing really good, but until now I'm pretty good in GC and still confident with the TT coming up."

After Kelderman had left for his anti-doping control, Hindley was asked if the maglia rosa's imminent departure for Bora-Hansgrohe in 2021 might influence any decision about the Sunweb hierarchy on the road to Sestriere on Saturday. Hindley's response was to the point.

"Mate, he's in the pink jersey. I'm going to put my arse on the line for him, it doesn't matter where he's going next year," Hindley said. "I also really like Wilco, and I know the shit he's gone through in his career with injuries. I respect him as a guy and as a bike rider, and I want him to win this race."

And yet, and yet. At Piancavallo last Sunday and again here, Hindley pedalled with a facility that seemed to bear out Nibali's assessment that he is the strongest rider in the race. The 24-year-old stage winner downplayed the idea when it was put to him, but he must surely suspect it to be true. 

"The strongest? I don't know, man. That's a pretty big call," Hindley said. "I'm definitely here with the form of my life and I'm pretty happy with how I'm feeling."

Before the stage, Sunweb handed Hindley the assignment of marking Geoghegan Hart, and he fulfilled his brief to the letter, tracking the Briton to the finish at Laghi di Cancano.

"It's not the way I like to race, but I knew Wilco was behind and likely to go into the jersey, so I wasn't going to pull," Hindley said. "Also, Tao did the exact same to me a week ago [at Piancavallo], so if he wants me to come through, he should have rolled a turn a week ago. I didn't ask him to pull. That's just the way it is."

When the Giro d'Italia set off from Palermo on October 3, few could have anticipated that the last men standing ahead of the final weekend would be Kelderman, Hindley and Geoghegan Hart. Given all that has happened to this point, it seems equally hazardous to wager on their final positions on the podium on Piazza Duomo on Sunday evening.

"I think that's the beauty of bike racing, eh, you never know what's going to happen," Hindley said, adding carefully: "But Wilco rides a good time trial so I'm confident he can get the job done."