A Giro d'Italia raced in miserable, autumnal conditions and with only the merest semblance of control is not for the faint-hearted, but Jai Hindley (Sunweb) gives the impression of a man relishing the experience.
At Tortoreto Lido two days ago, and again in Cesenatico on Thursday, the Australian was to the fore in a maglia rosa group that was reduced to just the leading lights long before the finish line. Twelve days into the Giro, he remains in 7th place overall, 1:19 down on pink jersey João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
"It's just good fun," Hindley told Cyclingnews in Cesenatico ahead of stage 12. "It's like real bike racing, everybody just racing as hard as they can. It's last man standing-type racing, which is pretty cool. I've been really enjoying it. I don't think there's any team here that's head and shoulders above the rest, so it's quite hard to control, but I think it makes for good racing."
This Giro, more than any other, looks set to be disputed by the last men standing. The Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma teams withdrew on Tuesday after coronavirus cases were confirmed during rest day testing, while Hindley's Sunweb teammate Michael Matthews also left the race after testing positive for COVID-19. Sunweb, who also have Wilco Kelderman in second overall, just 34 seconds off pink, remain in the race, pending daily testing on riders and staff.
"It was pretty crazy when a guy you had dinner with isn't there the next day because he's tested positive," Hindley said. "It's not the easiest thing to wrap your head around. But at the same time, we're here to race bikes and I'm going to continue to do it until I can't."
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Hindley is in his second Giro d'Italia, having made his debut a year ago, though he picked up the experience of racing on Italian roads early as an amateur, having spent a season with the Aran Cucine amateur squad in Abruzzo as a raw 18-year-old. The anarchic nature of this Giro, meanwhile – not to mention the conditions – puts one in mind of the Rás, where Hindley placed second overall in 2016.
The Giro had been pencilled into Hindley's schedule since the very outset of the year, which began with the overall victory at the Herald Sun Tour. The event remained the centrepiece of his season when competition resumed in August, and he built quietly towards October with solid outings at the Tour de Pologne and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Although Kelderman arrived in Sicily as Sunweb's stated leader, Hindley was handed the freedom to ride for the general classification. "The expectation from our side isn't on the result, but the process," said Sunweb directeur sportif Luke Roberts, a thought echoed by Hindley himself.
"I can go for my own result but at the same time, there's no expectation there. It's about racing every day for 21 days," said Hindley. "I didn't really know it would go result-wise, but I knew we'd done a hell of a lot of work at altitude. I've been training the house down. I knew the legs were in pretty good shape coming in but it's always nice to be sitting in the top 10."
Kelderman, who leaves for Bora-Hansgrohe in 2021, arrived at the Giro with designs on the podium, but his ambition has grown in the days since he attacked the maglia rosa group at Mount Etna on stage 3. He was again the strongman of the pink jersey group at Roccaraso on stage 9, and he will expect to gain time on many of his rivals in Saturday's time trial to Valdobbiadene. Hindley is aware that he may yet have to sacrifice some of his own ambition to help his teammate into pink.
"Wilco is also here with the form of his life. I mean, if it comes down to it, then I'm going to put in on the line for him to win the pink jersey for sure," Hindley said.
It's still not clear, of course, if this Giro will complete the full route outlined from here to Milan, but on the basis of his previous Grand Tour experience – 32nd on the 2018 Vuelta, 35th at last year's Giro – Hindley expressed confidence that he would be able to hold his condition through the second half of the race.
"Usually, I actually feel pretty decent in the third week, so hopefully I still have that feeling in the third week here," he said. "It's also a pretty savage last week so I think I'm going to need every bit of energy I've got."
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