In the mixed zone on the Blockhaus, a persistent local television reporter was trying to coax some words in Italian from Jai Hindley, winner of stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia. "Jai, two years on the Giro, you spoke good Italian. Proviamo ancora? Complimenti per la vittoria," he began hopefully.
Hindley responded smilingly – "Aw, thanks very much" – but in English, much to the reporter's disappointment. The exchange continued for a couple of more questions, with the reporter's persistence eventually overwhelmed by Hindley's unfailing politeness.
The Australian spent six formative months in these parts in 2015, living in nearby Montesilvano and racing in the colours of the Aran Cucine amateur squad. Seven years on, he may be shy about using his Italian, but his local knowledge is not in question.
The Passo Lanciano and the Blockhaus were Hindley's training ground back then, and his familiarity with the ascents stood him in good stead on the first true mountain test of this Giro d'Italia. He knew the roads. He remembered the gradients. He even recognised the skewered meats.
"It was nice to smell the arrosticini on the roads today," said Hindley, who moves up to 5th overall, 20 seconds behind maglia rosa Juan Pedro López (Trek-Segafredo). "I used to live in Abruzzo when I was an amateur. I raced here for six months for an Italian team, Aran Cucine. I used to actually train on the Lanciano pretty often, so I know the climb pretty well. It was sort of like a second home for me so it's super nice to get it."
Hindley spent much of the Blockhaus pedalling smoothly towards the head of a front group that was gradually skewered by the forcing of Ineos Grenadiers. He initially tried to follow when Richard Carapaz, Romain Bardet (DSM) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) forged clear with 4.6km to go, before knocking off his pace and settling into a chasing group with João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarché-Wanty).
"When Richie [Porte] pulled off, I knew they were going to attack, and I wasn't feeling super explosive so I could only ride my own tempo," said Hindley. "I was really just fighting to survive, and I knew the last kilometres were a bit flatter. In the back of my mind, I knew I could recover a bit, and I also knew they would play a bit of cat and mouse in the front. When I got back on, I tried to recover as much as I could. Then with 200m to go, I knew I wasn't going to lose time, so I could go all out."
Hindley's initial acceleration carried him three lengths clear and although his former teammate Bardet closed fiercely, he held on for his first victory since he won atop Laghi di Cancano during his break-out 2020 Giro. He would wear the maglia rosa into the final time trial in Milan before placing second overall, but his 2021 campaign was blighted by ill fortune, including an early abandon at the Giro.
"Last year wasn't really the smoothest of sailing during the season," Hindley said. "I had quite a lot of illness, I had crashes, and then I suffered from a really bad saddle sore on the Giro, which made me have to pull out of the race. I had quite some time off after that, and that saddle sore really affected the whole rest of my season. It wasn't the nicest of years, but I'm happy to be back."
Two years ago, when Hindley last sat in the press conference truck after a stage win at the Giro, he faced questions about the hierarchy of his Sunweb squad after teammate Wilco Kelderman was distanced on the Stelvio. Hindley has changed teams in the intervening period, but the question remains the same: who's the boss?
Bora-Hansgrohe entered this Giro with a troika of leaders, but both Kelderman conceded some 11 minutes on the Blockhaus, and his podium challenge is over. Emanuel Buchmann, however, fared rather better, taking 7th on the stage, and he is now 9th overall at 1:09. Hindley, though 49 seconds better off on GC, suggested the internal hierarchy was not yet established.
"We came here with pretty high ambitions for the GC and we came here with three leaders: Emu and Wilco are also pretty class bike riders," Hindley said. "I wouldn't count either of them out. This is the end of the first part of the race, but there's still a long way to go. I'm really happy to have more options and cards to play with the team, so I wouldn't write anyone off in the GC just yet."
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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.