Mitchelton-Scott seek elusive Giro d’Italia win with Simon Yates gunning for pink | Kieran Pender

Mitchelton-Scott seek elusive Giro d’Italia win with Simon Yates gunning for pink | Kieran Pender

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or Matt White, chief sports director of Australian cycling team Mitchelton-Scott, the Giro d’Italia is more than just a bike race. The Italian Grand Tour – second only to the Tour de France in terms of popularity, and arguably more gruelling – has been part of White’s life for more than two decades. As a cyclist and now as a coach, the race has repeatedly pushed White to the limit. “I have a real passion for the Giro,” he explains ahead of the 2020 edition, which begins on Saturday in Sicily. “I love it.”

But love can hurt. In 2000, White was riding for Italian cyclist Francesco Casagrande, who claimed the leader’s pink jersey on stage nine. Supported by White, the Vini Caldirola–Sidermec team leader defended his overall lead until the penultimate stage. But in the final time trial, Casagrande was overhauled by Stefano Garzelli. The prospect of playing a part in pink jersey success vanished before White’s eyes.

Sixteen years later, the Australian was directing Mitchelton-Scott’s efforts at the Giro when Esteban Chaves took pink on the third-last stage. At the time, the team had never won a Grand Tour; suddenly, one seemed within grasp. But Chaves lost the lead the following day, to Vincenzo Nibali, and ultimately finished second.

2018 brought yet more heart-break. Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates held pink for two weeks, winning three stages along the way. But on stage 19, with the finish in Rome just days away, the Englishman cracked during a tough outing in the mountains. He lost so much time that he ultimately finished outside the top 20. “I have been part of teams, on and off the bike, that have come extremely close to winning this race,” White says.

Can White and Yates quell their disappointment in 2020? Yates enters the race as equal favourite, alongside INEOS’s Geraint Thomas and former winner Vincenzo Nibali. “A lot of things can happen in 3,500km, but for me those are the three that should arrive on the podium,” says White.

Yates, who recently re-signed for two more years at Mitchelton-Scott, arrives in Italy in impressive form. In August he finished third at the Tour de Pologne, before winning the eight-stage Tirreno-Adriatico in September. The Briton will be supported by a strong team, including two young Australian climbing lieutenants. Jack Haig was Yates’s right-hand man when he won the 2018 Vuelta a España, while Lucas Hamilton performed strongly in his Giro debut last year.

Standing between Yates and the pink jersey, in addition to many kilometres of climbing, are three individual time trials – on the first, 14th and final stages. While the 28-year-old is a capable time trialist, rival Geraint Thomas is a specialist – finishing fourth in the discipline at last week’s world championships.

“Our strength is Simon’s climbing, Geraint’s strength is his time trialling,” says White. “We’re staring down the barrel of several minutes of time loss across the time trials. But traditionally the Giro is not won by seconds. The back-end of this race is brutal – the difference between having a good day and a bad day in the mountains is minutes. When we can take time on Geraint, we have to do it.”

Success at the Giro, following a happy Tour de France where Yates’s brother Adam wore the yellow jersey for several stages, would represent a remarkable turnaround for the Australian team’s 2020 campaign. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Mitchelton-Scott slashed rider and staff wages. For a period it seemed owner Gerry Ryan was on the verge of selling up to mysterious Spanish investors. But the wealthy Australian businessman subsequently walked away from negotiations and reaffirmed his commitment to the team.

“Cycling is not going to survive this year without causalities,” says White. “Several teams will fold, several teams will scale down. This pandemic has had a major financial impact on many around the world – cycling is not immune. For us to come out the other side of what was potentially a takeover, to now have at least two more years of certainty, that is a good feeling.”

White has been making the most of it, signing up a number of new riders for 2021 including Australian star Michael Matthews. “The rider market and the staff market are going to be flooded,” he says. “There will be a lot of people in this sport, who have jobs this year, but will be unemployed next year. For us to have certainty from Gerry – it means a lot.”

First up, though, is the Giro. White eschews the word “redemption”, but admits that victory would be particularly sweet after coming so close yet so far in 2000, 2016 and 2018. “Winning the Giro would be as big, if not bigger, than our Vuelta victory,” he says. “We are going to the Giro to win and we are looking forward to the challenge. To help Simon win the Giro – I would really cherish that.”