When Jai Hindley signed with the new Mitchelton-Scott development team ahead at the beginning of last season, his route to the WorldTour seemed obvious. The Australian, however, has never been shy about following his own path, and he begins his top flight career in 2018 in the colours of Team Sunweb.
The German-registered squad had been following Hindley's progress with interest from before his entry into the GreenEdge set-up, and moved decisively in the aftermath of his fine cameo at the Herald Sun Tour last February. By late summer, Hindley and his fellow Mitchelton-Scott Continental rider Michael Storer – who placed 3rd at the Giro della Valle d'Aosta – had put pen to paper with Sunweb.
"They contacted me pretty early in the season last year and they were interested from the beginning," Hindley told Cyclingnews. "When a team shows that much faith in you that early on, it's pretty nice. I really like what the team do with the young riders and how they develop them. They're probably one of the best teams in the world when it comes to that."
Mitchelton-Scott, of course, pride themselves on a similar commitment to youth, and can point to how Esteban Chaves and Adam and Simon Yates have developed into Grand Tour contenders on their watch. Almost paradoxically, however, that very abundance of young stage racing talent in the WorldTour team could mean that riders on the development squad, like Hindley and Storer, have been open to looking elsewhere for opportunities.
"Obviously, it's a bit funny but they were really understanding and they just wanted what was best for me," Hindley said of the Mitchelton-Scott reaction to his Sunweb move. “They have a lot of young GC contenders already, although that wasn't the deciding factor. I just think it's nice as well to do something different to what a lot of the other Australians do. I'm super excited to do something different."
A different path
In that regard, Hindley's decision to sign with Sunweb is perhaps in keeping with the tenor of his career to date. Since the emergence of Robbie McEwen and Stuart O'Grady in the mid-1990s, the Australian Institute of Sport has provided an established pathway to the top level for young Australian riders, but the early part of Hindley's amateur career bore more similarities with those of the so-called Foreign Legion of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
On returning home from the Ponferrada World Championships without a team for his first season out of the junior ranks, Hindley made the decision to move to Europe and try his luck in Italy, riding for the Aran Cucine amateur squad in Abruzzo in 2015.
"I didn't even have an Australian team lined up after the junior Worlds, so I was super stressed out," Hindley said. "A family friend back home was helping me to try to contact as many European teams as possible, so I just kept sending a lot of emails to the Italian cycling federation saying I was looking for a team, and finally this one team got back to me.
"It's pretty hard to get a ride in Italy anyway because most amateur teams can only have one foreign rider. Once I got over there it was probably one of the biggest learning experiences I'll ever have in my life. I was living with the guy who owned the team, 70 years old and didn't speak a word of English, so it was very different, but in the same way, it definitely helped me grow as a rider and a person. I really appreciated what the team did for me and it definitely opened up a few doors."
After that summer of hard knocks in Italy in 2015, Hindley raced frequently with the Australian under-23 squad the following year, where he drew the eye with second place in the An Post Rás – "Just to finish the Rás is my greatest achievement to date," he laughed – 5th at the Tour de l'Avenir and victory in the prestigious GP Capodarco in Italy.
Buoyed by that success, Hindley burnished his reputation still further with second overall at last year's Herald Sun Tour, where he showcased his climbing ability by finishing ahead of men like Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves on the summit finish at Falls Creek.
"It was a really good experience to ride with some of the WorldTour guys in that kind of race. For sure it was good to beat Froome or whatever, but I can understand they were nowhere as fit as in July. It's nice, but at the same time it's good to keep a level head about things," said Hindley, a pure climber with margin to improve against the watch.
"I really enjoy the super hilly days, really high elevation days suit me the best. I see myself as a pure climber, I guess – I can't really sprint, I don't really ride the flat races. I can time trial alright but that's another big thing for me in joining Sunweb, trying to improve as a time triallist, which will hopefully make me a better GC rider."
By August, Hindley was confirmed as a Sunweb rider for 2018, though he had many miles to ride and promises to keep before he could bring the curtain down on his amateur career. Illness limited him at high-quality Tour de l'Avenir, though he managed 10th overall while riding in support of Lucas Hamilton, who turns professional with Mitchelton-Scott this year. Hindley's season would continue into November, and he signed off on his time at Mitchelton-Scott with overall victory in the Tour of Fuzhou in China.
"Mitchelton wanted me to race in China. They needed to send a team there and try to get some results, so I had to do that for the team," he said. "It was a good way to end out the year and to win the last race was pretty nice too."
That late finish to the 2017 season meant that Sunweb has withheld Hindley from the Australian Championships and Tour Down Under this January. The 21-year-old is currently in Calpe on the team's pre-season training camp and is likely to make Girona his European base. His first race in Sunweb colours, meanwhile, will come at the Volta ao Algarve in February.
"I don't really know my full calendar for this year yet, but I know that I'll start in Portugal at the Algarve, so I'm really excited for that," said Hindley, who is pragmatic about his ambitions for his maiden campaign.
"I love to win bike races, but for the first few years it's all just about the development side of things and learning as much as I can. If the opportunity comes and I'm in good shape, then for sure it would be great to get a win somewhere. But I've got a lot to learn. I've really got to find my place in pro peloton first."