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Analysis: Here’s where Team Sunweb could have won the 2020 Giro d’Italia

Tao Geoghegan Hart overcame the Sunweb duo of Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman to win the 2020 Giro d'Italia. Could Sunweb have played its cards differently during the race? We analyze one tactical decision that could have changed the final outcome.

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Do you remember the Giro d’Italia?

Yes, of course, the Italian grand tour! It happened way back in October, at the same time as the spring classics, the NBA playoffs, and our country’s highly embarrassing U.S. Presidential debates. If you cannot remember every single detail of the Giro, do not fret — my own memories of much of 2020 amount to a mushy blur of terrifying New York Times headlines and Wout van Aert doing stuff. But that’s a different topic for a different column.

Now, back to the Giro. If you recall, the Giro was won in dramatic fashion by Tao Geoghegan Hart, who outsmarted and outmuscled the Sunweb duo of Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman with the help of his uber-domestique, Rohan Dennis. We can all remember Dennis churning poor Kelderman into paste on the Passo dello Stelvio during stage 18 as Hindley and Geoghegan Hart rode on, right? And, we can remember what happened two stages later, when Dennis again thumped Kelderman out of the group on the second of three ascents to Sestriere, dooming poor Kelderman to lose the pink jersey, and setting Geoghegan Hart to seize the lead in the final TT.

Great, OK, we’re all on the same page.

In the weeks following the Giro I often asked myself whether Hindley, Kelderman, and the Sunweb directors could have done anything differently to have won the pink jersey. They had the numeric advantage, after all, and Hindley turned out to be the equal of Geoghegan Hart on the longest and hardest climbs. Was there any strategy Sunweb could have employed during those three weeks to reverse the outcome?

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person asking that question. In my recent interview with Chad Haga for an upcoming episode of The VeloNews Podcast, Haga said that Sunweb’s directors did that same thought experiment. Here’s what Haga had to say:

“What came back to him was the stage [17] to Madonna di Campiglio. All of the GC guys ended up finishing together. The climb wasn’t so selective. Back at that point, Jai was still a couple of minutes back on GC and nobody really responded when he attacked, and Wilco bridged across to him to see if they could get away from the whole group. Wilco’s response prompted everybody to chase and shut it down.”

If you’re a subscriber, you can rewatch the stage here.

OK, I’ll replay the events of stage 17 and that moment in question. This was a brutal four-climb mountain stage from Bassano del Grappa to Madonna di Campiglio that fell the day before the epic slog over the Stelvio. The day’s comparatively mellow final ascent to Madonna di Campiglio, plus the following day’s terrifying route, meant that the GC guys kept their respective powder dry for much of the route. João Almeida was still in pink at that time, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step rode tempo for the entire day to defend his lead. Ben O’Connor of NTT Pro Cycling won the stage from a daylong breakaway that contained, among others, Dennis.

Stage 17 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia. Photo: RCS Sport

At that moment in the Giro, Kelderman was still the favorite to win — he was just 17 seconds behind Almeida on GC. Hindley, meanwhile, was a distant third, 2:58 down.

Sunweb made things interesting at the base of the final push to Madonna di Campiglio and ramped up the pace to draw out the strongest GC hitters. Then, with 5km to go, Hindley made his move and bolted away from the group. At that moment Almeida had a tired Fausto Masnada as his only remaining domestique. Geoghegan Hart was isolated, as was Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, and Pello Bilbao. Rafal Majka and Patrick Konrad from Bora-Hansgrohe were the only twosome in the group.

So, what happened? Hindley got some daylight while Masnada labored away, unable to close the gap. Then, just as Hindley was heading up the road, Kelderman bolted from the group and onto his wheel, I guess hoping to ride Hindley’s draft for a subsequent move. Well, that didn’t work. As Haga explained, Almeida shut down Kelderman’s move, and it was gruppo compacto for the rest of the climb.

With the benefit of hindsight, Kelderman’s decision to attack up to his teammate is a comically bad one. But hey, we must judge decisions by what the rider knew at that moment. And Kelderman had no clue that a buzzsaw named Rohan Dennis was awaiting him the following day on the slopes of the Stelvio.

Kelderman attacked up to Hindley, nullifying the move on the final climb. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Now, the big question, then, is what could have happened had Kelderman simply chilled out and let his teammate ride away? Could Hindley have carved out enough time on that climb to hold Geoghegan Hart off four days later and win the Giro d’Italia?

Let us analyze this pressing question. Hindley came into the stage 20 TT equal on time with Geoghegan Hart, and he ceded 39 seconds to the Brit by the race’s end. So, could he have gotten 40 seconds on the climb to Madonna di Campiglio? Today’s grand tours are decided by tiny margins, so asking Hindley to pull out 40 seconds on a group of top GC riders over 5km on a shallow climb is asking a lot.

The arguments in favor of Hindley winning back that time are as follows: The stage win was no longer up for grabs so the GC guys had no glory to chase; Hindley was far enough down on Almeida that Deceuninck didn’t really need to put in any effort; everybody was tired and saving their legs for the Stelvio; Hindley had yet to win a grand tour stage and land on a grand tour podium, and was thus someone to potentially underestimate.

Here’s what Haga had to say:

“That’s an opportunity where, if we had kept Wilco with the other GC leaders and let Jai see what he could do, they might have overlooked him in the way that [Richard] Carapaz was overlooked last year. Like, he’s not that close on GC and can have a chunk of time, and that would have been the difference.”

The arguments against Hindley succeeding? Boy, when was the last time you saw a GC threat attack on a shallow climb and nobody chased? Geoghegan Hart, Majka, Bilbao were all close enough on GC to Hindley that, at some point, they were going to increase the pace. A hard tempo in the GC group, over such a short stretch of road, would have limited Hindley’s advantage to less than 40 seconds.

To be honest, I’m not totally convinced that Hindley’s move at that point in the climb would have netted him 40 seconds and the eventual Giro win. But hey, you gotta roll the dice if you want to win, right?

Hindley and Kelderman finished 2-3 in Milan. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Here’s where things get more interesting. What would have happened had Sunweb employed this strategy earlier in the stage, perhaps on the penultimate climb, the cat 3 Passo Durone, or, on the cat 1 Monte Bondone? Could Sunweb have blown apart the peloton and sprung Hindley into a breakaway group up the road? Would such a gamble have won him the 40 seconds he needed to win eventually seize pink in Milan?

It’s an altogether different thought experiment that is bound to keep you occupied for these remaining weeks of 2020. I suggest you do it quickly, however, as the details of this race, and the other races of 2020, are soon to evaporate into the fog of history.