The 2019 foundations for success
Tao Geoghegan Hart started last year’s Giro d’Italia as one of two Team Ineos leaders alongside Pavel Sivakov, but he crashed out of Stage 13 with a broken clavicle.
The East-Londoner began his 2019 season strong, bagging his first World Tour wins with two stages at the Tour of the Alps; but, following the injury at the Giro, he bumbled along through what he called a “strange” year of ups and downs, hoping the “pieces of the puzzle” would eventually come together.
“As long as you stay focused and professional the chances will always come, it's just about keeping that perspective,” he said this time last year.
If last year was strange, then he couldn’t have prepared himself for what was on offer this year.
In the same interview last year, he said he “really liked” the Giro, and was interested in doing it again:
In the Giro all the time there are breaks going to the line, there are guys going from 15th on GC to fifth.
Surely he must have had that in the back of his mind across the last three weeks, since the 25-year-old went from being not classified in the general classification in the first four stages of the race, to climbing up to 19th, 14th, 10th, 4th, to joint number top with Sunweb’s Jai Hindley, who had been flip-flopping around the top 20.
Perhaps his status as team leader in his second grand tour in 2019 should have been a hint at what Team Ineos clearly thought him capable of, but his early retirement left him as an unknown quantity, and we would have to see it to believe it.
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Tao's formative years
Tao Geoghegan Hart has a mixed heritage of Irish, Scottish and English. Born in Holloway, north London, and growing up in Hackney, Geoghegan Hart has a soft-spot for Arsenal.
He grew up vegetarian, demonstrated his natural athleticism by swimming the English channel as part of a relay at the age of 13, and moved to Girona -- the home of over 100 professional cyclists -- after he finished his studies at the age of 18 to train seriously.
At 19 he showed the wisdom of that move, finishing 15th in the Tour of Britain.
Tao rode for CC Hackney, and like many promising young Londoners was supported by Condor Cycles, working there on Saturdays. As a teenager, he had a mature head on young shoulders which he put down to learning to be fiercely self-sufficient following his parents’ separation, not to mention being the eldest of five siblings. But he applauds his “gritty” and hard-working traits that he saw in his parents.
He watched his dad, Tom, a builder, often work 16-hour days, with no daily massage and no team of carers or soigneurs looking after him on a regular basis. He told Cyclist that if his Dad can do that then “I reckon I can do this. We have it easy in my opinion and I love my lifestyle. In fact, one of my greatest motivators is to maintain this lifestyle because it’s bloody awesome.”
An early introduction to Ineos/Sky
Geoghegan Hart has a long history with his current Ineos team since its inception in 2009 in the Sky days. A widely shared post from 2009 written by the then 15-year-old, said he had won a competition to go riding with the Team’s professionals, including Geoghegan Hart’s hero and inspiration, Bradley Wiggins.
Unbeknown to the youngster he would end up being signed to the team a few years later.
“So when out of the blue I got a text today, saying I had been picked for the ride I was amazed and exited [sic].
“It will be interesting to see how many turn up to the rides. I will be armed with my camera and on a mission to get as many photos with the Pro’s as possible.”
Becoming a professional force
In 2014, Geoghegan Hart was riding in his first year for American development team Bissell Development (which later became Hagens Berman Axeon). He pleaded with team manager Axel Merckx (son of cycling legend Eddy) to enter that year’s Tour of California, but Merckx wasn’t sure he was ready.
Clearly in the back of his mind, Geoghegan Hart continued to train hard and impress, and before he knew it he was signing the start sheet for his first jaunt in a big race.
The following year he finished second in the youth classification behind the one and only Julian Alaphilippe at 21 years old.
Fellow Londoner Bradley Wiggins on his Eurosport podcast, The Bradley Wiggins Show, said he was aware of Geoghegan Hart before they rode in the 2014 Tour of California, which Wiggins won.
In 2012 I won the Tour de France, you were a young boy. I remember seeing you at the Tour of California two years later in 2014. We were both acting a bit too cool for school. I was aware of you, knew you were a talent and you were in a break on Stage 1. I remember we caught you in the peloton in the cross-wind section and I patted you on the back just to let you know I noticed what you were doing.
Geoghegan Hart said Merckx taught him how to be patient. Based on years of evidence from the Italian grand tour (2018 Chris Froome - anyone?) is exactly one of the skills required to win a Giro d’Italia, and what the Londoner has undertaken across the last three weeks as he quietly rose into GC contention.
In 2016 Merckx said: “To me, he has got everything that you need to have to be a very successful rider, he has the commitment, he has the passion, he has the determination, and he has the talent.”
By this time he was already on the GB Junior squad, and was talent-spotted by the likes of Dave B at Team Sky, and rode with the team as a trainee in 2015.
Geoghegan Hart said there was interest in a contract, opted to spend another year with Hagens Berman Axeon at U23 level.
He later signed for Team Sky in 2017, and has since continued to develop on Sky/Ineos’ long conveyor belt of talent they continue to invest in; evidently it has paid off.
Grabbing a 2020 opportunity with both hands
It’s no secret that 2020 has been Team Ineos’ worst season so far. After 10 years of domination by raising the bar with their ‘marginal gains’ strategies, other World Tour teams had to up their game to compete. But this year's progress stalled with a series of injuries and setbacks from their highest profile riders Chris Froome, Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.
The haphazard year of 2020 hit the team hard, seemingly knocking them out of contention for any of the grand tours. But Geoghegan Hart and his team-mate Rohan Dennis formed the perfect attacking duo for this Giro d’Italia to offer light at the end of the tunnel.
As this writer wrote last week following Geoghegan Hart’s first Giro stage win, Geraint Thomas' abandonment meant the Londoner was free of domestique duties and offered the once-in-a-career opportunity to go for the overall win. And he has grabbed that opportunity with both hands. His patience had finally paid off.
Despite some prematurely announcing an end to the reign of British men’s cycling success, given the lack of a serious Tour de France contender, Wiggins believes Ineos have developed a “younger, better version of himself”.
In his open letter to Geoghegan Hart, Wiggins said:
You’re on the verge of greatness. You’re already great, you’ve come of age, you’ve proved your talent … You’ve surpassed me in so many ways. In some ways you’re a better version of everything that I wanted to be. You’re better looking! You conduct yourself as I wanted to. You’re modest, you don’t swear, you look good on the bike, you’re pleasant, and I’m so proud of you and you deserve everything that you get.
In this Giro d'Italia, Tao Geoghegan Hart has done what his more experienced Tour de France champion team-mates could not.
And long may he revel in his well-earned success.