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Wilco Kelderman recounts frustrations with Sunweb tactics at 2020 Giro d’Italia

Dutchman reached Milano with career-best third place, but wonders what could have happened if Sunweb ordered Jai Hindley to stay with him on the Stelvio.

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Wilco Kelderman admitted he will be replaying the outcome of the 2020 Giro d’Italia in his mind over and over again.

The Dutch rider hit a career-best, with a spell in the pink jersey and a career-first third-place podium spot overall. Yet there will always be a bit of “what if” dancing in his mind over how the closing stages played out.

Team Sunweb finished second and third, with Jai Hindley emerging as a stage-winner and runner-up behind the surprise victor in Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers).

Speaking in a lengthy interview with the Dutch newspaper AD, Kelderman shared his frustrations of how his now-former Sunweb team managed the final stages, and wondered if things might have turned out differently.

I did make it to the podium in a grand tour. I am very proud of that, not many can say that,” Kelderman told AD. “There was no real joy. We finished second and third in a grand tour, but I didn’t really feel that everyone was so happy in the team.”

Kelderman was in pole position to win the Giro if and when early leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) finally cracked in the third week. The 29-year-old took the pink jersey in stage 18, but Geoghegan Hart had roared back into contention with one mountain stage and a final time trial to go.

The decisive moment came on the mountain stage over the Passo dello Stelvio and ending at Laghi di Cancano in stage 18. Rohan Dennis stepped up dramatically to pace Geoghegan Hart, prompting the team to tell Hindley to follow the Ineos Grenadiers duo rather than stay with Kelderman.

‘Maybe I could have won the Giro’

What would have happened if Hindley had stayed with him? Kelderman is sure things could have turned out differently.

“I would have come really close or I would have won the Giro,” Kelderman said. “In that Stelvio stage alone I would have saved so much time if Jai had stayed with me. Then it could have been very different. I felt that the confidence was not there in me with the racing tactic.

“Almeida was gapped, and I thought; perfect, now a fast pace,” he said. “Not too forced, not too rushed. But then Ineos suddenly took over, with Rohan Dennis and Geoghegan Hart. In the beginning, it was still okay, but he just kept driving so fast. I was on my limit and had to let them go. From then on it was fighting. I had not foreseen that Dennis would be this good. But also not that Jai was allowed to ride his own race, and that I would be left to my own devices. That had not been made clear at the team meeting the night before.”

Kelderman also recounted his frustration as he watched his pink jersey slip away, but recognized he simply wasn’t strong enough to follow the Ineos-led surges. Hindley was ordered to play his own cards and ended up with a breakthrough stage victory and second-place podium spot in Milano.

“At one point I was riding alone on the Stelvio, in the wind, and the frustration begins,” Kelderman said. “You know that the Giro is slipping out of your hands, that you are losing your lead.

“I did call out in my radio for Jai to wait, but they said, ‘No, Jai will stay in the wheel of Tao.’ It was also a difficult situation,” he said. “How often does it happen that you can win the Giro with two men? Jai could not drop Tao on the climb, there was too little difference between them. But I wasn’t good enough myself, that’s how realistic I am. In the end, I should have ridden faster myself. Jai did as he was told, I don’t blame him. I was also happy for him that he won that stage.”

Kelderman ended up in pink, but Geoghegan Hart pulled back more than two minutes to become the most dangerous rival at just 15 seconds back.

Kelderman fell to 1:32 back, and his pink jersey dream was over. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

By the final mountain stage at Sestrières, Kelderman admitted his confidence was shaken. Ineos Grenadiers attacked again, with Dennis taking huge pulls to set up Geoghegan Hart, who took decisive gains on Kelderman going into the closing day time trial.

“I started in pink on the last mountain stage to Sestrières, but the team tactics were designed to make me think: I’m going to lose the Giro,” he said. “The margin was too small, I no longer felt great. There was no confidence, either. Jai would follow Tao, and when they jumped, I quickly felt that I couldn’t keep up. I lasted for a kilometer, then I knew enough. The switch had to be made, and I had to focus on third place. After Milan, I dreamed about the Giro for another two weeks. I played that same movie every time. What if we had played it differently?”

Kelderman, who had signed to join Bora-Hansgrohe for 2021 before the Giro started, also revealed he never felt quite at home within the structured Sunweb team. He said he sometimes clashed with the team plan, and said he learned about how the team planned on not renewing his contract at the end of 2020 by reading it in a newspaper.

“It was a pity that the confidence was not really there from the team management. I don’t know if they were really happy when I got on the podium,” he said. “Everything was planned out for me on the team, and I had too little say. As if I had to be a robot. So talks were already underway with other teams, including Bora. But I was also talking to Sunweb, so I was surprised that the newspaper suddenly said that I would not get a contract extension. At that point, the season had yet to begin.”