In the end, Tao Geoghegan Hart’s 39-second victory in the Giro d’Italia ahead of the overnight leader, the Australian Jai Hindley, was not the tightest the race has ever seen. That honour remains with the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal’s win by 16sec in 2012. But none of the three Grand Tours has ever gone into its final day so tightly poised, with less than a second dividing Hindley and Geoghegan Hart as they prepared to start Sunday’s brief closing time trial into Milan, after more than 85 hours and over 2,000 miles of racing.
Geoghegan Hart was expected to have the upper hand, and so it proved over the pancake flat course through the Milanese suburbs to the majestic Piazza del Duomo. The 25-year-old gained time gradually but inexorably on the diminutive Australian, visibly churning a far larger gear as Hindley opted to pedal a smaller ratio with a higher cadence but less power. At the only time check with five kilometres remaining the Londoner had a 22sec lead, meaning the race would be won if he avoided a crash or a puncture.
After he negotiated the final corner on slippery wet cobblestones with the utmost care, he became the first rider to win the Giro without having worn the pink jersey until the end of the final stage. “My directeur sportif said I was 10sec up and he kept giving me a few seconds. I only knew that we were in a pretty good situation when he was screaming at me not to take any risks in the final kilometre. It’s not often your DS tells you to slow down in a 15km time trial.”
Hindley had started three minutes after Geoghegan Hart and rode the final kilometre with the look of a man who knew he had lost. But on leaving Palermo 22 days earlier, neither he nor his nemesis had expected to end the race with overall victory in their sights.
Geoghegan Hart made his own luck in the final few days, but a curious combination of circumstances set him up for his final assault on the pink jersey. Ineos’s original Giro leader, the defending champion, Richard Carapaz, was drafted into the Tour de France at the last minute due to Geraint Thomas being short of form. Thomas was sent to the Giro as leader instead, but when he crashed on the stage to Mount Etna and broke his pelvis, that left Ineos leaderless.
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Initially the team focused on stage wins, with Filippo Ganna adding a road race stage to his initial time trial win, and then Jhonatan Narváez of Ecuador, before Geoghegan Hart opened his account on the mountain stage to Piancavallo at the end of the second week. That set up a final few days in which the race boiled down to a duel between Ineos and Sunweb, with Hindley emerging as the German team’s strongest climber ahead of his nominal leader Wilco Kelderman of the Netherlands.
Geoghegan Hart’s searing sprint win at Piancavallo, after Sunweb looked to have taken control, pointed to the young Briton as the rider in form as the race’s biggest climbs hove into view. With the support of his Australian teammate Rohan Dennis he took the fight to Kelderman and Hindley on the majestic climb of the Stelvio Pass last Thursday, before dislodging the Dutchman and moving level with Hindley after winning Saturday’s stage to the Alpine ski resort of Sestriere. That set up Sunday’s pulsating finale.
Like the Tour de France, won by the 21-year-old Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, this race marked a passing of the generations. The main Italian hopeful, Vincenzo Nibali, never truly made an impression and finished seventh, while another near veteran, the Dane Jakob Fuglsang, also showed little. In contrast, the 22-year-old Portuguese João Almeida led for 15 of the 21 stages before fading in the final few days to finish fourth, while at 24 and 25 respectively Hindley and Geoghegan Hart have big futures ahead of them.
The Giro will also be remembered for the resurgence of the Frenchman Arnaud Démare, winner of four sprint stages, and for the effect that coronavirus had on the race. Positive tests for Covid deprived the Giro of two big favourites, Simon Yates of Great Britain and Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands, resulting in a more open race that gave space to the young hopefuls.
On Sunday, the early pace was set by Ganna; the world time trial champion was viewed as the inevitable winner beforehand, and his blisteringly fast time of 17min 16sec gave him four stage wins in the race, and landed Ineos their seventh stage win, making this the British team’s most successful Grand Tour ever, as well as their 11th Grand Tour title. For a team which had been deprived of its leader since day four, it was quite a turnaround.