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Ten years ago, 15-year-old Tao Geoghegan Hart attended the Team Sky launch event in London to grab a glimpse of his heroes, Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas. A decade on, the east Londoner has become the 2020 Giro d’Italia champion and the latest in a long line of British riders to have taken grand tour success with the squad.
“When we first started the team, Tao bunked off school, and came along to watch Brad and the guys when they launched the team,” Ineos Grenadiers boss David Brailsford said shortly after seeing the 25-year-old snatch the pink jersey in Milano. “He rode behind Brad, it’s a story he likes to tell. Then all of a sudden he was in the team, and all of a sudden he’s in this position. You couldn’t make it up. It’s the stuff of dreams, it really is.”
As Brailsford suggested, Geoghegan Hart had long been dreaming of winning a grand a long time, especially one where he started as a domestique and finished the opening stage Palermo time trial in 126th overall.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine this would be possible almost a month ago in Sicily,” Geoghegan Hart said. “I think all of my career I’ve dreamed of trying to be top-5 or top-10 in a race of this stature. This is something completely and utterly different to that, and I think this is going to take a long time to sink in.”
From the grassroots to the Giro
Though Geoghegan Hart took the Giro’s pink jersey when he least expected it in just his fourth grand tour, he’s long been a student of the sport, and he’s borrowed a few lessons from his hero-turned-mentor Wiggins.
Having pivoted from early passions for soccer and swimming toward cycling at the age of 13, Geoghegan Hart immersed himself in the grassroots cycling scene in Hackney, in gritty north-east London, riding for local clubs and working weekends at iconic cycling shop, Condor Cycles.
“You knew there was something special about him even then, he was super-motivated and focused,” Greg Needham of Condor told The Guardian last week.
Geoghegan Hart’s single-minded approach saw him move into the Great Britain academy system and rapidly progress to earn a spell with the GB junior squad. As a teenager, the Brit took the bold move to bail out of the tried-and-trusted British development system to join the Bissel Development Team in 2014, which later became Hagens Berman Axeon.
The decision would allow him to immerse himself into road racing rather than the track-focused national program, and helped shape his career.
“One thing that struck me immediately was Tao was really ambitious,” Axel Merckx, manager of Hagens Berman Axeon, told VeloNews on Sunday.
“I never promised him anything in the first year with the team,” Merckx said. “I wanted to wait and see how he would adjust in the first months, but he really wanted to go to Tour of California, so he made it his goal to be there and worked toward it and he was. And he had a good ride in that very first year.”
It was at the race’s opening stage that Geoghegan Hart showed his initial promise, launching himself into both the breakaway of the day, and onto the radar of Wiggins, then leading the Team Sky squad in California. The pair have remained in contact since, with Wiggins regularly contacting Geoghegan Hart through his rise into the pink jersey at this year’s Giro.
Persistence – and patience – pays off
Despite being in awe of Wiggins and the Team Sky setup that was bringing pro cycling to the masses in the UK, Geoghegan Hart turned down a WorldTour contract with the team to spend one more year, the 2016 season, with Merckx and his squad.
“He waited that one year and delivered some big wins,” Merckx said in a telephone call. “That gave him the boost in the confidence to move to the WorldTour with a full luggage to be prepared to be a team captain in a grand tour team.
“He took a risk in his career but he took a risk in investing in his development more than trying to move up too fast and to get burned too fast, which can happen in the WorldTour when you’re not hundred percent ready.”
Geoghegan Hart finally hit the WorldTour with a deal with Team Sky in 2017, and rode his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España in 2018, after hitting new highs with fifth at the Tour of California and Vuelta a Burgos that season.
From there, Geoghegan Hart rose steadily through the ranks at Team Sky, co-leading the team with Pavel Sivakov at Tour of the Alps to take two stages and second on GC. The Brit again paired up again with the Russian as joint leader at that year’s Giro after Egan Bernal crashed in training just one week before the race rolled out of Bologna.
Though Geoghegan Hart crashed out midway through last year’s Giro, he kept the momentum moving with an attacking ride through that summer’s Vuelta a España, taking second and third places in stages through the mountains after relentlessly forcing his way into breakaways.
Geoghegan Hart has never yet risen high enough in the bumper Ineos roster to make it to the Tour de France, however.
While he was on the long-list to make a Tour debut this summer, he was left disappointed as Brailsford and Co. selected an experimental, Latin-tinged squad. Instead, Geoghegan Hart was compensated with a position at the center of Thomas’ Giro mountain train. When the Welsman abandoned the race after crashing on the third stage, Geoghegan Hart got his big moment after unselfishly riding in support of his teammates since 2017.
“He’s on a team that’s highly competitive, but he was patient,” his agent João Correia told VeloNews. “He got his shot at this Giro, he took his shot and fortunately, he won.”
“He really put it all together at this race,” Correia continued. “His Giro last year didn’t go so well, but he took lessons from that and went to the Vuelta where he had a very successful ride after not starting super-well. He took all of those learnings to this Giro and it paid.”
A new British hope? Maybe … when he gets his chance
“I don’t think it’s the end of an era but rather the continuation of an incredible decade for British cycling … I’m proud to be part of it,” Geoghegan Hart said when asked Sunday if he was his nation’s new grand tour hope.
While Geoghegan Hart is undoubtedly at the center of a crop of young British talent alongside the likes of James Knox (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling), he will likely remain relatively low on the pecking order of a team with more grand tour talent than half the peloton put together. Though Geoghegan Hart is out of contract with Ineos Grenadiers at the end of the season, reports suggest he will be staying put in 2021 to ride on a squad packing stage race stars Thomas, Bernal, Sivakov, Richard Carapaz, Adam Yates, Richie Porte, and Dani Martinez.
While the Ineos Grenadiers’ ranks are bursting with stage racing talent, Geoghegan Hart seems destined to head-up teams at grand tours again having proven the strength of both his character and his legs in Italy this month. Former Hagens Berman Axeon teammate Will Barta pointed out that Geoghegan Hart is a born leader.
“He has a really strong personality, but in a good way, giving a team energy and direction,” Barta on the telephone Monday. “For me, those are always the best teammates, the ones who become leaders because they’re so into it and want to do the best.”
“You get some kind of energy from the passion that he has, especially in racing,” said Barta, who now rides for CCC Team. “He brought the group together around a common goal.”
Geoghegan Hart’s raw passion and ruthless determination inevitably leads to the perfectionism required to thrive in elite sport.
“It’s a bit of an ongoing joke that Tao is never happy,” Merckx said. “He’s never happy with himself, he’s always angry at something and that’s because he’s very ambitious – it’s never good enough for him. I had an ongoing joke with his agent [Correia] over the last few days that if he pulls it off, maybe for five minutes, he might be happy and be satisfied with what he accomplished over the last three weeks.”
Perhaps now, after proving himself to be the best over three weeks in Italy, the 25-year-old can be satisfied as he heads into a winter break. Next season, both his own and his nation’s expectations will be ever higher, and his ongoing quest for perfection will start over.