We ended how we began – with a time trial. Only this time there was so much at stake for two young riders who, three weeks ago in Sicily, had no idea they’d be competing for one of the biggest, toughest prizes in professional cycling, the pink leader’s jersey of the Giro d’Italia – the Maglia Rosa.
But after three weeks from the Island of Sicily in the south, past the caves of Matera along the coast to the land of Marco Pantani, into the northern mountains and down into Milan, the two unsuspecting young riders were not even separated by a second – 3,345.7km of racing across an entire country for over 85 hours and the pair were on exactly the same time, this is completely unprecedented in Grand Tour racing. The final 15.7km stage would have to decide the winner, and that winner would be Hackney’s Tao Geoghegan Hart
Whichever of these two men took the victory would have been a worthy winner of this most unusual Giro. There was a time when it was possible that there would have been no Giro d’Italia at all this year, and just its very existence was so important, let alone the fascinating and unpredictable race we’ve had.
There’s been coronavirus, and two teams abandoning because of it (including a positive test from one the top favourites for the race Simon Yates). There’s been incredible solo attacks from the unlikeliest places. There’s been a rider protest. There’s been last minute changes of route. But the race made it over the Stelvio and to Milan and who could have predicted the fight would come down to Ineos Grenadier’s Geoghegan Hart and Sunweb’s Jai Hindley, who would have bet on a Geoghegan Hart victory?
Geoghegan Hart was at the very first Team Sky cycle when they launched the team 10 years ago. He rode along behind the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, in a time before a British rider had even won a single cycling Grand Tour. Geoghegan Hart was just a teenager and riding for Hackney Cycling Club with ideas of racing one day for Team Sky.
He wasn’t even supposed to be leading the Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) this year. That lot had fallen to the well-known 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. But following a heavy fall after hitting a stray water bottle on just Stage 2, ‘G’ had to abandon the race.
Left without a clear leader, the Ineos Grenadiers, who are so used to all working for one rider to win the overall race, turned their attention to stage wins; and they came thick and fast. By Stage 15 when Geoghegan Hart ruled the Piancavallo, the Grenadiers had already won five stages.
William Fotheringham wrote that Geoghegan Hart’s cycling story is one of “steady progression” rather than “spectacular rise” and the same could be said of his Giro win. He finished the first time trial in 126th places 2:04 down on stage winner and teammate Filippo Ganna. At this stage he was, of course, going in to support Thomas and had no eye on fighting for the win. But from the moment Thomas abandoned the race after this fall,
While the stage wins came, something else had happened, Geoghegan Hart had steadily progressed up the standings, putting in a much better second individual time trial on Stage 14 to bring himself up in the overall ranking. The 25-year-old from Hackney had moved himself into contention for the leader’s pink jersey, and not only that, he looked in good form while doing it.
Piancavallo came down to himself, Jai Hindley, and one of the race favourites Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb). It was Stage 15 that Geoghegan Hart burst on to the scene, not just winning the stage but looking the more at-ease rider, he clearly felt good heading into the all-important final week.
As we began that final week he was just 2mins 57seconds off the lead but it was on Thursday when the big changes took place. The Passo Del Stelvio, one of cycling’s most famous, or perhaps infamous, climbs was due and there would be no more hiding on Stage 18.
First the Pink Jersey, Joao Almeida was dropped as Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers) put in a phenomenal, selfless effort guiding Tao up the climb at a relentless pace. The time-trail specialist from Southern Australia gave everything up a climb that broke even the mountain specialist riders. One by one riders fell of the back, including Wilco Kelderman, Team Sunweb’s leader.
Only Jai Hindley from Perth, Western Australia, would hold the wheel of the Ineos pair and in the end it would be the Australian that took the stage. But Geoghegan Hart would move from almost three minutes off the lead to within 15 seconds.
Perhaps the defining moment of Geoghegan Hart’s win was to come on Stage 20 as the peloton headed three times up Sestriere. Ineos sent all its troops and put in a stint at the front, thinning the peloton down to just the favourites then one by one they all dropped off including the new Pink Jersey, Wilco Kelderman.
Rohan Dennis again proved to be an incredible new addition to the Ineos Team single handedly dragging the two young GC contenders up the climbs again and again. But at one moment Geoghegan Hart seemed to lose the wheel of his teammate, and it seemed he just didn’t have it in him to ride at this pace. Jai Hindley stuck-fast to the Hackney rider’s wheel must have licked his lips, it seemed as if Geoghegan Hart was about to break, or at least could be broken at will.
On the final ascent of Sestriere Hindley tried to attack in the final kilometres, but Geoghegan Hart stuck to him, The Sunweb man tried again and again on the slopes but Geoghegan Hart would not be shaken. Either he had got a second wind, or had been bluffing before, or had made a mistake, but suddenly the Londoner looked at ease and strong. Hindley couldn’t break him and what’s more, Dennis wouldn’t be left behind either putting in a monumental effort for his new team in support of the new de facto team leader, Geoghegan Hart, and perhaps breaking the confidence of Hindley.
As they approached the line, Dennis dropped off allowing the two young riders to battle to the finish line for the all-important bonus seconds and the stage win. Perhaps Hindley had burned himself out trying to attack Geoghegan Hart but in the end Geoghegan Hart sprinted past the Australian with an effort no one could have expected after he briefly lost the wheel of Dennis on the second ascent of the Sestriere.
The two men went into the final Stage 21 on the same overall time for the first time in Grand Tour history and it was one of the most exciting Giro’s to watch. Two riders who had not expected to be competing for overall victory, through circumstance and talent, went into the final day with not even a second to separate them.
In the end it was Geoghegan Hart who reign supreme. On paper, coming into the 15.7km final time trial, Tao had the upper hand, having beaten Hindley 7-2 in previous Individual Time Trials, but it would have been a brave person to bet on the outcome of this most peculiar Giro d’Italia.
He rolled across the line beneath the Duomo di Milano and believed he had done enough, but it wasn’t until Jai Hindley crossed the line 25 seconds slower that he could kiss his partner, professional cyclist, Hannah Barnes and finally celebrate being only the second Briton ever to win the Giro d’Italia.
After that Tour de France, and that Tour of Flanders, and that Giro d’Italia, it’s now over to the Vuelta a Espana… We had to wait a while, but what a year it’s been for cycling and what a chance to just for a moment forget about the pandemic that roars on around the world.
Before the time trial Geoghan Hart tweeted: “Sunday’s for me will always be playing football on the marshes and going to Brick Lane market with my old man & brother. Today is just another Sunday. I haven’t seen my family in 10months, but they are always with me”
By the end of this Sunday he was the champion of the 103rd Giro d’Italia