All the talk heading into the Tour de France was of a rematch between Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), while all the other contenders were relegated to mere afterthoughts and podium contenders.
But today, with a bold, ambitious, clever and ultimately victorious ride, Jai Hindley loudly announced himself as a genuine candidate for overall victory. In fact, as Pogačar floundered under an attack from Vingegaard, Hindley might just be the biggest threat to Vingegaard’s title defence.
Vingegaard, Pogačar and the other GC contenders were certainly aware of the threat Hindley posed when he managed to slip into a dangerously large breakaway at the start of the day but they did not panic. In an ideal world, he wouldn't have been in the break, but they understood that they could not use all their resources too early to neutralise his advantage. Though the gap ballooned to several minutes, UAE Team Emirates still leaned on their rouleurs Mikkel Bjerg and Vegard Stake Laengen for a long time before turning to climbing super-domestiques Marc Soler, Rafał Majka and Felix Großschartner, so as not to use all their resources too early and thus risk getting isolated too early. Maybe another GC rider up the road would have caused more desperation, but Hindley attracted a more measured response.
For Hindley, it was a triumph of tactical improvisation. At the finish, he revealed that the attack was not pre-planned, but that upon finding himself in the situation, he decided to go for it. And he demonstrated real tactical nous to maximise the advantage of the opportunity. He was very careful not to use up energy throughout the day and used his teammate Emanuel Buchmann and Patrick Konrad, who also managed to get into the break, to protect, and also found allies to aid the pace-setting in teams like AG2R Citroën (who were going for the stage win with Felix Gall), Lidl-Trek (who also had a potential GC rider poised to gain time in Giulio Ciccone) and even Ineos Grenadiers (who had high hopes in Daniel Martínez, either to win the stage or move back up into GC contention).
Though the advantage of the group did start to tumble from four minutes to two-and-a-half minutes on the awkward valley roads leading up to the final climb, he did not get frustrated and start riding for himself, but helped ensure the group remained harmonious. Only on the final climb did he put his nose to the wind with a devastating attack, from which point he was all-in until the finish.
Jai Hindley celebrates his first Tour de France stage win (Image by James Startt)
He now finds himself in the yellow jersey, with a lead of 47 seconds over Vingegaard and over a minute on everyone else. So the question arises: can Hindley win the Tour de France?
Although this is his Tour de France debut, his credentials as a Grand Tour rider are certainly unquestionable. Last year the Australian won the Giro d’Italia with a perfectly timed approach. He spent the final week poised just behind Richard Carapaz (himself a formidable opponent at Grand Tours) on GC, leaving the Ecuadorian to absorb all the pressure of defending the pink jersey before waiting for the perfect moment to strike with an attack on the penultimate day of the race. And although Hindley was not quite a household name at the time, that ride was no fluke — two years ago, he also paced his efforts perfectly across the three week race to place second overall behind Tao Geoghegan Hart at the 2020 Giro d’Italia.
If Hindley has a weakness, it is in time trialling, but with only one 22.4km time trial to come in the final week, he shouldn’t have to worry about losing too much time against the clock; the lack of such stages was likely one of the reasons he chose to target the Tour this year. As for his team, Bora-Hansgrohe looked well-equipped to aid his overall bid. Konrad and especially Buchmann showed their value today, and Buchmann even remains a potential plan-b on the GC should they need one, ending the day fourth overall at 1-11. Crucially, this is a squad built for a GC push, with climber Bob Jungels and powerful engines Nils Politt and Marco Haller also there to assist him, with star sprinter Sam Bennett left at home.
Jonas Vingegaard managed to get ahead of his rival Tadej Pogačar, but Hindley poses a new threat to the Dane (Image by James Startt)
That said, the team now find themselves in an unexpected position at having to defend the yellow jersey. Strong as they are, they are no match for the might and experience of UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma. And this situation is very different from their winning Giro, where they moved to take the overall lead at the very last hurdle without having to defend it at any point.
They face a tactical conundrum: how much should they commit to trying to hold onto the yellow jersey? Hindley was probably expecting to adopt something like the position Geraint Thomas did last year for Ineos Grenadiers, riding his own race while Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates battled it out for the top honours. But now Bora and Hindley are the ones defending rather than chasing, and if he continues climbing as well as he did today for the rest of the race, he’s not going to be easy to dislodge. Will Bora be able to cope with the demands of leading the Tour, or would they be better off conceding a little ground and letting another team take the reins?
This is also the Tour de France, not the Giro d’Italia, and therefore Hindley is about to face an unprecedented level of pressure and media attention. Even at the finish line today, he still looked a little shocked but wasn't getting carried away. “I’m not putting too much expectation on myself,” he explained, “I’m here to be competitive, and try hard to be here in the best shape possible. There’s a long way to go, long race, for now, enjoy and savour this moment.”
Taking the yellow jersey was not part of some grand plan, and therefore Bora will have to improvise what their approach from now will be. But if they can pull it off as well as they did their tactics during today’s stage, Bora and Hindley might just pose a real threat to the expected Vingegaard and Pogačar duopoly.
*Cover image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com