Entering the 2020 Giro d’Italia, the consensus of the experts was that the race would be contested by established favorites. Geraint Thomas, Simon Yates, Vincenzo Nibali, Steven Kruijswijk and Jakob Fuglsang were expected to fight among themselves for overall victory. Between them, an average age of 33. Five monuments won. Fifteen Grand Tour podiums, including six overall victories.
These five men entered as deserving favorites, yet none of them finished within striking distance of victory. Thomas was the first to cave, abandoning the race with a broken pelvis due to a crash during stage three. It is a testament to Thomas’ toughness that he finished the stage despite the injury, but the fracture prevented the Welshman from starting the following day.
Yates was the next to go, withdrawing from the race prior to stage eight after testing positive for COVID-19. Yates’ Michelton-Scott team followed suit three days later. The entire team pulled out after testing revealed additional positives among the staff.
Michelton-Scott was not the only team that made the decision not to start stage ten. Team Jumbo-Visma was forced to do the same after Steven Kruijswijk tested positive. All this meant that after nine stages, only two of the big pre-race favorites remained.
Fuglsang and Nibali each reached the conclusion of the race in Milan, but neither of them were at their best. The former teammates turned rivals finished sixth and seventh respectively, producing solid results but coming up short of their pre-race expectations.
Explosion of Youth
With the pre-race favorites out of contention, the Giro needed riders to step up and make the race their own.
The first to do so was the 24-year-old Time Trial World Champion, Filippo Ganna. The Italian smashed the opening stage TT, going over 1 km/hr faster than his closest rival. After winning the 34.1 km test on stage 14 and the stage 21 ITT in similarly impressive fashion, Ganna became the first rider in 25 years to win three ITTs at one grand tour. Ganna dominated his favorite discipline in his home country, but he was not done there. He also added a victory at the end of the mountainous fifth stage to display impressive range and cap off an incredible grand tour debut.
The man who got closest to Ganna in the opening time trial was the 22-year-old Portuguese João Almeida. Just two days later, Almeida inherited the overall race lead when the riders took on a summit finish to Mount Etna. Almeida demonstrated some solid climbing legs in the lead up to the Giro. However, he was entering the race as an entirely unproven quantity over three weeks. The Deceuninck – Quick Step rider refused to let the moment get the best of him. Almeida exceeded all expectations to hang onto the Maglia Rosa for 15 days. Above all, he did so with a great deal of courage. Almeida attacked regularly to gain time on the punchy terrain that suited him, and battled valiantly to stay in touch on the longer climbs.
Eventually, Almeida faltered. The 22-year-old slipped out of the lead during stage 18 when the race took on the famous Stelvio Pass. Still, Almeida fought back in the final time trial, eventually securing himself a very impressive fourth place in his first Grand Tour.
The Battle for Pink
With Almeida struggling on the Stelvio, the Maglia Rosa was up for grabs. The most likely to succeed appeared to be Wilco Kelderman. The Sunweb leader positioned himself 17 seconds back of Almeida at the start of the day. The 29-year-old Dutchman burst onto the scene at the 2014 Giro, showing great promise for a 23-year-old. Things had not quite panned out since then, with Kelderman having been hampered by more than his fair share of injuries and bad luck.
Unfortunately for Kelderman, the Stelvio proved to be a bridge too far for his own GC aspirations. Kelderman was unable to hold the pace of the three riders who would ultimately decide the winner of the Giro. That elite trio consisted of Ineos riders Rohan Dennis and Tao Geoghegan Hart, as well as Kelderman’s Sunweb teammate Jai Hindley.
Hindley and Geogehegan Hart each started the race with expectations of supporting a team leader. Both men came from nowhere in the previous few days. They each rose seven places in the general classification after stage 15’s Piancavallo climb. After Hindley finished third and Geoghenegan Hart took the win, they moved into third and fourth overall.
With Dennis sacrificing himself to set up Geoghegan Hart, Sunweb was confronted with a difficult decision. They could instruct Hindley to wait for Kelderman to help him limit his losses, or they could have Hindley mark Geoghegan Hart to prevent the Ineos man from gaining time on both of their riders.
They opted for the latter, and Hindley rewarded their decision by outsprinting Geoghegan Hart for the stage win. Kelderman even recovered well enough to move into the race lead. He held a 12 second advantage on Hindley and a further three second buffer on Geoghegan Hart.
The Final Two
Two days later on the second of three ascents of the Sestriere, Kelderman began to struggle again. With this development, it became clear that Geoghegan Hart and Hindley were the two strongest riders in the race.
Rohan Dennis did another phenomenal job of riding to set up Geoghegan Hart. By doing so, he made a strong case for himself as the most valuable teammate in the Giro. Hindley did his best to distance Geoghegan Hart in the closing kilometers, but the Ineos rider hung on. When they reached the finish, Tao rewarded Dennis’ efforts by taking his second stage victory of the Giro. With the win, Geoghegan Hart brought himself level on time with Hindley. Both men had taken 85 hours, 22 minutes and seven seconds to complete the first 20 stages of the race. Thanks to the countback of tenths of a second from the first two time trials, Hindley earned a slight advantage and entered the final time trial in pink.
Prior to the beginning of the Giro, the 24-year-old Hindley’s best performance was two stage wins and overall victory at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour earlier this season. For the 25-year-old Geoghegan Hart, it had been two stage victories at the 2019 Tour of the Alps. Despite both the Aussie and the Brit showing tremendous promise in the junior ranks, neither had produced a World Tour victory in their time as professionals. But, by peaking at the right time, they became the first two riders in cycling history to enter the final day of a Grand Tour even on overall time.
In the end, it was Geoghegan Hart who got the better of Hindley. The man from Hackney in East London used his superior time trialing ability to beat Hindley by a slim margin of 39 seconds. Kelderman completed the podium by holding on for third, 1:29 down.
In January of 2010, Geoghegan Hart attended the launch event of the Ineos team (then known as Team Sky) as a 14-year-old fan. To win his first Grand Tour a decade later while riding for that very team is simply an incredible achievement.
For Hindley too, this race was something of a revelation. The native of Perth in Western Australia became just the third Aussie to finish on the podium of a Grand Tour. Following in the footsteps of Cadel Evans and Richie Porte to do so makes that feat all the more significant.
João Almeida’s fourth place on GC was the best performance ever by a Portuguese rider at the Giro. The 22-year-old American Brandon McNulty also deserves an honorable mention for producing four top ten stage finishes. His most impressive results were a second place on stage ten and a third in the stage 14 ITT. Another 22-year-old, Attila Valter of Hungary, got in on the act as well. Valter delivered a very impressive climbing performance to take ninth place on the decisive 20th stage.
In the end, the 2020 Giro will be remembered for continuing the youth movement in cycling that has unfolded over the course of this strange season. As the aging heroes of the sport fade from the spotlight, it is becoming increasingly evident that cycling will remain in very good hands. Whether it is Ganna or Geoghegan Hart, Almeida or Hindley, the future is certainly bright.
– Andrew Fasciano (@afasc573)
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