For some, the wins seem to come easy. They pile up as if by accident. For most, the chances are few, the successes fewer. There is no charity for pro cycling’s underdogs. That’s always been Jan Hirt’s story.
Tuesday was Hirt’s first Grand Tour stage win, the culmination of nine Grand Tours. 184 stages and counting. He spent 152 kilometers in the breakaway, dropped a Grand Tour winner and this Giro’s premier breakaway artists, crested the day’s final test in a light drizzle with a time gap barely out of single digits, kept it upright, and crossed the line with just enough time to straighten his helmet and put his hands in the air.
He overcame cramps on the final descent and shifting issues on the final climb, he was “suffering,” as one does on such a stage, but “wanted to win so much, so I fought until the end,” he said.
These stages come down to legs and fight, and Hirt had both.
“I had quite difficult moments in the stage when the beginning group split and didn’t collaborate very well,” he said. He had to use the Mortirolo to bring the group back together.
Hirt loves the Mortirolo, which says something about him and his riding style, even if the Giro took the least horrifying route to the top this year. In 2019, he used the more difficult climb from Mazzo di Valtellina as a springboard to escape with Trek’s Giulio Ciccone and the two came to the line in Ponte di Legno for a two-up sprint. Hirt lost that one, narrowly. But something about the climb’s gradients suits him, and he circled this stage shortly after the route was announced.
“I wanted to try to do something nice today,” he said. “Every time when I hear a Mortirolo stage I want to anticipate and go in the breakaway.”
Tuesday was again two riders pitted against each other following a breakaway battle on the Mortirolo and a desperate push ahead of the GC contenders on the climb to Santa Cristina, the last of the day. This time, it was two riders without a Grand Tour stage to their name who pushed on ahead of the rest. Hirt was dropped, then clawed back, caught, and then dispatched Thymen Arensman, a 22-year-old with Team DSM who was recently linked to an Ineos Grenadiers transfer and now is riding with the freedom that comes from losing his GC leader, Romain Bardet. The finish line would define only one of the two careers, either as a cherry-on-top for the 31-year-old or a breakthrough for the youngster.
A wet descent off Santa Cristina added to the drama. Hirt locked a rear wheel near the top as he tested the surface’s traction, but kept it upright. Arensman couldn’t close. The gap hovered at 10 seconds, then 7, then 12. At the finish, Arensman could see Hirt. But not close enough to sprint for the win.
Those without a dog in the fight can appreciate a win, finally, for the rider near the end of his available attempts, rather than one with so many Grand Tours ahead of him. Jan Hirt has tried, tried, and tried again. His Intermaché-Wanty-Gobert Matérieux squad is the poorest in the WorldTour and now has two victories this Giro. But there is no charity in pro cycling, only legs and fight.