On the fifth day of his first Tour de France Jai Hindley is a stage winner and the race leader! The 27-year-old Australian from the Bora-Hansgrohe team climbed to the top of the general classification with a bold early move in the tough mountain stage from Pau to Laruns, riding the final 20km on his own and into the yellow jersey.
By Rob Arnold (Photos: Stefano Sirotti)
“I have no words. I cannot believe what happened.” Jai Hindley knew that the route of the 2023 Tour de France suited his strengths. He also knows that he is capable of winning a major race – he’s done that before and he’ll surely do it again. Still, in Laruns after he pulled off an early coup, winning the first mountain stage and taking the yellow jersey, it seemed like a dream.
This is a fairy-tale beginning for Hindley in his TDF debut. It is happening. It is real. It is exciting for Australian cycling.
Hindley’s first conquest in the biggest race of all came at a time when a lot of his compatriots are sleeping, and Australian sport fans will wake to the news that there’s an Aussie in the yellow jersey.
This has happened before and each time it’s a thrill to see a talented Australian rider beat the world’s best, but it feels different in 2023 because Hindley is not just a caretaker of the leader’s jersey. He is a genuine challenger for the title.
There’s a long way yet to go but Hindley’s triumph coincided with the day the two-time TDF champion, Tadej Pogacar, couldn’t respond to the pace set by his main rival(s).
Since the Tour of 2022 finished, the focus has been firmly fixed on the battle between the two most recent Tour winners: Pogacar (2020 and 2021) and the defending champion Jonas Vingegaard. When the race began with a flurry of activity on the opening weekend, much of which was instigated by the GC riders, the predictions of a showdown between the Slovenian and Dane proved to be correct.
UAE Team Emirates had begun the 110th Tour in fine style, winning on day one and holding the yellow jersey with their “co-leader” Adam Yates proving his strength. Meanwhile, Pogacar – still only 24 – was his usual confident self while slipping into the white jersey while Yates wore yellow.
And while the terrain in Spain suited Wout van Aert, last year’s green jersey winner – the powerhouse from Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma team – the Dane was happy to hold fire even when his Slovenian rival was urging him to share the spoils on the hills of the Basque Country.
For four days Vingegaard was content to shadow Pogacar. Even when the opportunity to gain time was presented he remained coy, shaking his head to requests to collaborate. The quest on Saturday and Sunday was to keep calm and try to set up WvA for a stage win.
On Monday, the Tour returned to France. The hills flattened out and the sprinters took the chance to make an impression because the mountains arrive early in Le Tour 2023.
By the fifth day the tough terrain of the Pyrenees would change the dynamic of what has already been a compelling race. With the Basque hills behind them, it was time for the climbers to come to the fore in the mountains.
Between Pau and Laruns on Wednesday’s stage lay several tough climbs: the HC Col de Soudet (at the halfway mark), then the undulations on the approach to the cat-one Col de Marie Blanque. This was the time for van Aert to repay the favour to Vingegaard and the Belgian ignited the pace early, attacking the bunch and muscling his way into a large escape group after a fast start to the 162.7km stage.
In the move were some notable names: former Tour leaders Julian Alaphilippe and Giulio Ciccone, as well as a collective of TDF stage winners including WvA’s team-mate Christophe Laporte, Omar Fraile, Rigoberto Uran, Hugo Houle, Mads Pedersen and Emanuel Buchmann… it was an elite selection and the group of 36 eventually gained time on the peloton containing the yellow jersey, the white jersey, and last year’s Tour winner.
Over the first HC pass of the 2023 race, the gap had grown to over four minutes. By then the Australian influence on the Tour was becoming significant. Jai Hindley, who began the stage ranked seventh on GC (22 seconds behind race leader Adam Yates), had become the virtual leader of the Tour.
“I was surprised when I was part of the break and the bunch didn’t really react,” said Hindley later. “We decided to start working in the group and just have fun.
“Initially my idea was to just get a buffer to the other GC guys.
“On the Soudet I started thinking about a stage win. At the bottom of the climb I also saw my parents (Gordon and Robyn) which was really special and emotional.”
By that point the lead group had been whittled down and Hindley could no longer hide himself amongst opportunists like Ciccone, Juan Pedro Lopez, Clément Berthet and Felix Gall. The Australian was the best-placed on GC of the escape group and the gradient of the road insisted that he burst into prominence a little earlier than he might have expected on debut.
The Giro d’Italia champion of 2022 can climb like few others. He has a team built around him as Bora-Hansgrohe attempt to challenge the dominance of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates. And the virtual lead would soon become a real one as he crested the Marie Blanque with a healthy advantage to Gall, the new leader of the mountains classification.
The gloves were off. Hindley looked solid on the climb and confident on the descent. He had built a significant lead not really knowing what was unfolding behind him.
The race for the yellow jersey has truly begun and, in the opening week, an Australian holds the aces. Getting into the breakaway was a coincidental opportunity that he seized with both hands, riding solo to the finish to claim a fine stage win in Laruns well clear of his former escape companions.
“When I attacked, everything went so fast,” said Hindley after scoring Australia’s 39th stage win in the Tour. “I knew I had a good chance, but I only started really believing on the home straight. It still feels surreal to have that jersey on my shoulders.”
Ciccone, Gall and Buchman earned the minor placings in Laruns, crossing the finish line 32 seconds behind Hindley who was then able to understand that Vingegaard was no longer prepared to follow Pogacar.
The yellow-and-black Jumbo-Visma shadow that had stuck so diligently to the rear wheel of the white jersey on the opening weekend had surged ahead and, curiously, there was nothing Pogacar could do in response.
The usual playful style of the Slovenian who seems to relish how easy things are for him when others are suffering was gone. Instead of dancing back up to the attacking Vingegaard with a grin – as he has often done in the past – Pogacar remained planted in the saddle, head down and in a world of hurt that is usually so foreign to him.
While Pogacar paced himself on the Marie Blanque’s slopes, Vingegaard surged. When the white jersey seemed despondent the champion from 2022 was inspired.
As Vingegaard ticked off the escapees who were fading on the final climb, Pogacar looked for solutions to a crisis he has rarely had to manage. In the Battle of the Recent Champions, it became apparent that the 2022 winner has the upper hand.
“It’s the first mountain stage and the situation has changed quite a bit for my team,” said Pogacar after having surrendered over a minute to Vingegaard by the time he reached the finish in Laruns.
“We now need to gain time back, and of course to keep fighting.
“I don’t know if Jonas’ attack was a surprise. He could see that I was on my limit during the last two kilometres of the Marie Blanque climb after the Jumbo team sped up. He went on the attack and I couldn’t follow, because he was stronger today.
“There was not much I could do. I hope for better legs tomorrow. I feel okay – that’s the most important thing.”
Jai Hindley’s Tour debut has come relatively late in his career and while the race is still only five days old, he has already ensured that he leaves a legacy. A stage win and at least one day in the yellow jersey, it’s a conquest he can be proud of and an accomplishment that should capture the attention of the mainstream Australian media which has largely ignored the Tour de France up until this point.
With an Australian in the lead and cracks emerging in what had been a rock-solid UAE Team Emirates, there’s a new sense of anticipation now.
Hindley did surrender time in the closing kilometres to the attacking ride by Vingegaard and for him to hold off the charge of last year’s champion will take some doing. For now, however, Bora-Hansgrohe has made a statement: we’re here to challenge for the win!
“I have no idea what will happen tomorrow after this amazing battle today,” said Bora-Hangrohe’s directeur sportif, Rolf Aldag, “but to be honest, I don’t care just now.
“We just will enjoy that moment today and I want to thank the whole team, also staff, for all the effort and commitment. We can be proud of what we achieved today. It’s always special to get the yellow jersey and without the team behind Jai this wouldn’t have been possible.”
There are more mountains on the menu for Thursday’s stage and we wait to see how Hindley manages the pressure of leading the Tour de France. He is a climber of repute, a rider who has won a Grand Tour before… and he’s now elevated his status a little further.
This is the third time Hindley has worn the leader’s jersey of a Grand Tour and this time it’s a yellow one. When he wore the maglia rosa in the Giro d’Italia – in both 2020 and 2022 – it was only for one day, the final stage of the contest.
His win has come early in Le Tour and it’s up to him to defend a lead that he would have dreamed he could achieve. It’s a reality now and Australian fans will surely be tuning in to see what is yet to come from what is shaping up to be a compelling contest all the way to Paris.
– By Rob Arnold