SESTRIERE, Italy (AP) — In a year filled with tragedy, disappointments and bad luck, the team that has dominated cycling for most of the past decade looks like it might finally have something to celebrate.
And it won’t be Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas or Egan Bernal raising the trophy when the Giro d’Italia concludes on Sunday.
Improbably, British rider Tao Geoghegan Hart is poised to give Ineos Grenadiers its first Grand Tour title of 2020.
Just as unlikely, Hart is virtually tied with Australian cyclist Jai Hindley entering the final stage after nearly 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) and more than 80 hours of racing over 20 days.
It’s the first time in Grand Tour history the first- and second-placed riders have the same overall time on the eve of the last stage.
Thrust into a leadership role after Thomas crashed and broke his pelvis in Stage 3, Hart methodically worked his way up the standings and will be favored in Sunday’s concluding individual time trial.
Hart outsprinted Hindley to win the mountainous 20th stage, which included three climbs to the Sestriere ski resort on Saturday.
“In the end you have to just try and believe anything is possible in life,” Hart said. “Certainly, before this race I wasn’t expecting this. So I’m pretty happy with how today has gone, how the whole race has gone.”
Hindley and Hart were listed with overall times of 80 hours, 22 minutes, 7 seconds. Organizers had to go back to results from the race’s two time trials to determine that Hindley leads by 0.86 seconds and can wear the pink jersey in the final stage over a mostly flat 15.7-kilometer (10-mile) route in Milan.
Previous leader Wilco Kelderman — a teammate of Hindley’s at Team Sunweb — dropped to third overall, 1 minute, 32 seconds behind.
Hart, 25, and Hindley, 23, are also competing for the white jersey that goes to the best young rider who is 25 or under.
“Tomorrow I have to do the time trial of my life,” Hindley said. “He’s shown that he can time trial well but it’s also the last stage of a three-week race and you never know what your legs will feel like when you wake up in the morning.”
One mistimed turn from either Hart or Hindley could mean the difference between raising the trophy and finishing second or third.
“It’s the race of truth,” Hindley said. “By the end of tomorrow you’ll have a worthy winner of the Giro d’Italia.”
Ineos teammates Filippo Ganna and then Rohan Dennis set a blistering pace for Hart on the second ascent to Sestriere and dropped everyone but Hindley.
Hindley then tried to attack Hart several times on the final climb but the Londoner stayed on his wheel each time then burst ahead with the finish line in sight.
“I really tried to shake him on the last climb and unfortunately I couldn’t get rid of him,” Hindley said. “Kudos to him, he’s riding incredibly.”
Dennis crossed third in the stage, 25 seconds behind Hart and Hindley.
“He was like a machine,” Hart said of Dennis. “I’m really, really in debt to him. He blew the race up on the Stelvio and again today. Having a two-time TT world champion (Dennis) and the current world champion (Ganna) helping me the way they did is fantastic but tomorrow it will be up to me to perform against the clock.”
Hart also won the 15th stage in another summit finish to Piancavallo. Together with three victories from Ganna plus another leg won by Jhonatan Narváez, Ineos has claimed six of the 20 stages.
Ganna is favored to win another on Sunday.
“We’re a team. We’ve all worked for these guys and this is the result,” Ineos sports director Matteo Tosatto said. “Tao is a great kid. He fell last year in the Giro and had to abandon. He’s improved a lot.”
Hart’s best finish in a Grand Tour was 20th in last year’s Spanish Vuelta; while Hindley has never cracked the top 30 in a Grand Tour.
But cycling appears to be entering a new era with Bernal winning last year’s Tour at age 22 then Tadej Pogačar taking this year’s Tour at 21 after Bernal fell behind and abandoned.
Froome — the four-time Tour champion — is riding the Spanish Vuelta but is out of contention.
Hart has dedicated his wins to Ineos sports director Nico Portal, who died of a heart attack in March at age 40.
“I did the Giro and Vuelta with him last year,” Hart said. “Nico made me believe in myself, even last year in the Giro when it was going really badly. It was really difficult for the team when we received the news earlier this year.”
Now, finally, Ineos could have reason to rejoice.
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