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When the Brit won Saturday’s mountain stage to Sestriere – his second stage of this year’s race – to tie with Australian Jai Hindley, it was instantly clear that he was in prime position to grab the Maglia Rosa at the end of Sunday’s 15-kilometer time trial in Milan.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine this would be possible almost a month ago in Sicily. I think all of my career I’ve dreamed of trying to be top 5 or top 10 in a race of this stature, so this is something completely and utterly different to that,” Geoghegan Hart said after the finish. “I think this is going to take a long time to sink in.”
When Geoghegan Hart lined up at the start of this year’s Giro in the opening time trial from the Monreale Cathedral to downtown Palermo, he was in no way, shape or form, a team leader for the mighty British team.
No, he was riding support firstly for 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas—one of his childhood heroes. And after his teammate Filippo Ganna won the opening race against the clock, he was only too happy to ride the opening stages for the Italian world time trial champion, who took over the pink leader’s jersey.
It was only after Thomas was forced to abandon after crashing heavily on stage three up Mount Etna that Geoghegan Hart slipped into the guise of team leader. In some ways, it was a quick learning curve, but it was a role he assumed readily, and soon made his own.
And from the start of the final time trial on Sunday, it became immediately clear that this year’s Giro d’Italia would be his, as he took nearly three seconds per kilometer out of Hindley to claim victory in Milano.
“When we came here, Geraint [Thomas] was the leader really,” team manager David Brailsford said on the Piazza del Duomo in downtown Milan shortly after Geoghegan Hart crossed the line. “When you think about it really, Filippo [Ganna] set the scene, coming here with the rainbow bands and his first day got the TT sorted and got the pink jersey. Then there was the massive disappointment of Geraint going home. But when Filippo came back and won that stage in the mountains [stage 5 to Campigliatello Silano], everyone was like, ‘Wow that’s an incredible performance.’ And it inspired everybody.”
According to Brailsford, the team allowed Geoghegan Hart to focus on his overall position while others focused on stage wins.
“It just opened the race up. And if you didn’t make the breakaway, then you helped Tao. And I think he liked that. He grew into the role! There was no pressure on him and every day he just got better and better. And then there was a moment where there was a switch in his head from, ‘Maybe, maybe, maybe,’ to ‘I can do this!’”
That moment came in the final week of racing after he won stage 15 to Piancavallo, in the foothills of the Alps. As the race moved into the high mountains, Geoghegan Hart went on the attack, employing the help of Australian teammate Rohan Dennis, who constantly drove the pace on the “queen stage” over the legendary Stelvio pass this past Thursday, not to mention the final climbing stage to Sestriere on Saturday.
Geoghegan Hart could not have won this year’s race without the overwhelming efforts of the former world time trial champion, who himself wore the pink leader’s jersey here back in 2018. But the 25-year-old had to have sufficient confidence in his own ability to stay with Dennis. And on both days, only Hindley could follow in the final kilometers as the Ineos Grenadiers duo simply rode the remaining favorites like Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, and Wilco Kelderman off their wheels.
For Brailsford, this year’s victory was nothing short of a revelation.
“What I liked about this is the way we’ve done it here,” said Brailsford, who knows a thing or two about winning grand tours.
Geoghegan Hart is the fifth rider on the team to win a grand tour after Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, and Egan Bernal all won the Tour de France, and Froome also added the Giro and the Vuelta to the team’s long list of victories. And with no less than 11 grand tour victories since Wiggins first won the Tour in 2012, they have been the grand tour team of the past decade.
But the British Armada was often criticized for their lack of initiative, something Brailsford recognized in Milano.
“We’ve done the train. We’ve done the defensive style of riding and we’ve won a lot doing that,” he said. “But it’s not much fun, really, compared to this. What we’ve done here, the two Giros we’ve won. First with Froomey’s win on stage 19 [i.e. back in 2018] and the way all of the guys raced here, well, at the end of the day, the sport is about racing. It’s about emotion and the exhilaration of racing. And that’s what we want to be now.”
According to Brailsford, Geoghegan Hart, while only 25, has played a key role in what he sees as a new approach to racing for the team.
“Tao is an inspirational character,” Brailsford said. “He’s an adventurer. He’s a racer. He was like, ‘Hold on a second, this is about style. It’s about how you do it and what you do.’ And it gives you freedom, the confidence to say, ‘Ok let’s go balls out.’ I love that. That’s why I started racing. That’s who we are going to be now. It’s going to be a whole new different story.”
Whether Geoghegan Hart’s victory in Italy is of such a transformative nature within the team remains to be seen. But it is clear that the British squad no longer dominates the grand tours like it did just a year ago, after they were handily overwhelmed by the Dutch Jumbo-Visma team in this summer’s Tour de France as well as overall winner Tadej Pogačar.
But Geoghegan Hart himself admitted that he was incapable of thinking beyond his recent achievement.
“It’s just been an incredible three weeks. I didn’t think it was going to be possible this morning. I just tried not to overthink it. But it was a pretty simple TT, and whatever happens, happens,” he said.
“Is this the start of a big career ?” he added. “I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I’m just going to enjoy this. It’s incredible. Really really incredible. I’m going to stay the same person, stay as professional as I believe I always have been, dedicated, waking up every day looking forward to riding my bike and loving my life and being grateful for the honor and the privilege to be in this team and at these beautiful races.”