Words by Nick Bull | Photos by CorVos/SWpix.com
They say a week is a long time in politics. I’m not sure what that makes the 214 days that have passed since Team Sunweb’s Jai Hindley almost crashed near the top of the Stelvio removing his rain jacket and Egan Bernal’s noticeably calmer and more controlled upper body strip approaching the finish line in Cortina d’Ampezzo on Monday, but the Colombian’s return to Grand Tour form in this year’s Giro d’Italia has overshadowed last year’s break-out stars almost as quickly as their legends were born.
The reigning Giro champion, Tao Geoghegan Hart, opted against defending his crown in favour of targeting the GC at the Tour. Hindley, who was 15.7 kilometres away from winning the 2020 edition, came into the race declaring that he wanted to do “what I did last year – or maybe even better” but departed on Saturday with what his team described as a serious saddle sore. He was 25th overall at the time. “This is obviously not how I wanted my Giro to end,” he said. “The team have really put in a lot to try and help, but the situation isn’t improving and I really can’t continue anymore.” Four more top-10 finishers in Milan last October also found themselves somewhere other than Turin a little over a fortnight ago while João Almeida, the maglia rosa for 15 days in 2020, crept back into the top 10 on Monday for the first time since stage three. Little wonder the two editions, separated by just seven months, feel very different.
Bernal’s dominance in the opening two weeks, which reiterates that he’s the second-best Grand Tour rider in the sport right now, combined with the large roadside crowds and a return to a May date make this feel like a throwback to cycling in 2019. However, that should not diminish the achievements of Geoghegan Hart, Hindley et al. last year, at least for the foreseeable future. In the past decade, no rider has been as far off the race lead in terms of both position and time in a Grand Tour at the two-thirds mark as the INEOS rider was at last year’s Giro (11th, at three minutes and 44 seconds). Cycling statistician ammattipyöräily calculated that Geoghegan Hart’s, Hindley’s and Wilco Kelderman’s performance on the Piancavallo climb during last year’s 15th stage was akin to riding a 38:15 on Alpe d’Huez, a time that has only been surpassed eight times, and by some questionable names at that.
Filippo Ganna was doing Filippo Ganna things and even Arnaud Démare’s four stage victories, the first time that the Frenchman had ever claimed multiple wins in a Grand Tour, saw him replicate the likes of Bernard Hinault (1982), Eddy Merckx (1969, 1972) and Roger De Vlaeminck (1972, 1976). Démare’s final win in that quartet, stage 11 into Rimini, may have seen him up against the likes of Álvaro José Hodeg, Simone Consonni, Rick Zabel and Nico Denz, but he still had to beat them. Ask Giacomo Nizzolo, he of 11 second-place finishes and no stage wins in the Giro fame prior to last Friday, how difficult claiming a victory in the race really is. “My goal was to be second,” he joked after his long-awaited triumph in Verona. “Maybe that was the trick to gain the victory.”
Grand Tour wins cannot be fluked. One factor that is understandably and rightfully overlooked when it comes to a certain American’s success (sic) at the Tour de France is that, somehow, he managed to avoid any serious crashes or performance-affecting sickness for seven-consecutive years. It took Geraint Thomas nine Tour starts to finally have a clean run at the race, while Thibaut Pinot has abandoned three of the five editions he’s started since finishing third in 2014. The simplistic take on Thomas’ Tour win three years ago is similar to saying that Carlos Sastre (in Alberto Contador’s absence), Cadel Evans (benefitted from Leopard-Trek’s indecisive joint leadership with the Schlecks) and Sir Bradley Wiggins (helped by the distance of the race’s time trials) all won the Tours they should have won. We can remind ourselves of the perils that come with being the pre-race favourite at a Grand Tour; Simon Yates conceded over two-and-a-half minutes to Bernal on Monday. “The victory is a bit far away now,” the Briton declared, having slipped to fifth overall.
Bernal’s stage win on Monday came exactly 250 days after his Tour title defence ended with him abandoning the race last September. His nearest challenger going into Wednesday’s summit finish at Sega di Ala is Bahrain-Victorious’ Damiano Caruso. The Italian has never finished higher than eighth in his 13 Grand Tour starts, yet we’re rightfully applauding Bernal’s performance as opposed to critiquing the Colombian’s opposition. We would do well to apply such an approach to Geoghegan Hart’s victory. If, once the Londoner retires, his Giro win proves to be the highlight of his career, perhaps then fans and experts alike can make their assessments on the quality of that triumph. Hindsight remains an incredibly powerful evaluator.
Indeed, looking back, it’s already striking how much Bernal downplayed his expectations going into the Giro. “Everything will depend on how my back responds. It’s useless to make false promises,” he said, sticking to INEOS’ long-standing “day by day” PR line. Barring injury or illness, he’s on course to win the race by the largest margin Nairo Quintana in 2014. Then again, a week can be a long time in cycling, too.