Jai Hindley said it himself. He’s not here to put socks on centipedes.
Those were his words six days before he won the Giro d’Italia last year, and his sentiment after winning stage five of the Tour de France and assuming the maillot jaune for a day at the Tour de France this week.
Hindley had provided a conservative outlook on his approach to the first two high mountain stages, the day before the race returned to Pau on Wednesday.
“For me the first two weeks are just, you know, manage it as best as I can. I think for this last week then I’ll really try to show myself,” the Australian had said.
“But of course, stage five and six are already super hard and already with some really hard finishes. I actually had a look at both of those stages, so yeah, I know what’s coming, and it’s going to be really tough.”
But what eventuated on the roads to Laruns, and the Pyrenees in general, wasn’t conservative.
The beginning of stage five passed through pretty parts of suburban Pau, before the peloton and the motor convoy behind it magically shrunk and expanded, as it does, passing through various stone villages dotted along otherwise open roadside. Summer turned to winter atop the hors categorie Col de Soudet where heavy fog significantly reduced visibility. The descent was nauseatingly technical, as what race radio called “the Hindley group” flew down it.
The sky cleared and the air grew warm again at the bottom before the next categorised climb and then the last. Hindley’s parents, Gordon and Robyn, who travelled from Perth, Australia to Europe and were following the first week of the Tour, had positioned themselves there.
“When Jai went past us and he saw the flag, he gave us the biggest smile and he said after the finish, when he got in touch with us, it really shook him up, it made him very emotional,” Gordon said. “I think he thought, ‘I’ve got to put on a show now’.”
Hindley attacked on the final climb, leaving the remnants of what was a large breakaway that escaped earlier, to celebrate a solo victory and with it took the yellow jersey from Adam Yates (UAE Emirates).
“I meant what I said, I wanted to ride conservative, but I just found myself with an opportunity and I also said if the opportunity presents itself then I’ll make the most of it and try and gain time on the other GC riders when I can,” he said post-race when asked about his change in tack. “I also happened to find myself fighting for the stage win as well and it’s unbelievable really.”
The 27-year-old has aspired to be a bike racer since he was six. His father is originally from England and fell in love with cycling after an injury stopped him from playing football. For Hindley, the sport became a calling and making his Tour debut this season was the realisation of a childhood aspiration he’s long strived towards.
“The only reason I thought that he could do it was because he never wavered,” said Gordon.
“Only the time that he had 12 months playing rugby and we had to let him do that because it was with his friends. All his friends, they all played rugby, but when I said to him, ‘When you sign up, you play for the full year, you can’t let the guys down and pull out halfway through,’ he said, ‘I promise I’ll play the full year’. And he did.
“And then as soon as that year had finished, he came to us and he said, ‘I want to go back to cycling.’ I went, ‘That’s my boy!’”
Hindley maintained his composure in his first press-conference in the yellow jersey at the Tour, but his voice ever so slightly quivered when he spoke about his childhood ambition and his family being at the race.
“I can’t believe it. I didn’t really expect this when I rolled out of bed this morning. I’ve been watching the Tour since I was a little boy, when I was six years old, and I never thought I’d find myself in the yellow jersey, but here we are,” Hindley said after stage five.
The next day he arrived in Tarbes dressed top to toe in yellow, the sun shining brightly as he hugged his parents outside the team bus, pedalled to sign-on and did interviews, warm eyes wide-open, a broad smile fixed to his face.
But one question remained unanswered. Why and how did the two highly touted teams in this year’s race, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Emirates, let Hindley get in the breakaway and jump from seventh to first on general classification?
Had one or both stuffed up? Or did they underestimate Hindley, whose laid-back and friendly demeanour belies a serious drive and a strong work ethic. Hindley spent five to six weeks on the road with his coach, Hendrik Werner, in preparation for the Tour, studying several stages, and sacrificed much to be competitive here.
The climber was overlooked in the predictions of some pundits heading into the final week of the 2022 Giro, despite sitting second overall. It wasn’t until he introduced the world to an Aussie colloquialism on the last rest day that his intentions were properly, publicly recognised, and on the penultimate stage, in the mountains, realised as he seized the maglia rosa from Richard Carapaz.
Compatriot Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroen), who has parked his own title ambitions after a tough start to this year’s Tour, offered his two cents at the start of stage six.
“UAE have been riding most of the time, burning a lot of matches, and you’ve got to say they kind of fucked up yesterday because they let a big break get out of hand and a GC guy take a ton of time,” O’Connor said. “It wasn’t for Jumbo to chase, UAE were in the yellow jersey. I think Jumbo have actually played a good game so far.
“Jai had a good card there and they let him just get away with it. It’s hard to say. I think it worked out really well for Jai yesterday,” O’Connor continued.
“It’s a proud Australian moment. It doesn’t happen very often and for him to be able to do that in his first Tour, it’s special. It’s his dream really come true. I don’t think he ever would have hoped that coming here in this race, so happy for him.”
Bora-Hansgrohe were aiming to keep Hindley in yellow until Sunday, when the Tour returns to the mountains, but defending champion Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and two-time winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates) clapped back at him on Thursday with a commanding dual.
They battled on the summit finish of stage six, with Pogačar taking line honours after attacking Vingegaard, who was distanced but assumed the maillot jaune. Hindley had tried to keep pace with the duo and a reduced Jumbo-Visma train earlier on the Tourmalet but couldn’t and moved to third on general classification – one minute and 34 seconds adrift of Vingegaard but well ahead of the next best in the standings, Simon Yates (Jayco-Alula), who is currently fourth at 3:14.
Bora-Hansgrohe team manager Ralph Denk was speaking to media outside the team bus when Hindley returned to the paddock, his yellow jersey hidden under a black jacket as sunshine gave way to dark clouds and threatening rain.
“I’ve been fresher; it was a long day out,” Hindley said.
“In the end it was unfortunate not to be able to follow those two but they’re really on another level and I’m happy to still be third on GC at the moment.”
His Tour debut is already a success.
“What we achieved after six stages is amazing for us,” said Denk. “The goal was to win a stage, we did already on stage five yesterday. It was a really, really nice add on, the yellow jersey.
“Okay, the goal was to defend this today, tomorrow, minimum until Puy de Dome, but Jumbo really made the pace hard, and attacked the yellow jersey, attacked Pogačar … We lose the yellow jersey but, in the end, we showed a strong commitment for the podium and that’s good for us.
“I believe he can finish on the podium,” Denk continued. “But to win the race, two guys are better. They are in a different league.”
Hindley himself hasn’t put Vingegaard or Pogačar on a pedestal, and what else he has in his arsenal remains to be seen, with the Alps, the Jura, the Vosges and Massif Central on the horizon. His focus remains on being competitive in a Tour debut not many can boast, and his conviction should not be discounted.
“Still a long way to go. Today was an epic stage for week one but so far, I’m just really enjoying the racing,” Hindley continued. “Today was pretty grim to lose the jersey but it was super epic and full on racing and in the end that’s why we do it.”