When Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley entered the 2020 Giro d'Italia they may have had ambitions to target the white young riders' jersey, but neither would have expected to be leaving Milan in pink.
A quite wondrous 103rd edition of La Corsa Rosa ended on Sunday with both the British and Australian riders level on time going into the final race against the clock, only for Geoghegan Hart to complete the 15.7km test with a 39-second advantage that saw him lift the so-called Neverending Trophy while in pink alongside the famous Duomo di Milano.
Geoghegan Hart and Hindley are, as you'd expect, among our list of stand-out riders of the race. But who else makes the cut?
Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers)
Filippo Ganna of Italy and Team INEOS Grenadiers World Champion Jersey / during the 103rd Giro d'Italia 2020, Stage 14 a 34,1km individual Time Trial
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The metronome of the Ineos team, Ganna set the tone when he rolled down the ramp in Monreale to get his maiden Grand Tour off to the best possible start. The world time trial champion's rainbow jersey soon became pink in Palermo after the first instalment of a sumptuous TT hat-trick.
But it was what Ganna did in Stage 5 which had a far greater impact on the race. With morale rock bottom at the Ineos camp following leader Geraint Thomas's shock withdrawal, Ganna showed he was much more than the sum of his time trialling parts.
Having relinquished his maglia rosa after sticking with the injured Thomas on the climb to Etna, Ganna celebrated the race's arrival on mainland Italy two days later by forcing himself into an eight-man breakaway. In a stage featuring a whopping 4,700m of climbing over the hills of Calabria, all 82kg and 1.93m of Ganna defied gravity and the chasing pack to take his second victory of the race – and add a blue jersey to his earlier pink.
Ganna produces performance worthy of 'Boonen, Wiggins and Cancellara' to win Stage 5 of the Giro
It was a victory which lifted the mood at Ineos and inspired an attacking verve which saw both Salvatore Puccio and Jonathan Castroviejo come close to winning from breaks before Jhonatan Narváez triumphed in the rain in Cesenatico. Four more wins for Ineos would come – two from Ganna and two from Geoghegan Hart – and the fairytale all stemmed from the 24-year-old's fantastic ride to Camigliatello Silano.
The cherry on the cake came in Milan, not far from Ganna's hometown of Verbania, where the world champion proved he is quite possibly the greatest time triallist in history. Surely, it's only a matter of time before Ganna smashes Victor Campenaerts' Hour Record to smithereens.
João Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step)
Joao Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step) during Stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia 2020
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In a year where youngsters and debutants have come to the fore, Portugal's Almeida took his opportunity with both hands and came within one ascent of the snow-covered Stelvio of winning his debut Grand Tour.
Perhaps drawing inspiration from teammate Julian Alaphilippe's glorious run in yellow during the 2019 Tour de France, the 22-year-old enjoyed 15 days in pink during which he defended the jersey with honour and panache – attacking off the front when he could to add bonus seconds here and there, while digging deep to keep the dream alive when necessary.
His battling ride in the Dolomites to retain the overall lead by 15 seconds over Wilco Kelderman in Piancavallo gave him a second wind and set the balls in motion for the tightest and one of the most exciting conclusions to a Grand Tour.
‘Looks like he could be in real trouble’ – Leader Joao Almeida cracks on Stelvio
Almeida's impassioned pursuit of pink made up for Deceuninck Quick-Step's lack of stage wins, bringing out the best in a team better known for its performances in the classics or sprints. What was most impressive about Almeida's debut Giro was his consistency: not once did he finish outside the top 30 in any stage, making the podium four times and the top 10 on 11 occasions.
It was a sign of the man that he did not let his shoulders slump on the Stelvio, but fought back to protect his place in the top five before rising to fourth on the final day with another encouraging time trial. Although denied a stage win and a place on the final podium, Almeida's role in this race will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
Team Groupama-FDJ rider France's Arnaud Demare after his fourth win on the Giro d'Italia 2020
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The French champion showed Groupama-FDJ what they were missing in the Tour with four stage wins and the maglia ciclamino. If his first win at Villafranca Tirrena needed a photo finish to confirm, he doubled up two days later in emphatic fashion – fighting back on the ramp into Matera before sweeping past his rivals to take a stage he had no right to win.
The hat-trick came a day later – making it three in four – after Démare showcased his superior gallop in a bunch sprint at Brindisi. By the time the 29-year-old had his fourth, he had become poetry in blurred, super-speed motion – benefitting from another expert lead-out before putting his rivals in the shade in Rimini.
But it was his interview after that fourth win that was the real thing of beauty – Démare's infectious enthusiasm and genuine love for what he does really shining through. He now has 75 pro wins to his name – but he celebrates each as if it were the most unexpected and brilliant thing to have happened to him. Long may this continue.
'This is wonderful!' - Demare produces something special to win Stage 6
The wins dried up after stage 11 – hardly surprising given the terrain of the Giro's final week – but Démare didn't let that dampen his spirit. Having missed out on a chance for a fifth triumph on the day of the peloton protests, the Frenchman forced himself into the break of the penultimate day to secure and show off his maglia ciclamino.
He won the intermediate sprint and then put in a few ambitious digs on the first climb to Sestriere, celebrating the first crossing of the finish line ahead of the final lap by raising his arms aloft: the sign of a man not only with a sense of humour but one content with his chances and pleased with his performances.
Both he and Ireland's Sam Bennett denied Peter Sagan a points classification jersey this year in France and in Italy. It was a shame we didn't see whether Démare could have pushed Bennett in the Tour's battle for green. Hopefully, next year.
Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers)
Geoghegan Hart - Giro d'Italia 2020, stage 21 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
And so, to the man who won the whole thing. Geoghegan Hart was 126th after the first 18 minutes of the Giro, having finished well down on teammate Ganna – no doubt in a bid to conserve the energy he'd need for three weeks of fetching bidons for Geraint Thomas.
But when a stray bidon did for the Welshman's chances in the neutral zone of Stage 3, Geoghegan Hart suddenly saw the door marked Plan B and jumped right through. His rise was a slow and gradual one; it was not until the first proper mountain stage of the race, when Geoghegan Hart came of age with his maiden Grand Tour stage win at Piancavallo in the Dolomites, that the 25-year-old first broke into the top 10.
Three seconds shy of three minutes down on the summit of the GC, Geoghegan Hart still had his work cut out. The scrapping of the Colle dell'Agnello and Col d'Izoard from Stage 20 gave more importance to the Passo dello Stelvio in Stage 18 – and it was here where he set the foundations for his win, albeit by finishing in the tyre tracks of the young man who emerged to be his big challenger.
Stage 15 highlights as Tao Geoghegan Hart emerges as Giro contender
A repeat performance of his uphill power play with teammate Rohan Dennis on the penultimate stage in Sestriere ended the chances of Wilco Kelderman, delivered Geoghegan Hart his second stage win, and set up the nerve-wracking final test in which the Condor of Hackney passed with flying colours.
Listening to his post-victory press conference, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more humble, grounded, and sincere winner. Even Eurosport's Bradley Wiggins – whose 2012 Tour victory set the whole sequence in motion, inspiring Geoghegan Hart to follow his dreams and ride for Team Sky – admitted on his poignant podcast that Britain's latest cycling superstar put the original one in the shade in every department. High praise.
It's going to be intriguing to see where Geoghegan Hart's career now goes on a team that already boasts Grand Tour winners Thomas, Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz, a team which may be bidding farewell to Chris Froome but is welcoming Adam Yates and another promising Briton in Tom Pidcock.
Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb)
Jai Hindley wins Stage 18 at the Giro d'Italia
Image credit: Getty Images
The story of this Giro and its nail-biting finale is only half complete until you bring the 24-year-old Western Australian into the equation. Like Geoghegan Hart, Hindley would never in his wildest dreams have reckoned he would be rolling down the final ramp in Milan in the pink jersey.
Where Geoghegan Hart had Thomas in front of him, Hindley had Wilco Kelderman. The experienced Dutchman may have not tasted victory for five years and may be on his way to Bora-Hansgrohe, but he never once strayed from the top four after the first summit finish at Etna, and he was riding in such a way to deserve a final shot at leadership for Sunweb.
When Kelderman was distanced on the Stelvio, Hindley and Sunweb had a tough call to make – and hindsight shows that they made the correct one in letting the Australian stick with Geoghegan Hart and Dennis, rather than drop back to help his teammate. Some difficulties with putting on a jacket aside, Hindley emerged from the Stelvio with his reputation intact and a breakthrough win at the Laghi di Cancano. He also had to deal with yet another delicate internal situation after Kelderman rallied to take over the race lead from Almeida.
'A day we will never forget' – Hindley edges Geoghegan Hart in Stage 18 thriller
Just 12 seconds down on his Dutch teammate, Hindley was allowed to ride his own race on the triple ascent to Sestriere and had the tactical nous to take the maximum bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint ahead of the final climb – a bittersweet moment, perhaps, for it meant, after his succession of five attacks couldn't distance Geoghegan Hart, that he, and not his rival, started the final time trial in pink.
Wearing the race's famous maglia rosa was a reward for a superb final week, but it was also a cruel yolk for Hindley, who had to ride the final 15.7km of the Giro in the knowledge that his stint in pink may last no longer than eighteen minutes.
Gracious in defeat, Hindley will bounce back from this. He's laid down a marker and has shown that, even with the impending arrival of Romain Bardet and the rise of Marc Hirschi, he's the future of GC riding at Sunweb. Expect a Tour de France debut soon – although he may have unfinished business at the Giro first…
Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers)
Rohan Dennis leads Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley up a climb on Stage 20 at the Giro d'Italia
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Would Tao Geoghegan Hart have won the Giro were it not for Rohan Dennis? Probably not. That's how crucial the Australian's role was over two stages which turned the race on its head.
The astonishing tempo which Dennis set on the Stelvio – a record time on the legendary climb which, quite rightly, earned the 30-year-old the Cima Coppi Prize going over the summit – ended Almeida's time in pink and ensured that Kelderman's reign would be short-lived.
Dennis then went and did it all over again on Saturday's triple ascent to Sestriere, whittling down the field on the first climb before bringing the race's two strongest riders – Geoghegan Hart and Hindley – to the fore on the first of two southern approaches.
Highlights: 'Dennis the Menace' catapults Tao to victory, Hindley sneaks into pink
And when Hindley did his utmost best to distance the Ineos duo on the final climb, Dennis kept on clawing his way back into contention, each time delivering a psychological blow to his countryman while giving his teammate a timely boost.
Dennis has had his troubles in the past – and indeed arrived at Ineos after leaving Bahrain Merida very much under a cloud. But it seems like he has found his place on the British team. He seems happy and appreciated – and it has brought out the best in him. There are few smiles in cycling a distinct as Dennis's cheeky grin, and at Ineos he has found good reason to smile.
Second to teammate Ganna in the ITT to Valdobbiadene, Dennis was one of four Ineos riders to finish runner-up in a stage, on top of the British's team's haul of seven wins.
Ruben Guerreiro wins Stage 9 at Roccaraso
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Entering the Giro, all talk was of their new zany street-ware kits – as garish to the eye as they were a breath of fresh air in a face-masked shrouded peloton. But EF Pro Cycling soon let their riders do the talking through Jonathan Caicedo and Ruben Guerreiro.
Ecuador champion Caicedo won Stage 3 on Mount Etna to ensure he wouldn't have to wear his team's new kit for a couple of days until Ganna took the blue jersey off his shoulders. And when the Italian relinquished it a few days later, it was to Portugal's Guerreiro after his win at Roccaraso gave EF dual triumphs in the race's opening two summit finishes.
Despite lending the maglia azzurra to Giovanni Visconti for a couple of days early in the third week, Guerreiro became the first Portuguese rider to win an overall classification jersey on the Giro. Like his good friend Geoghegan Hart, Guerreiro learned his trade on the Hagens Berman Axeon development team in 2015 and 2016, a later alumni being his compatriot Almeida. Manager Axel Merckx is clearly doing something right.
Four years after his last Giro stage success, Italy's Diego Ulissi showed a return to form with a brace of wins to keep up UAE-Team Emirates' fine run in Grand Tours in 2020. Slovakian showman Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) ended his own 15-month drought with typical aplomb, defying a series of punchy Ardennes-style ramps to win from the break in Tortoreto. The next day it was business as usual as Sagan took his fourth runner-up spot in an eventful debut Giro.
Highlights: Sagan solos to Stage 10 glory after ride for the ages
Hot on the heels of Slovenian success in the Tour, Jan Tratnik's victory at San Daniele del Friuli for Bahrain-McLaren was a thing of calculated beauty and brute force – although it wouldn't have been appreciated by the man he beat, Ben O'Connor (NTT Pro Cycling). The Australian, however, showed his fine legs and bounce-back-ability the next day by soloing to glory at Madonna di Campiglio, capping this with another attack on the Stelvio before announcing a move to Ag2R-La Mondiale.
And on a day the peloton ground to a halt admit protests from those who didn't want to ride in the rain, the out-of-contract Czech powerhouse Josef Černý (CCC Team) put himself in the shop window with an against-all-odds solo dash clear of the worn-out break in Asti. Somewhat unfairly, the organisers kept back his prize money to donate to worthy causes following the strike.
But arguably the most emotional win of the race came from another rider whose future is up in the air (beyond the prospect of dirty nappies and sleepless nights), with Britain's Alex Dowsett using Israel Start-Up Nation's power in number in the break to dovetail with fellow teammate of a TT persuasion Matthias Brandle before soloing to glory in sun-drenched Vieste.
‘They’ve finally arrived at the big time’ - Watch Dowsett make history at the Giro
Finally, a word to one of the Ineos Grenadiers riders who did not either win a stage or finish runner-up. Ben Swift put in a huge shift as road captain while seeking individual glory where he could, the 32-year-old finishing in the top five three times en route to a career-high 18th place in the general classification. His work ethic, consistency and broad smile was typical of the new style of riding we saw from an Ineos team from which manager Sir Dave Brailsford has promised there will be "no more parking the bus".
Written off after a troubled Tour de France, Team Ineos has turned things round in such a dramatic fashion that the cast of the Giro d'Italia 2020 has even outshone the brilliant 2012 Tour team of Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, winning over new fans in the process and promising an exciting new era of attacking cycling and, perhaps, extended Grand Tour glory. Ciao for now, Tao.
Felix Lowe - @Saddleblaze