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Sitting pretty in pink: How Tao Geoghegan Hart climbed to the top

In-depth
8 Dec 2020
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Tao Geoghegan Hart’s Giro d'Italia win left a lot of fans scratching their heads, but his first Grand Tour victory was a long time in the making

Words: Jeremy Whittle Photography: Pete Goding & Offside

One week after the end of the 2020 Giro d’Italia, Tao Geoghegan Hart sits down in a cafe in London’s Soho and tucks into a breakfast fry up. The pink jersey of race winner is stuffed into his coat pocket, and while he stirs his pot of tea the kid from Hackney slides out of his Ineos Grenadiers shell jacket to reveal a retro Arsenal shirt, vintage 1995 season.

He may be a lifelong Arsenal fan, a dyed-in-the-wool Gooner, but Geoghegan Hart is not a kid anymore. Now 25, he finally came of age as a Grand Tour rider in the most spectacular of settings, under a bone-chilling sky on the towering climb of the Stelvio pass, racing Australian rival Jai Hindley through the endless hairpins against a backdrop of vast autumnal snowfields.

The trio of riders – Geoghegan Hart’s Ineos Grenadiers teammate Rohan Dennis drove the pace for much of the ascent – were dwarfed by the legendary climb, the ribbon of dark tarmac snaking across the rock and snow as the Londoner ascended unerringly to higher ground, both on the mountainside and within his sport.

Geoghegan Hart’s was a relentless, slow-burn progress towards overall success at the Giro, underpinned by consistency and durability. He was 128th in the opening time-trial but winner of the entire race three weeks later.

Confirmation of his qualities came in the form of two mountain stage wins along the way. Overall victory was secured in the cliffhanging time-trial in Milan, after both he and Hindley had started the final stage on exactly the same time.

In the aftermath his success seems less of a surprise and more a verification of a talent that has long been simmering away in races such as the Tour of California and Tour of the Alps, in which he has gone head-to-head with Vincenzo Nibali and climbed to high overall finishes alongside now-familiar names such as Egan Bernal, Sepp Kuss, George Bennett and Aleksandr Vlasov.

There have been setbacks along the way: the usual injuries and broken bones; a tendency to get bad reactions to road rash after crashing; the internal jostle for position at Ineos, fuelled by Dave Brailsford’s rapacious acquisition of the WorldTour scene’s best talents. But this former cross-Channel swimmer has proved to be resilient and patient – in the words of his mentor and former coach, Axel Merckx,  an ‘old head on young shoulders’.

In fact Geoghegan Hart’s career was founded on his time with Merckx and his Hagens Berman Axeon team, racing mainly across the Atlantic in the US.

‘He’s the real deal,’ Merckx said as the Giro ended. ‘When he rode for us he rallied the troops, he encouraged his teammates and he also told us when it wasn’t good enough – not in an angry or negative way, but in a kind and encouraging manner.

‘I knew he was good enough to be a GC rider but it’s always difficult to guarantee someone will win a Grand Tour because so much can happen. Even midway through the Giro, looking at it, you’d think, “OK, he could be a contender,” but to win is a different story.’

Unlike most ambitious riders, when Brailsford came calling, Geoghegan Hart hesitated and asked Merckx for advice. Merckx remembers the conversation.

‘I said, “Yes, this is a huge opportunity and Sky is hard to turn down, but if you ask me I think it’s one year too soon. You’re a good rider, you’ve had some good results, but you haven’t really won anything yet. You haven’t proven to yourself that you can be a true leader. If you move up to a team like that you want to go as a potential leader.”’

It was good advice and Geoghegan Hart wisely took it. Now, a few years later, he has established himself as the latest in the growing band of twentysomethings, alongside Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar, Richard Carapaz, Wout van Aert, Marc Hirschi, Max Schachmann, Dani Martinez, Sergio Higuita, Egan Bernal and Sepp Kuss, to edge to the front ranks of WorldTour racing.

But that definitely wasn’t the plan when the 2020 Giro d’Italia started.

 

Best laid plans

Geoghegan Hart arrived in Sicily to ride in support of team leader Geraint Thomas, an understudy capable of maybe bagging a stage and a top 10 finish overall if things went wrong for the Welshman. But a contender for victory? As he freely acknowledges, nobody saw that coming.

‘Anyone who tells you there was a plan is being quite brazen,’ he says, ‘or maybe has rose-tinted hindsight.’

Indeed, any plan there had been went out the window after Thomas crashed hard in the rollout of the third stage to Mount Etna, a summit finish that Geoghegan Hart considers his worst performance of the three weeks.

‘In the moment I was like, “You’ve got to focus now, this is a big opportunity,” but in hindsight I was still thinking about G. We stayed with the original plan and it only changed when Swifty [Ben Swift] came on the radio and said, “Tao, ride your own race.”

‘It was a gradual process,’ he says of his transformation into team leader. ‘There wasn’t talk of anything specific.’ It was more, he says, a tacit agreement to say, ‘OK, let’s stay in the hunt.’

But there was a shift on Stage 9, to Roccaraso. In foul weather and on a brutal finish Geoghegan Hart placed sixth on the stage, well ahead of the other GC contenders. Even so, he was still lurking under the radar, outside the top 10 until a win on Stage 15 to Piancavallo vaulted him into fourth overall and accelerated what, looking back, now seems almost inevitable.

Thomas, back in Wales after his crash, admitted that he’d been unable to watch his young teammate race to victory in Milan.

‘It was still too raw,’ the 2018 Tour winner said in his column in the Daily Telegraph. ‘I wasn’t tuning in every day to watch.’

 

Geoghegan Hart, who had himself crashed out of the Giro in 2019, breaking his collarbone, understood why: ‘I’d felt the same way. I’d been thinking, “Wow, this is the best I’ve ever felt in a WorldTour race,” and then I had this bad crash. After that I came home, had surgery and didn’t watch a single stage of the Giro.’

One of the first things Geoghegan Hart did when he got home to his family in Hackney was head to a London pub called The Grenadier for a quiet pint, the golden spiralling Giro winner’s trophy standing proudly on the table beside him. He posted that image on Instagram. But even with his Giro win, few people recognise him and ‘Googanga’, as the Italians have taken to calling him, is more celebrated in Piedmont and Lombardy than east London.

Geoghegan Hart drove back to England from his home in Andorra, which he shares with his partner, British pro Hannah Barnes, a few days after the Giro.

He admits he’s been a little underwhelmed by the lack of British media interest in his success but acknowledges that, with the pandemic and the logistical difficulties of quarantines, it was tricky for the media to follow his progress in Italy. Even so it rankles that only the very biggest British names in cycling seem worthy of column inches.

For now he’s hunkering down in Hackney, catching up with family after a year’s absence and getting up to speed with his beloved Arsenal. ‘When I was growing up Arsenal were so good. When I was seven, eight, nine there couldn’t have been a better time to be an Arsenal supporter.’

Of course, as for many others within professional sport 2020 has not been an easy year for him or his team. Covid’s arrival was already starting to cast its shadow over cycling, but the shocking loss of cherished Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal on 3rd March was a far more devastating blow to the team and its personnel.

Portal’s funeral seems to have been something of a catharsis for a team that still had one foot in a past dominated by Chris Froome’s presence, and the other in a future centred on young talents Geoghegan Hart, Egan Bernal, Pavel Sivakov, Ethan Hayter and Eddie Dunbar.

‘We were at Nico’s funeral the Sunday before the first lockdown,’ he recalls. ‘We were lucky that it didn’t happen a week later because none of us would have been able to go.

‘We drove over from Andorra and sat in this beautiful cathedral in Auch [France] in the freezing cold. It was really moving. Numbers don’t mean anything in that scenario, but the number of people – his family, friends – who were there when everyone was feeling so nervous about travelling… it was pretty moving.

‘There aren’t many times in the year when we all see each other and definitely not when we’re all wearing suits and away from cycling. It meant a lot because it was completely aside from sport.

‘Six days later Hannah and I did our last ride out on the road and went into lockdown in the apartment for eight weeks. We just decided to stay put in Andorra, at altitude, and not take any risks. I’m not sure if it means anything but we were based at 2,000 metres for two months.’

 

Inside and out

When the 2020 season did finally resume the usual rhythms of the professional racing schedule had been turned upside down. The Tour of Lombardy was before the Giro; the Tour of Flanders after the Tour de France; the World Championships before the Vuelta a España.

‘It was weird emotionally because the hotels for the races you do are always the same ones. So you have all these triggers that are telling you it’s Lombardy, its autumn, the end of the season. It’s normally a lovely race in the falling leaves, when it’s chilly in the evenings, but instead it was boiling hot and in high summer so it was quite bizarre.’

Could it be that younger riders, with fewer years locked into those seasonal rhythms, had coped better with the new schedule? ‘I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘We still had two months on the road before we raced. We had as long on the road as we did inside, and some riders weren’t even stuck inside. If you could see some clear link between those who were confined and those who weren’t maybe you could say it was due to the lockdown, but there was no pattern.

‘Looking back at the lockdown I ticked over and was pretty patient, but I didn’t go on any of the tech training platforms or that kind of gaming. I’d one hundred per cent rather go on the road than do that. I never ride inside. If the weather’s that bad, then at least half the time I’ll postpone my training and take a day off. Hence the moment I could move out of England, I did.’

He doesn’t know yet if he will defend his Giro title. Or maybe he does, but either way he isn’t making a commitment publicly. The Italians will want him back, even if some of the staff in Soho’s Bar Italia look a bit bemused by the freckles, red hair and Giro champion’s jersey under his arm.

Certainly he won’t be under the radar in next year’s Grand Tours, and that weathered sage of Italian cycling, Vincenzo Nibali, will be keeping closer tabs on ‘Googanga’, the hipster from Hackney, from now on.

‘He’s always been good with me,’ Geoghegan Hart says of Nibali. ‘I didn’t know him at all until the Tour of the Alps last year when we went hammer and tongs for a few days.

‘Then we both didn’t do the smartest thing by racing Liège-Bastogne-Liège a day later. So we were chatting in Liège about what a mistake it was. I don’t speak Italian but with my Spanish I can understand a lot of Italian, or the gist.

‘You don’t hear “Vincenzo” or “Nibali” during the race. Everyone says, “Lo Squalo – The Shark!” Nibali gets The Shark, I get Googanga,’ he says with a wry smile.

It’s time for Geoghegan Hart to leave, and so he stuffs the precious maglia rosa back into his coat pocket and heads off alone, through the darkening Soho streets to the pub, just in time for the Arsenal game.

 

Winner at Hart

The heady rise of the boy from Hackney

1995: Born on 30th March in Holloway, London  
2012: Hints at his considerable potential by placing 22nd in the Junior Worlds road race  
2013: Gets on the podium with an impressive third at Junior Paris-Roubaix  
2015: Finishes second in the youth classification at the Tour of California in his first full pro season  
2016: Having already ridden for them as a stagiaire, signs for Team Sky for 2017  
2017: Enjoys a solid debut year at WorldTour level, helping Sky win the inaugural Hammer Series in Limburg  
2018: Makes his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España, finishing the race 62nd overall  
2019: Continues to develop as a GC rider, finishing 2nd at the Tour of the Alps and 20th at the Vuelta  
2020: Wins the Giro d’Italia on the final day after one of the tightest GC races in history

 

Tao on… 

His new nickname

‘“Googanga” they called me on Italian TV. That was just them trying to pronounce my surname. I started hearing it at races and Italians shouting it excitedly, with a real emphasis on the last A. Now it’s the Italian way you say my name.’

Becoming team leader

‘I didn’t have a problem showing leadership. I’m ambitious and of course I don’t want this to be the only time I cross the line first, but in this sport things change and opportunities come and go.’

The British media coverage of his Giro win

‘I’ve been surprised by the lack of coverage. There wasn’t a massive media presence at the Giro from British media, although I know there were logistical issues. But I just feel in general that cycling only gets into the mainstream media when there’s a big name that wins.’