Three stages, three seconds. The margins on the Giro d'Italia could scarcely be any tighter, but then nobody does suspense at this race quite like Jai Hindley.
Two years ago, the Australian entered the final day a second ahead of Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) only to lose the pink jersey in the Milan time trial. This time around, he approaches the last three days of the Giro d'Italia just a time bonus behind another Ineos rider, Richard Carapaz.
"It's really very even, otherwise we wouldn't be here three stages from the end of the Giro with just three seconds between them," Hindley's Bora-Hansgrohe directeur sportif Enrico Gasparotto told Cyclingnews in Borgo Valsugana on Thursday. "It's certainly going to be a great battle."
It has taken some time for the hazy narrative of the Giro to sharpen into focus, but as the race approaches its final weekend, it's beginning to look a lot like a straight duel between Hindley and Carapaz, even if Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) still loiters with intent just over a minute behind.
This curious Giro has not yet offered up a head-to-head contest between Hindley and Carapaz. From Romain Bardet to Vincenzo Nibali to Landa, the top two have always had company at the front on the toughest stages, but their contrasting styles have been increasingly visible as the race has progressed.
On the steepest sections of the Passo del Menador on Wednesday, Hindley's pedalling was still agile, whereas Carapaz's looked rather more laboured. There are no bonuses on the results sheet for elegance, of course, and Hindley and Carapaz still remain more or less deadlocked after over 3,000km of racing.
"From the expression on his face, Carapaz sometimes looks like he's in difficulty, but in reality, he isn't, and I think he's quite good at playing with that," Gasparotto said. "And Jai does something similar. Or rather the opposite: if Carapaz always makes it seem like he's tired when he's not, then Jai makes it seem like he's not suffering even when he's going really hard. I can see that myself on TV from the team car."
Too close to call
Hindley lost four seconds to Carapaz when the peloton split on the opening stage in Visegrád and he conceded another six in the following day's time trial in Budapest, but since then, they have finished together on 15 consecutive stages. Only bonus seconds – Hindley has picked up 21 to Carapaz's 14 – have provided any further differentiation between them in the standings.
On Thursday, Hindley reached the finish of stage 18 in Treviso almost a minute down on Carapaz, but the Australian had punctured inside the final 3km, and the race jury promptly awarded him the same time as the main peloton. The three-second gap remains firmly intact as the Giro faces into its final mountain stages, where something – surely – has to give.
Saturday's Dolomite tappone over the Passo San Pellegrino, Passo Pordoi and Passo di Fedaia draws the eye, but stage 19, which takes a detour from Friuli into neighbouring Slovenia, should not be underestimated. Gasparotto, a native of nearby Sacile, took the time to drive the route last winter. The day includes the wickedly-steep Kolovrat (10.3km at 9.2%), which climbs to the Italo-Slovenian border, as well as the final haul to Santuario di Castelmonte above Cividale del Friuli.
Gasparotto, in his first Giro as a directeur sportif, already drew up the game plan for Bora-Hansgrohe's remarkable onslaught on the short, intense stage around Turin last weekend, and the terrain on Friday might present another opportunity for his team to try to isolate Carapaz from his Ineos team.
"It's clear that I have a plan and I'll talk about it with the lads. But to go from there to actually putting it into action, you always have to consider the advantages and disadvantages," said Gasparotto, who suggested there was little to choose between the depth of Hindley and Carapaz's supporting casts.
"Our team is structured differently to Ineos but on Wednesday we had five riders in the group at the foot of the Menador. We're very solid, otherwise we wouldn't have done the Giro we've done so far. But then Ineos are also strong, and they had four riders up there on the Menador."
If the course and their respective teams can't decide the issue, then Hindley and Carapaz will face a tie-breaker in Sunday's 17.4km time trial in Verona. Hindley endured the hardship of losing the maglia rosa in such circumstances two years ago, but his performance in the Budapest time trial earlier in the race hinted at considerable strides against the watch. Carapaz would be the favourite in the event of a near-tie ahead of the time trial, but Gasparotto maintained it would be far from a foregone conclusion.
"I think Budapest was one of the best time trials Jai has done in his young career," Gasparotto said. "And in that Verona time trial, with the climb of Torricelle, I think he's there on the level of Carapaz. If you ask me, then I'd clearly prefer to get to Verona with two minutes on Carapaz, so we're calm about punctures or mechanicals. But this Giro is going to be a great battle to the end."
Last winter, Bora-Hansgrohe made the decision to invest heavily in this Giro, deploying their proven Grand Tour riders – Hindley, Wilco Kelderman and Emanuel Buchmann – as a leadership triumvirate. Those plans appeared sage given Tadej Pogačar's dominance at the Tour de France, but the grand design risked unravelling in late April, when Hindley fell ill before Liège-Bastogne-Liège and then Kelderman crashed in the race itself.
"The Monday after Liège we were thinking about finding reserves to replace Wilco and Jai in the Giro team," Gasparotto said. "To go from that starting point to where we are now is clearly a positive surprise. But Jai was already very solid all through the winter and the early part of the season. He was always growing and that's come out in this Giro.
"I think that Jai is in the process of confirming the result he got two years ago. Doing a good result as a young rider is one thing, but confirming it is a bit more difficult. So I would say this isn't a surprise so much as a pleasant confirmation."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor 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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.