It’s a case of glass half full, glass half empty for Team Sunweb at the Giro d’Italia on Friday morning.
Wilco Kelderman started the queen stage of the Giro d’Italia on Thursday nearly three minutes ahead of Tao Geoghegan Hart in the fight for GC. The Dutchman ended the stage with the pink jersey — with former race leader João Almeida out of contention – however, he holds only a delicate, 15-second gap on the threatening Brit. Meanwhile, Kelderman’s teammate Jai Hindley remains locked together with Geoghegan Hart, just three seconds ahead of the Ineos Grenadiers captain, and 12 seconds off pink.
The simmering battle of the Giro’s GC came to a roaring boil on the slopes of the Stelvio yesterday, with Sunweb’s Dutchman leader slipping back on the interminable Alp while Hindley and Geoghegan Hart rode clear and went on to battle for the stage win. Kelderman rallied from what looked to be the brink of a race-ending bonk and a possible tumble out of the GC, but now he sits with just the lightest of grips on his freshly minted pink jersey.
Should Kelderman’s young Aussie teammate have waited for his stricken leader to help him limit his losses to Geoghegan Hart and his relentless teammate Rohan Dennis? Kelderman certainly thinks so.
“For sure it would have been better if Jai waited, then I was further ahead on GC,” Kelderman said after the multi-mountain stage Thursday. “But he won the stage here, and now we’re both close on GC, so you can see it from both sides. For me, it’s maybe less good, but now we are both close on GC.”
Team coach Luke Roberts was left with the stickiest situation as the race unfolded before him on the hulking mass of the Stelvio. Have Hindley mark and play anchor on Geoghegan Hart’s wheel to limit his gains, or pull the 24-year-old back to tow Kelderman back into to the Brit? The Sunweb staffer hedged his bets and chose the former.
Glass half-full, it’s now Team Sunweb 2, Ineos Grenadiers 1. Glass half-empty, it’s just an even draw.
“We knew Tao was going to go for it today,” Hindley explained after the stage. “I had the order to follow his wheel and that’s what I did. I knew Wilco was likely going into the jersey at the final and so I just wanted to stay on the wheel the whole time on the climb – that’s what I got told to do and I did it.”
The tactic paid off, leaving Sunweb with the most tentative of leads on the race as Geoghegan Hart and his Ineos teammates grow in confidence by the day. The champagne awarded to Kelderman on the podium as he took his first grand tour leader’s jersey came with a bittersweet flavor last night.
“Ineos was strong as a team,” he said. “I couldn’t follow them, but Jai could. I would have loved to have had him back with me to pull through the valley, but the team had different plans.”
Hindley has emerged as one of the strongest climbers of the race in the past week, first showing his promise when detonating the race on the climb to Piancavallo. In a world of what-ifs, the youngster could have pushed ahead and taken the pink jersey for himself. Instead, he sat stubbornly on Geoghegan Hart’s wheel, slowing the Brit’s progress as he decimated Kelderman’s pre-stage advantage.
Sunweb’s move saved the day for Kelderman and rewarded Hindley with a debut grand tour stage win. But Geoghegan Hart is hanging around and spoiling the party. With Kelderman making the move to Bora-Hansgrohe next season, Sunweb’s Stelvio strategy could smell of a backing of the new breed as it continues to develop its team of young breakout riders.
Hindley insisted both he and his team are still backing the Dutchman.
“He’s in the pink jersey. I’m going to put my arse on the line for him, it doesn’t matter where he’s going next year,” Hindley said. “I also really like Wilco, I know the shit he’s gone through in his career with injuries. I respect him as a guy and as a rider, and I want him to win this race.”
The Giro couldn’t be more delicately poised with just three stages to go. After a long sprint stage Friday, the race will come down to the modified triple-Sestriere stage on Saturday and short time trial Sunday.
Although 15 seconds separate Kelderman, Hindley, and Geoghegan Hart, the latter has nothing to lose having come into the race as a support worker for Geraint Thomas, and looks the most dangerous rider in the pack, with a time trial not far slower than Kelderman’s. The Londoner can go full YOLO on the final stages this weekend.
“It’s really unexpected, especially if you look at how the first days of the race were,” Geoghegan Hart said Thursday, having placed 126th on the race’s opening time trial. The 25-year-old’s Giro has evolved from playing domestique to Thomas, to stage-hunter, and now almost unexpectedly to grand tour contender. “I was pretty far behind after a few stages, so I’m happy. It’s pretty unexpected, to be honest.”
Kelderman and Hindley shared a PR-friendly embrace after the stage. Whether Kelderman chose the seat next to Hindley at the dinner table later that night is a different matter. For now, Hindley is looking to take the heat out of any speculation.
“Can I win this Giro? Realistically I think for me it’s pretty hard at the moment. One, because I want Wilco Kelderman to win, and two, my time trial isn’t particularly great at the moment,” he said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, I’m here for Wilco. He’s in the pink and I want him to win.”
Kelderman must have felt a kick in the pants when he saw his team car scoot past him on the road to Laghi di Cancano as the Sunweb staffers went up the road to support Hindley. Likewise, Hindley may feel a twinge of regret at not having been given the freedom to attack Geoghegan Hart and possibly move himself into the pink jersey after Kelderman looked in trouble.
Whether Luke Roberts and Co. should have gone all-in for one rider is something that will be up for debate as long as Thursday’s scintillating stage remains in memory. Though the race is now delicately poised with the Dutchman, Australian, and Brit all in contention for pink rather than Sunweb having one rider with a clear advantage, Sunweb could have lost it all had Kelderman cracked even with Hindley playing towrope.
While Kelderman may have lost out in Roberts’ decision to push ahead with Hindley, us in our armchairs have won big time with the race now blown wide open with just three stages remaining.
“That’s the beauty of bike racing, eh, you never know what’s going to happen,” Hindley said.
Place your bets carefully.