Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
Jai Hindley’s Twitter bio includes instructions on how to correctly pronounce his name, even though it now stands alongside Australian cycling greats in the history books.
Hindley last week became only the second Australian to finish top three at the Giro d’Italia and superseded Cadel Evans as the nation’s best overall performer with his runner-up finish.
The 24-year-old’s neck and neck battle with title winner Tao Geoghegan Hart started in the mountains and carried right through to the final stage in Milan where he lost the maglia rosa in the closing time trial.
“On paper the odds were always stacked against me and I knew my time trial wasn’t as good as his. But … it is the last day of a three-week race, so you don’t know how you are going to feel when you go down that start ramp,” Hindley told journalists in a telephone conference on Friday.
“That’s also the beauty of it, is it’s so unpredictable.
“…To finish next to the Duomo and end up standing on the podium it was something I hadn’t anticipated at all in the lead-up and to be there was just dream material.”
Hindley returned to his Girona, Spain base the morning after the Giro finished and is mentally and physically recovering.
“Haven’t got off the couch since,” he laughed. “I also haven’t ridden since that last TT actually. Just to have a bit of a mental break I guess from the bike, shut it down a bit and relax and not do much, it’s been nice.”
The Giro was a mammoth undertaking, especially when you consider it was only Hindley’s third Grand Tour and a significant step up from title honours at February’s Herald Sun Tour.
In his own words, he started the Giro as a “shadow leader” to Sunweb teammate and declared title contender Wilco Kelderman, who finished third overall.
“We were both protected riders but, you know, if it came down to it then I was going to have to work for Wilco and what not,” he said.
“And I also think the team, I mean also me, we just assumed I’d go alright but not get onto the podium, you know, so that was also I think a surprise for me and surprise for them.
“It was full on and then I think in the last week, after that Stelvio day, then that made me think I can potentially win this thing.
“But at the time that was also crazy to wrap my head around and still is, that I almost won it. “It was a crazy three weeks and especially that last week was one hell of a rollercoaster.”
The “Stelvio day”, stage 18, had fans screaming at their TVs. Kelderman assumed the race lead but it was Hindley who outsprinted Geoghegan Hart to take line honours on the queen stage, having recovered from an earlier jacket malfunction. For about 500m on the Stelvio, a critical point in the race, Hindley had agonizingly dangled behind Geoghegan Hart and his Ineos teammate Rohan Dennis, trying to put on the jacket to protect himself from the cold.
“Oh man, it was so embarrassing!” he laughed.
“I gave the soigneur the jacket for the top of the Stelvio and it was, I’m not saying it was Castelli’s fault at all, but it was a Castelli jacket, the white jersey jacket that I actually gave, not the Team Sunweb one. So just to clarify, it has nothing to do with [Sunweb sponsor] Craft and it has nothing to do with Castelli.
“I also put my long-fingered gloves on, I rode with them in my back pocket cause I knew I’d want them just for the Stelvio descent. So, I had them in my back pocket, I put those on and then I got the jacket but I also, before I gave the jacket, I loaded the jacket up with gels in the left pocket, so I had like four gels in the left pocket.
“Here I am thinking I’m being super smart, switched on, thinking about it way in advance, you know,” Hindley continued. “But then I grab the jacket, it’s super windy up the top there … just blowing like crazy. The sleeves on that Castelli jacket are actually super tight so I couldn’t … it was just a nightmare. The whole left side of the jacket was weighed down by these gels that I’d put in so I couldn’t get the right side over … And also, then once I did get the arms, I couldn’t get the jacket because of the long-fingered gloves. Anyway, it wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t actually that cold over the top. It just looked shit!”
Hindley’s Giro performance was preceded by compatriot Richie Porte’s final dig at the Tour de France as a contender. Porte, in the self-declared “twilight” of his career, finished third overall and, similarly to Hindley, became only the second Australian, behind Evans, who won the yellow jersey in 2011, to place top three overall at the Tour.
Porte’s result made headlines and was celebrated across the country but didn’t necessarily inspire. Conversely, pundits in the short space between the two Grand Tours speculated that, with Porte switching aims, it may be a while before the next Australian Grand Tour winner, if not contender, rose to prominence.
“I think the next Aussie Grand Tour winner could be around the corner,” Hindley countered.
“There is a massive group of Aussie talent racing in the WorldTour at the moment. There are some really good riders out there, guys like Ben O’Connor, Lucas Hamilton.
“For me, everything clicked and came together at this Giro, and it was incredible, but I also think there is a lot of other guys out there in a similar boat.
“You never know who it is going to be, but I think whoever it is, they’re going to be well supported by Australia, like I felt at the Giro, and that was pretty special. [I] really had like a full nation behind me, you know.”
New, young faces are in fashion this season, so Hindley and his generation are well placed.
The climber speaks with a healthy dose of Aussie modesty but answers seriously when asked if his inspiring Giro campaign has motivated him to ask for, if not take on more responsibility at a Grand Tour next year, COVID-19 pandemic permitting.
“I’d definitely like to go into races leading up to a Grand Tour as a leader for sure and try and target GC at some one-week type races,” he said.
“To go into a Grand Tour as the sole dedicated leader I think is pretty crazy but, yeah, I’d definitely be up for the challenge.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I think that’s what I’m going to focus on from here on in and see how it goes but looking forward to it.”