This feature was originally published in Rouleur 113, support our independent journalism by subscribing here.
The winner of the Giro d’Italia picks up our empty coffee cups and takes them back to the bar.
It’s barely a month since this 26-year-old Australian won the biggest race of his career, seemingly out of the blue. Has his life been transformed in that interval?
“I dunno, a little bit, but at the same time not so much. Quite a lot of things stay the same, which is nice,” he says, before adding, “I don’t really like it when guys have a big result and then it goes to their head and they change and everything. So I’ll just stay me, it’s what I do best.”
While the pageant of the Tour de France is making its way through Denmark, Jai Hindley is training at altitude in preparation for his next big objective of the season, the Vuelta a España. And in this moment when we’ve got him to ourselves, sitting in the deserted bar of the highest hotel in the Pyrenees, everything seems so calm and normal, and Jai is so easy to talk to that it’s easy to forget he’s suddenly become one of cycling’s most prominent riders.
But there’s no protective PR person with a stopwatch to control how much of his time we take. No fans hovering in the background with items to be autographed. When we move outside to take portrait shots, none of the amateur riders who’ve cranked their way up this 2,408 metre pass seems to have the slightest inkling who the trim rider in the fancy green Bora Hansgrohe kit might be. They ride on by, without even doing a double take, stopping only to take selfies by the sign that marks the summit of the Port d’Envalira.
To be fair, even one month later, it feels like Hindley himself hasn’t quite taken in his new status among the elite of Grand Tour riders.
“I went on holiday in Italy with my girlfriend straight after the race finished,” he says. “Like, just for a week, and we were in full holiday mode doing tourist things and I didn’t really have time to just sit down and process it. We’d be out at a restaurant and then I’d suddenly think about it and I couldn’t stop smiling. Her as well, she also just couldn’t believe it,” he says, as a big grin spreads all over his face.
No one expected Hindley to win the Giro. Even though he’d come painfully close in 2020, his breakout year, taking the pink jersey on the penultimate stage and then losing it in the final time-trial, he wasn’t on many fans’ shortlist of potential winners this year. Through no fault of his own, 2021 had been a terrible season, marred from beginning to end by illness and injury. All the promise shown in 2020 just seemed to have evaporated.
A lot of strange things can happen in the Giro, the grand Tour most susceptible to unexpected winners, and often riders who flourish here early in their careers end up fading away and failing to live up to the hype. Perhaps people had started to assume the same thing with Hindley.
I tell Hindley about Raphaël Géminiani, a great French champion from the late 1940s and 50s who, like Hindley, was a talented climber. He raced against Bartali, Coppi and Gaul and was a key protagonist during most of the iconic moments of that era, later becoming Anquetil’s brilliant and sometimes Machiavellian directeur sportif. I spent many hours talking to him for a book that attempts to distil some of his racing wisdom, and one thing he would repeatedly tell me is that no one wins a Grand Tour by accident.
When Roger Walkowiak won the Tour in 1956, a relative unknown who trumped the favourites, it was attributed to him happening to get into a big break early on in the race. ‘Doing a Walko’ became a French expression for an unworthy winner. But the truth is that he also rode an intelligent and courageous race in the mountains, and Géminiani insists his compatriot’s victory was thoroughly merited. In 1966 everyone expected Poulidor to finally defeat Anquetil, yet it was Anquetil’s unheralded teammate Lucien Aimar who triumphed. Géminiani, who was their directeur sportif, had already plotted Aimar’s victory the previous year.
So there may be surprise victors, but only for those of us on the outside, looking in. For the riders and their teams, there is always a plan. I wonder what Jai Hindley’s plan had been.
“I think I had pretty shit odds,” he acknowledges, “Which is pretty funny: I actually made some of my mates back home quite a bit of money because they bet on me from day one which is sweet. We had a good laugh about that. But in my mind I knew if I did all the right things, all the hard work then, yeah, I could have a good crack when it came into that final week.”
“That was the plan from the start of the year. In the December camp when we met up with the team we had a meeting with all the guys who were going to the Giro, so pretty much everyone knew they were going from day one. We originally had three leaders with Wilco [Kelderman], Emanuel [Buchmann] and me, so that was pretty clear cut from the beginning.
“And the team also said, ‘We just want you to have a clean run with no problems, we know you can be good in the last week.’ So yeah, it was always my goal.
“When you're going for GC at a Grand Tour you have to have self-belief because it’s a rollercoaster of three weeks of just brutal racing and then you’ve also got a whole team backing you and your ambitions. So if you don’t have self-belief then what are you doing there?”
The spring passed smoothly enough, with Hindley taking fifth place in Tirreno-Adriatico. But on the morning of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with less than two weeks to go before the start of the Giro, he came down with a fever. “And that basically knocked my socks off for three days,” he says. The enforced pause meant he came into the Giro below peak readiness.
“My biggest worry was the first week. Even before the sickness it was always my biggest worry because we had all this travel, three days in Hungary, the two days in Sicily, Etna already on stage four. There was a high risk of getting sick and then also feeling like shit when you hit Etna, already so early. So I was stressing bullets for that first week. I knew I was coming in a bit underdone but I knew that could also benefit in the third week.”
He got through the first two weeks perfectly, however, snatching a brilliant victory on top of the Blockhaus on stage nine, which catapulted him from 15th to fifth place on GC, and entered the final week in second place, a mere seven seconds behind Richard Carapaz.
“The last week was just so stressful because I knew I had the legs to win but I was running out of days to do it. We had a lot of hard stages but the finishes were not super hard, like, no really steep climbs to break it up. It was getting super frustrating because we were basically running out of days to make something happen and Carapaz was also looking pretty flawless. And then I was looking at that stage 20 and I was like, woah, that last 5k is bullshit hard, we’ll have a crack there.
“I think at the start of that day the podium was more or less secure unless I had an absolute disaster. Everyone was feeling woeful at that point in the race, I think it’s more mental at that stage because everyone feels crap, everyone’s legs are heavy. Mentally it’s just about keeping stable and not letting your head fall off.
“I knew at the start of that day I could go all-in on that climb. If I blow my doors off and lose more time to Carapaz, then whatever. I didn’t want what happened in 2020 to happen again. I knew I wanted a bit of a buffer in going into the TT and when I got to that last 5k it was like, I go all in, even if I explode.”
This stuff is easy to say in retrospect, but after all the build-up of the race, having got that far without incident, and after all his disappointment from 2020, wasn’t he a little bit anxious about playing Russian Roulette?
Hindley puts it down to his self-confidence.
“Even if I’m not saying it in the media, like, ‘Yeah I reckon I can rip everyone’s legs off tomorrow,’ I think internally you have to have full self-confidence. I was for sure feeling like shit on that stage 20. Halfway through the day we were going up that second to last climb and my legs were heavy, I was super tired, everything. But you have to realise everyone else is also like that. Self-confidence is everything. If you have no self-confidence it’s not going to happen.”
If Hindley was feeling tired, he didn’t look it.
“It was a full goosebumps moment. Because it was this super hard climb and when I was looking at Carapaz – I was on his wheel the whole last climb – I was like man, he’s looking really good. He wasn’t rocking on the bike that much, he was looking really calm, and I was thinking this is going to be hard to get rid of him. Ineos was setting a super hard tempo, and when [Pavel] Sivakov pulled off, Carapaz went for a bit. I know mentally for me, if you attack and then someone attacks over the top, that’s really hard. So I knew he was going to go and I knew I had to try to go as soon as he eased the pace off after his attack.
“And then (Lennard) Kämna was in the break and the DS said to keep an eye out for me because I was coming up. We didn’t speak at all. I came up to him and he just rode full noise for as long as he could and did an absolute burner. Towards the end of his turn I think Carapaz was starting to break a bit and then on the radio the guys were going, ‘Full gas! Carapaz is dropping, he’s struggling,’ and that was all the motivation I needed.
“I was pretty surprised, he was looking pretty strong the whole bottom part of that climb, it didn’t look like he was struggling at all, and when I heard that I was more surprised than anything.
“When you hear that then you start thinking well, I might be in the jersey at the end of the day. Then you just go all out.
“The atmosphere on the climb was just bonkers. People going crazy. The radio was going crazy, everyone was going crazy. It was super painful but at the same time I hardly remember anything. I was just going so deep and when I crossed the line I was completely done. I remember the doctor came and gave me a push to the pen area, but from when I crossed the line to the point where I was sat on the floor is all just a bit of a black out. It was 100 per cent the deepest I’ve ever gone.”
Keeping things under control on stage 20 was one thing, but the next day was the final time-trial in Verona. He’d built an astounding buffer of 1:25 in just a few kilometres, but surely events from 2020 must have been playing on his mind. And there’s also the sobering reminder of Michael Rasmussen’s stage 20 time-trial at the 2007 Tour de France, when he crashed twice, punctured, had three bike changes and dropped from third to seventh place, losing 7:47. You just never know what can happen.
On paper it was a totally different situation to 2020, however, when he started the TT with the same GC time as Tao Geoghegan Hart, the eventual winner. This time he had a respectable buffer, and a short hilly course which suited him much better.
“I was still really confident in myself but I wasn’t celebrating, let’s put it like that. A lot of guys were like, ‘Awesome, he’s won it,’ but for me the job wasn’t done until I crossed that line next to the arena.
“I was just nervous all day. Like, I wasn’t trying to show it but I was shitting my pants because, a) I didn’t want to wake up potentially sick or something the morning of and then, b) you don't know how your legs are going to react.
“I’d literally given everything I had the day before. So, you’re worried that you might go to push the pedals coming out of the start ramp and then nothing... you don't feel anything... and then I was worried about puncturing or a mechanical or anything like that.
“It was really stressful, honestly. But I think once I got to the top of the climb at the halfway point I could hear that we were more or less the same time, and then from that point on I took the descent pretty easy, I took all the corners pretty easy, I even did this cobbled straight on the horns, just no risk at all. I also didn’t really know if I’d won, but then I saw one of our soigneurs after the finish and he was going bananas and I was like, ‘Oh well, I guess I won then!’”
Hindley tells me his Dad is very interested in Buddhism, which is how he got his unusual first name. I look it up and learn that it means victory. When Indians were campaigning for independence from Britain one of their slogans was ‘Jai Hind’, meaning ‘Victory to Hindustan’. This must tickle Indian cycling fans.
Following the Buddhist train of thought, I wonder whether Hindley has a mantra of sorts to keep him focused when the stress barometer rises.
“At the end of the day it’s just a bike race. When you put it like that it really just tones everything down.
“It’s a weird one, because I’ve pretty much dedicated my whole life to this point, to bike racing. So it’s a real conflicting thought, but I think mentally that’s how I keep a lid on it, just play it down and not overthink it. I think overthinking things can just kill you.”
Hindley is still young, and who knows what the future holds, but this victory already feels like a life defining experience, accomplished through highs and lows, against the punishing backdrop of Covid. When the pandemic hit, Western Australia cut itself off from the rest of the world. “To get in was like Fort Knox,” he says. “I think there were, like, two flights a week or something, for a year. I haven’t been back since the start of 2020.”
Was it hard being separated from his family during that period? “Fuck yeah. Like, no other words for it.”
He was lucky at least that his girlfriend came to live with him in Europe during that period. “It was massive to have her. I had all these setbacks. To have your partner there through all of that is crucial.”
The icing on the cake on that final stage in Verona was seeing his parents. “The team flew them over for the finish of the race. Until I saw them in that stadium I hadn’t seen them for two and a half years. It was a stupid cool day, you know. Like, just crazy.”
As the first Australian to win the Giro, he has achieved a similar status to Cadel Evans, the first Australian to win the Tour, and a childhood hero. “In 2020, before the final TT he sent a message and asked me if I wanted to have a chat or anything,” says Hindley. “When you get a message like that off an Australian cycling legend, it’s pretty cool.” Evans was also there at the end of this year’s race. “He took the time out to come to the stadium and watch the finish, it’s really cool!”
What are Hindley’s future ambitions? “It would be really nice to ride the Tour. This is my fifth year as a pro and I’ve still not done it.” He’s also keen to have a crack at some one-week races. But for now the next big goal is the Vuelta and he’s excited about doing battle with his rivals. “It would be nice to race against the real top guys, the guys who are doing the Tour at the moment, I think a lot of them are also doing the Vuelta so that would be pretty cool.”
He talks like a fan, rather than a champion, an impression reinforced when he thanks us for coming all this way to meet him. It’s easy to imagine that he’s going to stay that way.