The last climb of the last mountain stage and above the ski village of Malga Ciapela Jai Hindley and Richard Carapaz have dropped Mikel Landa. Hindley’s bridged across to his waiting team mate Lennard Kämna and now Carapaz is struggling, a gap is opening up between him and Hindley. Carapaz can’t manage his losses, he cracks and loses a minute and half on the Passo Fedaia. This was the moment Jai Hindley won the Giro d’Italia.
The race began in Hungary and despite the state of emergency huge crowds were out to see the race go past and Budapest turned pink for a day. Mathieu van der Poel won atop the Visegrad hill to take all the spoils. The next day Simon Yates showed a glimpse of his form as he stormed around Budapest to win the stage before Mark Cavendish rolled back the years to win the final Hungarian stage.
After a journey to Sicily, a stage to Mount Etna and the first GC abandon when Miguel Angel Lopez quit the race. Juan-Pedro Lopez and Lennard Kämna shared the stage’s spoils with the Spaniard starting a ten day spell in pink that would inevitably end but he finishes the Giro with 10th place, the white jersey and a bright future as a sprightly climber with a personality.
There were plenty of whispers about the Potenza stage being a hard day that could upset the overall contenders but Koen Bouwman won from the breakaway with an incisive sprint that would prove useful again for a second stage win and for racking up points to win the mountains competition. All the GC riders rolled in three minutes later.
Naples hosted a circuit race where Van der Poel launched an early attack and dragged a large group clear but he couldn’t take on the breakaway alone – he’s good, but not that good – and got countered in the finish and Thomas De Gendt won the day. There was a carpaccio of beef here with van der Poel frustrated by Biniam Girmay tracking his every move.
Days later in Jesi he could only give a thumbs up when Girmay won the stage thanks to a sublime sprint which topped off clever racecraft and effective teamwork. Girmay’s success proved his undoing, the podium prosecco cork popped into his eye and he had to leave the race. Van der Poel wanted another stage win and times you wondered what he was doing charging up the road on a hilly day but this riding helped his team mate Stefano Oldani to a stage win ,and later on he wasn’t far from a shock win in Lavarone. His refreshing presence stirred up several mountain stages and he’s now finished his first grand tour. Now he wants to finish a second in July and assuming he can recover, this aggression on any terrain makes the Tour’s green jersey competition something to look forward to.
Surprisingly van der Poel barely contested the sprints. These stages weren’t always processional, with the breakaways able to put the bunch under pressure at times, Arnaud Démare won his third stage after the break was swept up in the final kilometre in Cuneo, Dries De Bondt got a stage win when the sprint trains ran out of puff. Démare proved the best but others had their chance, Alberto Dainese taking a surprise win.
Italians had plenty to cheer about. After seeing Nibali going backwards on Etna things didn’t look too rosy but stage wins for Dainese, Oldani, Ciccone and Covi provided some cheer. The state of Italian cycling matters, the sport can globalise but the largest audience for a grand tour is always at home and the local mood sets the tone.
The chart above shows the GC standings for the top four overall across the three weeks. As you can see Vincenzo Nibali is undone on Etna but for the other three, their lines are almost flat until Stage 14’s Torino circuit race and then it’s only Mikel Landa’s red line that dips. All stay practically parallel until Stage 20 and the Fedaia.
What makes a good grand tour? That should be the subject of a separate, lengthy blog post but like all good stories there should be drama and suspense. This Giro’s “fight for pink” lacked this, the Blockhaus hierarchy was maintained for some time and as lively as the Torino stage was – a candidate for a highlight of the year – the GC didn’t budge much. Mountain stage after mountain stage went by without much changing on GC. In terms of the chart above you want to see highs and lows rather than flat lines.
If there were hidden scriptwriters drafting the Giro’s tale, they weren’t relying on peripeteia, the drama of a protagonist seeing their fortunes rise and fall, it was all rather linear. Instead the gods deployed a different technique by writing many characters out of the plot. One or two are fine for pathos and to remind us that luck and random factors can play their part. Miguel Angel Lopez left having started in Budapest carrying an injury. In Sicily a motorbike caused a crash, Simon Yates managed to stop in time and for a second thought he’d avoided harm until a rider behind slammed into him, sending him down and his knee onto a kerbstone. Romain Bardet fell ill, likewise João Almeida while Tom Dumoulin wasn’t in the form of old. Almeida’s Covid positive is a reminder that this can and will still happen.
There can be suspense in waiting for something to happen, tension builds. But there are other forms of waiting, imagine sitting at a rural bus stop waiting for a delayed bus to show up, that’s less riveting. In this Giro it sometimes felt like the racing was suspended rather than full of suspense. However this was all relative, because as much as the Carapaz-Hindley-Landa trio proved inseparable, the rest of the field were usually where out of the picture. So this wasn’t the story of GC contenders huddling, more of three riders who, try as they might, just couldn’t shake their rivals. Yes Etna and Cogne saw a large group finishing together but things were selective on the Blockhaus, Aprica and Santuario di Castelmonte climbs, only it was just the same selection each time.
Still the course design didn’t help, one of the Giro’s luxuries is that almost anywhere it can flick off the main road to find a tricky backroad climb, thread a few of these together and you can create a hectic stage where nobody can sit still. The Torino twister is a case study, the Superga sapped the legs but the narrow roads of the Bric della Maddalena made it impossible to control. But this year’s route went for a lot of ski stations and wide strade statale arterial roads.
Still Hindley’s level line might not have been so steady were it not for João Almeida on the Blockhaus climb, the pair were among those dropped by Carapaz’s attack but Almeida never gave up and rode his way back to them, with Hindley sat on his wheel. Sure drafting is less effective on a climb of course but at the speeds they go it helps, and Almeida aside, it’s also about pacing and being able to hold a wheel counts, if there was no Almeida would Hindley have won the stage or lost time?
What we can be sure of is that it call came down to the Fedaia pass. As agile as Hindley looked on the climb, Carapaz imploded too. A touch of the same illness that saw team mate Richie Porte leave the race? A bug picked up from his kids who visited just before? An off-day? Or had he gone too deep just to hold the wheel and paid in cash for his oxygen debt when the Capanna Bill arrived? Whatever the explanation, he was metaphorically going backwards and soon passed by Carthy and Landa. Ironically the next day the pair were almost inseparable again in the Verona time trial, Carapaz was only seven seconds faster than Hindley.
If the GC contest never caught fire across the three weeks, none of this detracts from Hindley’s win. He beat a past winner in Carapaz who was said to be in the best form of his life, and beat him convincingly. This lends a comforting satisfaction to the result, a finality as there’s no ambiguity. Hindley didn’t sneak away for the win, he rode Carapaz off his wheel and soared on the Fedaia to take more time that many would have imagined.
A victory for patience but no Aesop fable of the hare and the tortoise, two inseparable climbers rode around Italy and beyond and it was only only the upper part of the last pass on the last mountain stage that the cracks appeared. This moment though was decisive, a crack turned into a chasm for Carapaz.
After the promise of Hindley’s Giro in 2020, the following year was a flop because of crashes, injuries and infections and not his fault. Illness on the eve of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year suggested more bad luck. But it helped Hindley fly under the radar, and perhaps even spared him because there’s every chance he could have been part of that high speed horror crash on the way to the Col du Rosier. Hindley rode a flawless race helped by a strong Bora-hansgrohe team. Not long ago the German squad was a Pro Conti team that hired Peter Sagan and expanded, now they’ve mastered the transition away from Sagan to become a stage racing team, adding the Giro to other World Tour stage race wins in Romandie and Catalunya this year, they’ll fancy their chances for a podium with Aleksandr Vlasov in July now too.
Another podium finish for Carapaz after the Tour de France and had he gone the way of Yates and Bardet then a final podium of Carapaz, Landa and Nibali could be simpatico but then the story really would have been one of abandons, his presence elevated Hindley and the podium itself. There was talk of a new Ineos during the spring classics but they rode like the Sky of old, all in for the GC and nobody trying to go for stage wins, unlike Bahrain or Bora-hansgrohe. A pity Richie Porte couldn’t make it to Verona but 20 year old Ben Tullet did with energy to spare, finishing 5th in the Verona time trial.
Landa gets his second Giro podium. As part of the inseparable trio he was further back all the time after losing time in Torino. His team did chase stage wins and got one with Santiago Buitrago and Pello Bilbao takes a solid fifth place.
Nibali’s fourth place is a fine swansong, the race’s passage through Messina was where he announced his looming retirement but he’s not done yet, he wants to finish with the late season Italian classics… and then take up mountain bike racing.
Among the other riders high on GC, Jan Hirt and Domenico Pozzovivo thrived, the former getting a stage win. Emanuel Buchmann was a stealthy seventh, if you don’t believe me see the table above. Hugh Carthy hauled himself to ninth place, overtaking J-P Lopez in the time trial.
Pro cycling often banks a result and immediately we wonder what comes next. Hindley’s certainly improved, there’s a punch and a tactical awareness now, he mastered the alchemy of presence in the front group into wins. He’s had a podium, now a win in the Giro so what can he do next? As he pleases…