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The many what ifs of the Giro and grand tour racing

There are a million ways a grand tour can go — that's why we watch.

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There are always so many ‘what ifs’ in grand tour racing.

What if a veteran Australian hadn’t got sick and had been at his leader’s side to block the destiny of a compatriot, ten years younger? What if Romain Bardet or João Almeida had still been in contention, creating greater tactical intrigue? What if Richard Carapaz had clung onto the pink jersey and had just enough power in his legs to fend off the inevitable raid from Jai Hindley on the murderous slopes of the Fedaia?

In the end, it was all academic. Jai Hindley became the first Australian to win the Giro d’Italia after a fierce attack on the Passo Fedaia last Saturday that was enough to crack Carapaz, rocking and exhausted, and to prise the maglia rosa out of the Ecuadorian’s hands. On Sunday, his time trialling withstood any last ditch attempt from Ineos Grenadiers’ leader to snatch the advantage back and the 26-year-old Australian conceded just seven seconds to his rival. Victory in Verona became a formality.

Hindley became the second Australian rider to win one of Europe’s grand tours, following on from Cadel Evans, winner of the Tour de France in 2011. His predecessor, eight years older when he took the yellow jersey, was in the twilight of his career when he won in Paris, but the impression is that Hindley and his team are only just getting started. Bora Hansgrohe are now one of the teams on the up, while Ineos Grenadiers — at least in terms of grand tours — appear to have flatlined.

The crux of the matter was decided on the Fedaia, when the loss of Richie Porte on stage 19 due to sickness, was thrown into stark relief. Pavel Sivakov did his very best to support Carapaz, his face fixed in a rictus of agony as they climbed into the final kilometres of the stage, but it wasn’t enough to stave off what, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.

For all its tactical complexities and nuances, cycling can be brutally simple at times. When Hindley made his move, Carapaz’s legs weren’t good enough to withstand the threat and so, the outcome of the Giro was decided. Probable victory morphed into Carapaz’s fourth grand tour podium in four seasons. He won the 2019 Giro, was second to Primož Roglič in the 2020 Vuelta a España, third to Tadej Pogačar in the 2021 Tour de France and now, second to Hindley in this Giro.

It’s a more than creditable performance of course that shows his consistency, and it’s one that another team would be delighted with. Yet, a couple of seasons ago, who would have imagined a Bora Hansgrohe rider dethroning an Ineos Grenadiers leader? Cast your mind back, only a two or three years, to when what was then Team Sky seemed set to continue their dynasty of grand tour domination through Tour and Giro winner Egan Bernal, when talk of the team targeting all three grand tours in one year was doing the rounds.

The reality is that what was Sky and is now Ineos, are no longer the team to beat in grand tour racing. They may never be the team to beat again, now that other talent riding for other teams — Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, Jai Hindley — is consistently taking the top step in grand tours. Based on this season so far, the team’s current roster may prove more adept at one-day racing and shorter stage races, in which, as we saw in Paris-Roubaix, their tactical expertise and collective strength, ensured the upper hand.

On the final Saturday of last year’s Tour de France, I stood in the shade of the Ineos Grenadiers team bus chatting to Dave Brailsford, Carapaz’s team boss, about another near-miss, as Pogačar rode past to the start line for the final time trial in Libourne. Typically, he was keen to talk up his team’s performance, rather than dwell on another near-miss. Publicly, he always backs his riders of course, as he should. Even now, he would scoff at the suggestion that his team doesn’t have a rider to better Pogačar, Roglič, Hindley et al.

What if, Brailsford said as we talked through the key moments of the 2021 Tour, Geraint Thomas hadn’t crashed? What if Primož Roglič had been more of a factor? What if…? The reality was that Carapaz had consistently been the closest match to Pogačar in the mountains, but that also, he had fallen short on the key stage to Le Grand Bornand. He’d been gutsy, brave, courageous, but not good enough to win. On another day, in another year, who knows?

This latest podium finish for the Ecuadorian will be the most frustrating yet, given how close to the final stage Carapaz’s crack came. Brailsford’s team had done all the hard yards over the Giro’s previous three weeks, only to falter in the final 3,000 metres. Yes, it would have been a close call in the final time trial, but if the standings had remained unchanged at the top of the Fedaia, you would probably have backed Carapaz to edge it. Just.

Egan Bernal’s recovery continues and it seems likely that he will race again, although even his closest supporters acknowledge that it’s impossible to know if he will ever again attain his previous phenomenal level. The Colombian was the rider most likely to prove an obstacle to the Slovenian charge, but it is hard to imagine that now. Meanwhile, Hindley, a better climber, a better time triallist, and supported by a better (and wealthier) team than when Tao Geoghegan Hart won two years ago, has made his big breakthrough. It will be fascinating to see how far he can go.