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Jai Hindley steps up to lead new wave of Australia’s home-grown talents

Hindley, Ben O'Connor and Lucas Hamilton all shared a similar pathway to becoming leading Australian hopefuls in the WorldTour, but the nation's development system has hit a sticking point.

Jai Hindley came to within one time trial of becoming the first Australian to win the Giro d’Italia last month.

Although the 24-year-old didn’t end up with the pink jersey in Milano, his second-place overall sees him take the honor of the best-finishing Aussie at the Italian tour, surpassing Cadel Evans’ third place in 2013. And now Hindley has positioned himself at the center of a new generation of Australian GC hopefuls as Down Under’s elder statesmen take a back seat.

With the likes of Evans and Simon Gerrans well into retirement and Australia’s current figurehead Richie Porte stepping away from GC duties, Aussies needed a new poster boy – and they’ve suddenly found a whole new wave of talent to choose from.

Hindley is just one of many youthful Aussies hitting a high note in the WorldTour, including Giro stage-winner Ben O’Connor, 24, Tirreno-Adriatico star Lucas Hamilton, also 24, and climbing talent Michael Storer, 23. With Porte signing off his leadership career with a best-ever podium finish at the Tour de France this summer, they’ve come of age just in time.

“Australia has always had a whole heap of guys coming through, but especially now more than ever,” Hindley said on a group call shortly after the Giro. “When you look at how many Aussies are in the WorldTour, it’s the most I’ve ever seen I think, and a lot of those guys are super-young.”

Hindley came so close yet-oh-so-far to scoring a Giro d’Italia title last month. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Hindley, O’Connor, Storer, and Hamilton all came through a similar home-grown pathway centered around the national development team and Mitchelton-Scott’s now-shuttered Conti squad, and having all graduated at similar times, they’re all blossoming together.

“I joined the Australian U23 team in 2016,” O’Connor told VeloNews. “There was me, Lucas Hamilton, Jai [Hindley], [Michael] Storer. Us four were all there racing and now we’ve all made it professional. And pretty much every one of us has won professional races now we’ve stepped up to the WorldTour.”

With a generation of young Australians now established in cycling’s top tier – this year’s Giro saw 18 on the start sheet, making them the second-best represented nation behind Italy – the next step is to fill the shoes of the likes of Porte and Evans.

Hindley is the leading candidate for becoming the next in the line of Down Under’s greats after his exploits in Italy, a ride that proved his victory at the Herald Sun Tour some 10 months earlier was no fluke. However, the Sunweb star is keen to emphasize he’s only one of many.

“The next Aussie grand tour winner could be around the corner,” Hindley said.

“There’s such a massive group of Aussie talent rising in the WorldTour at the moment and there are some really good guys out there – like Ben O’Connor and Lucas Hamilton. For me, everything just clicked together at this Giro and it was incredible, but I think there’s there’s a lot of guys out there that are in a similar boat.”

Like it did for Hindley, it was all clicking for Hamilton at the Giro d’Italia, scooping two top-10 stage finishes in the days before his Mitchelton-Scott team left the race due to COVID concerns. Though the 24-year-old didn’t get to show his full potential in Italy, just a few weeks later he was rewarded with a contract extension with the Aussie team and the promise of developing into the squad’s next centerpiece.

“From the limited grand tour experiences [Hamilton] has – the 2020 Giro start was just his second grand tour – he is definitely a guy that has the potential and is going to lead us in three-week races,” team boss Matt White said. “And with Adam [Yates] leaving the team there are going to be even more opportunities for him.”

O’Connor stepped into the world’s eye line with a triumphant three weeks in Italy.

While O’Connor is looking to solidify his consistency before becoming attempting to become a grand tour leader at his new team Ag2r-Citroën, Hindley relishes the opportunity to captain team Sunweb over three weeks. Whether Australia’s next big strike comes from Hindley, O’Connor, Hamilton, or any of the rest of their generation, Hindley is certain that the fervent fans on the other side of the world will go all-in in backing them.

“You never know who it’s going to be,” Hindley said when discussing Australia’s next big star. “But I think, whoever it is, they’re going to be well supported by Australia, like I felt at the Giro. That was pretty special. I really had like a full nation behind me, and that was an incredible feeling.”

A shuttered pathway to success?

Though Hindley and Co. have assured an Aussie presence at the top of pro racing for years to come, the pipeline for riders following on their heels has a blockage.

Mitchelton-Scott’s development team used to act as a feeder team for Australia’s national squad, a vital stepping-stone for riders to move into the WorldTour – think an Australian take on American talent-factory Hagens Berman Axeon. However, Mitchelton-Scott’s continental-level outfit, which played home to Hindley, Hamilton, Rob Stannard, and a host more young Aussies now in the WorldTour, shut down at the end of 2019.

“A lot of good riders came through that pathway, Jack Haig, Lucas Hamilton, Alex Edmundson … about six or seven of the young guys now, and before them even more,” Mitchelton-Scott supremo White told VeloNews. “Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn; they all came through our development team.”

With the development systems closing down, there are some concerns over the future path from Australia’s grassroots to the European WorldTour.

“There’s no real super clear pathway any more,” Hindley said. “I think there are pathways, but nothing like there used to be. So I think all the guys that are coming through now, we’re the last guys that came in through that Aussie program, or a lot of them did. But now I think it is actually going to be really hard for the young guys to get exposure.”

. Photo: Benoit Tessier – Pool/Getty Images The good news: Porte just might be the third-best climber in the race. At the very least, Porte was the third-best climber (of the GC crew) on Friday, and he rode much of the final two kilometers of the climb within spittin’ distance of Roglič and Pogačar. He finished just 13 seconds behind the Slovenian duo and jumped up two spots on GC into 9th place overall. And guess what: The top-5 is less than a minute away. While Porte is unlikely to make the podium, the top-5 is now very doable for Porte. The positivity of such a situation cannot be underestimated, as Porte is likely to surrender his place as a GC rider after this season to become a worker bee for a younger star as he’s set to leave Trek-Segafredo. The bad news: Porte lost valuable teammate Bauke Mollema to a crash on Friday. Mollema crashed and reportedly broke his wrist, and is now out of the race. This is a major setback for Porte, as Mollema was among the strongest superdomestiques in the bunch. Rigoberto Urán (EF Pro Cycling) Urán is now in a position to strike the podium. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images The good news: Rigo! Rigo! Rigo! Urán’s awesome Tour de France continues, and on Friday he climbed his way into fourth place overall, leaping ahead two spots on GC. He’s now just 11 seconds off the podium. And Urán’s EF Pro Cycling teammate Dani Martínez won the stage, giving the pink squad a much-needed boost of positive vibes for the final push into the Alps. Another podium place at the Tour de France would cap off what’s already been a superb career for Urán. The bad news: There’s no bad news for Rigoberto Urán. Venga! Miguel Ángel López (Team Astana) López rebounded from his setbacks in the Pyrenees. Photo: Benoit Tessier – Pool/Getty Images The good news: López rebounded from his dismal showing in the Pyrénées to finish as the fifth-best GC rider on the road. He even finished ahead of Bernal. This ride should equate to a boost of confidence for López after that bad ride up Marie-Blanque. He moved up three spots in the standings, and now sits in 6th place on GC, 1:31 down. The bad news: López had a good day. No real bad news for him, other than he’s climbing out of the hole from Marie-Blanque. Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) Bardet struggled on Friday and saw his GC ambitions tumble. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat – Pool/Getty Images The good news: Like Martin, no good news for Romain Bardet today. The bad news: Bardet’s run at the Tour de France podium ended on the climb up to the Col de Maronne, before the final push to Puy Mary. When Ineos Grenadiers went on the front, Bardet simply couldn’t hang, and he got dropped. He lost 2:33 to Roglič and slipped seven spots on GC to 11th place overall, 3:00 down. All of France shed a tear for Bardet. Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) Landa continued to chip away at his GC standing. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images The good news: Landa again showed that he’s amongst the best climbers in the race. No, he couldn’t follow Pogačar’s explosive jump on Puy Mary, but he made a major push to finish alongside Porte, just behind the Slovenian duo. He was stronger than even Bernal on the big climb. Remember the #freelanda twitter campaign that was funny for five minutes a few years ago? Hey, Landa looks truly free on these climbs, and he’s now making a big push for the top-five. He moved up two spots and is now in 8th place on GC, just 45 seconds from fifth. The bad news: Landa is very strong! But he’s not strong enough to win the Tour de France.
The rise of Down Under’s new stars coincides with Porte taking a step back from team leadership duties. Photo: Benoit Tessier – Pool/Getty Images

The current crop of youthful Australian talent should still have the best part of over 10 years in their legs yet, by which time Down Under’s development system may have uprighted itself. In the meantime, the nation’s cycling fans and former greats will be fully focused on Hindley’s generation.

“I’ve had messages [of congratulations] from Cadel, Richie and also Simon Gerrans as well,” Hindley said of his Giro campaign.

“I haven’t had much to do with Cadel but he’s been a massive influence and it’s pretty nice,” he said. “When you got these guys that you aspired to be like, and guys that have helped pave the way for Australian cycling messaging you and giving you encouragement and saying they’ve been watching you race, it’s really cool.”

Australia’s summer of cycling may have been forced to shut down in 2021 as COVID continues to inflict havoc, but that won’t stop fans Down Under from setting their alarms for the most ungodly hours to watch Hindley, Hamilton, and O’Connor racing grand tours for years to come.

They’ll be hoping that when one of their current crop of youthful talents goes one step higher than Hindley did at this year’s Giro, the pathway to the WorldTour has reopened for the generation behind them.