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The dying art of a boring final stage

There are many ways to end a grand tour, but not all are created the same.

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The final stage of a Grand Tour. It’s a concept that means a multitude of different things, across races, individual years, riders, eras. It can be variously a processional sprint day, a hectic circuit race, or a race-deciding time trial. In a sport that often values tradition and consistency, it can’t quite seem to decide on how the last stage of a Grand Tour should go.

Sunday’s Giro stage will go down in the genre of maybe not race-deciding – Jai Hindley’s lead of 1 minute 25 should be safe over 17.4km time trial, barring incident – but it will be race-confirming and crucially, it will be a day Hindley, Carapaz and every rider from first to last will actually have to race. 

It’s a situation Hindley has been in before, as the Giro have made this final stage time trial something of a mainstay in recent years, including when Hindley finished second overall in 2020. Milan is swapped for Verona this year, but the Giro is sticking with the formula.

The late stage time trial has been replicated in the other two Grand Tours, too. The Tour de France isn’t quite giving up the iconic Paris finale, but has swapped the traditional stage 20 mountain-fest for a time trial in the four of the last five editions. The 2020 time trial on the Blanche des Belles Filles will go down as a classic stage, one of the most dramatic days on the Tour, and so the merit of such stages cannot be argued.

However, there are pros and cons to the race-deciding time trial. On one hand, the time trial guarantees a level of drama that a mountain stage cannot. A big mountain stage should produce gaps in the general classification, but too often we see the GC group neutralise each other, allowing the break to win on stage 20 out of hesitance to jeopardise their secure podium or top-10 spots. In a time trial, there will always be time gaps, there will always be tension over who will lose what and how the standings will look at the end of the day. 

The flip-side of the exciting final stage, though, is that it can affect the racing in the final week. When Tom Dumoulin won the Giro in 2017, his superior time trialling was a clear safety net in the closing mountain stages of the race. He could have attacked Quintana, taken back the jersey earlier, but knowing he would almost certainly beat the Colombian in a time trial, he just didn’t need to. He knew he could take the time on the final stage, and that’s exactly what he did.

At this Giro, we’ve been fortunate that, in the absence of one clearly stronger time trialist, the impact on the rest of the racing has been minimal. The time trial was looming, but Hindley and Carapaz went head to head on the climbs, neither confident in their ability to better the other in Verona.

And yet even aside from the racing, there’s a certain shine that a stage 21 time trial lacks. Some riders spend days in the leader’s jersey of a Grand Tour on their way to winning it. The winner of the Tour is guaranteed at least one day in yellow. When you finish a race on a time trial, it’s conceivable the winner could spend zero actual days in the jersey. Even tomorrow, Hindley’s win will not be confirmed until he crosses the line, his time to really, truly celebrate won’t start until he has emptied himself on his time trial bike. To some, this is probably exactly what the end of a race should be, but at the end of a Grand Tour, maybe an unimportant final stage is okay, maybe it should be a day of celebration.

An alternative title to this piece could be ‘In defence of boring final stages’. They seem to be going out of fashion: the high-drama time trial or circuit race more attractive to the Giro and the Vuelta, but there’s a part of me that hopes the Tour clings on to its boring, processional, and wonderful last stage into Paris. There is an incomparable charm to the final stage of the Tour de France. Most of the day is not about racing at all, but more about drinking champagne on the bike, posing for photos, showing off special kits and bikes. It’s showy, it’s relaxed, it’s a procession more than a race, and to me, it’s the perfect end to the spectacle of the Tour de France.

It should also be said that the run-in from the outskirts of Paris to the centre is not really for us as viewers. It’s for the teams, the riders and perhaps most importantly, the winner. A day all about the yellow jersey, almost an entire day to celebrate what is the biggest achievement in the sport. It may be fairly disinteresting to the TV audience, but the riders have worked tirelessly for 20 days, shouldn’t they get one day to enjoy what they’ve achieved?

Sunday’s time trial won’t be the same experience it was for Hindley in 2020 – his win is almost assured, something to defend rather than chase after – but still he will finish this Giro and record the best result of his career having had hardly a single moment to relax and drink it in. He will have to race hard tomorrow, he will be pushing right to the line. His first stage spent in the pink jersey will in fact be a pink skinsuit, and he will spend the stage on his own, not taking up his hard-earned position of leader of the peloton. 

What Hindley has achieved at the Giro is extremely impressive: he’s not only held on in the tough moments, but he took control on stage 20 to take time in the face of fierce opposition. He was an underdog against one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world, and he came out on top. His win will be no less celebrated or emotional for the fact it will finish in a time trial, but there’s certainly a part of me that wishes we could see Hindley riding through Verona drinking prosecco tomorrow, surrounded by his teammates and enjoying a day in pink.