Veteran coach Dave Sanders has mentored hundreds of promising young Australian cyclists over the decades. Cadel Evans, Baden Cooke, Simon Gerrans, Anna Wilson – some of the best cyclists to ever represent this country have been proteges of Sanders. But he still vividly remembers the day he realised the scale of Jai Hindley’s true potential.
Racing for the Sanders-led Mitchelton-Scott development team in 2017, Hindley has spent much of September, October and November contesting far-flung races across China. At the penultimate stage of his last race for the year, the Tour of Fuzhou in the south-eastern Fujian province, Hindley stormed to victory on a gruelling final climb. He held on the following day to hold the winner’s jersey; it was the first senior overall victory for Hindley, then just 21.
“It was a pretty big-deal race,” Sanders told the DeTour Podcast last week. “The Queen stage was a long climb that just got steeper and steeper and steeper at the top. There were just two riders left – Jai hit the other guy and rode away to take the stage and general classification. I saw some glimpses of something really special there.”
On Sunday, barely three years later, Hindley came agonisingly close to winning the famed Italian Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. No Australian has ever won the race; the best prior result was Evans, Australia’s illustrious Tour de France champion, who finished third in Italy in 2013. On Saturday, Hindley had taken the pink leader’s jersey with just milliseconds separating him from rival Tao Geoghegan Hart of British team INEOS. One final stage – a 15.7-km individual time trial – separated Hindley from the overall triumph.
On this occasion, it was not to be. Geoghegan Hart took 40 seconds off Hindley in the time trial to secure the maglia rosa. But Hindley’s second place finish is a historic result, the best ever for an Australian. That it came from a 24-year-old, in only his third Grand Tour start, who had spent most of the Giro riding for team-mate Wilco Kelderman, in the midst of a pandemic, makes it all the more remarkable.
“Of course, it’s super disappointing to lose the jersey on the last day,” Hindley said after the final stage. “At the moment, it’s pretty hard to take but when I look back I think I’ll be super proud of how I and team rode the past three weeks. It’s a massive step forward in my career and something I’ll never forget.”
Hindley joined Team Sunweb in 2018, leaving Mitchelton-Scott’s development squad for the German outfit. Although this meant leaving an Australian-run environment for a foreign team, the Perth local found a compatriot in the form of Sunweb’s sports director, Luke Roberts, an Australian Olympic gold medallist. Roberts masterminded Sunweb’s 2017 Giro victory with Tom Dumoulin and has now helped engineer Hindley’s 2020 podium. With this savvy tactician behind him, the sky is the limit for Australia’s newest contender.
Even beyond Hindley and Roberts’ exploits, the Giro has been a continued high for Australian cycling, following on from Richie Porte’s podium finish at the Tour de France in September. The Italian Grand Tour began with a record Australian participation – 18 riders, second only to Italy in terms of representation. Despite Mitchelton-Scott and its contingent of five Australians withdrawing midway through due to Covid-19, the remaining Australians have impressed.
Canberra’s Michael Matthews sprinted to second on stage six, and collected third the following day. Victorian Simon Clarke then took third on stage 12 in Cesenatico. Dual time trial world champion Rohan Dennis claimed second on the stage 14 race against the clock, before showing his form by blowing up a number of climbing stages riding in support of team-mate Geoghegan Hart in the final week.
Twenty-four-year-old Ben O’Connor came close to his debut Grand Tour stage victory with second place last Tuesday, and then went one better the next day to secure a mountain stage into Madonna di Campiglio. Hindley won the following stage to continue Australia’s hot streak, before he and Dennis rounded out the podium behind Geoghegan Hart on stage 20. Dennis then finished third on the final time trial. All in all, a stunning Giro d’Italia for Australia.
Last month, with just two Australians contesting the Tour de France, I asked where Australia’s next Cadel Evans was to be found. At the Giro, Australia’s next generation has emphatically answered that question. Hindley and O’Connor have shown that the future is bright for Australian cycling.