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As part of a new series entitled ‘Faces of the Future’, we’re taking a look at the personalities, ambitions, and palmares of some of the young and talented cyclists you might not know much about, but you’ll be hearing lots about.
The Axeon Hagens Berman development team has had an extremely successful spring and is currently taking on much bigger squads in the Amgen Tour of California. One of its leaders for the race is the Briton Tao Geoghegan Hart. Just 21 years of age, he’s both a dark horse for the event and also one of the most talented amateurs in the sport.
Here are some things you should know about the Londoner.
1. His potential has long been obvious
One of the signs of a great talent is someone who can punch above their weight at a young age. Geoghegan Hart certainly fits the bill in that regard. Consider his palmares: at 19 years old he finished a very encouraging 15th in the 2014 Tour of Britain. At 20, he was eighth overall in the Tour of the Gila and 13th in the Tour of California.
Then, in August of last year, he followed those performances up with a superb seventh overall in the USA Pro Challenge. He was also the winner of the best young rider classification.
Thanks to his abilities as a strong climber abilities and a solid time trialist, he’s been able to take on far older and more experienced riders and shine.
But he’s also fared well against his own age group: as a junior, he was third in the youth Paris-Roubaix and won the Nations Cup Tour of Istria – Memorial Edi Rajkovic and the Giro Internazionale della Lunigiana stage races.
As an under 23 rider he picked up third in the 2015 espoir Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
2. Geoghegan Hart showed earlier athletic ability and application, but in a very different sport
“I had been swimming for a club in Hackney for a few years,” he explains. “There was a BBC documentary on at the time about teams doing a relay of the English Channel.
“We ended up having two teams of six do one the following summer. That was after many trips to Dover harbour to train, and London’s many unheated Lidos [outdoor pools – ed.] I was 13 at the time so it was challenging. But the training was actually more difficult than the racing.”
3. He’s a dark horse for the Tour of California
Thirteenth overall last year and second in the best young rider competition, Geoghegan Hart can realistically aim to do better this time around. He’s had a strong spring, netting sixth in the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal, winning the Trofeo Piva in Italy and, earlier this month, taking third on the Pinos Altos stage and a solid sixth overall in the Tour of the Gila.
“I was very happy to win Piva,” he told CyclingTips in the run up to California. “I was sick after our first races in Portugal for two weeks with a stomach virus, which included the first two races in Italy, so it was great to bounce back from that with a win.
“Gila was a strange race, with a great deal of the field coming from lengthy periods at altitude, it seems. This however makes it perfect preparation for California as the level is pretty high.”
Geoghegan Hart said that he had hoped for more in the opening stages. However, as the race went on, he said he felt better and better, particularly on the final day. Importantly, the race enabled him to do long climbs for the first time in the season and also his first time trial in nine months.
Now in California, the Axeon Hagens Berman squad has clear goals for this week’s event.
“As ever, the team will look to show ourselves in all elements of the race, utilising the huge platform that is the Amgen Tour of California,” he states. “Personally I would like to improve on last year’s benchmark, which I think will be no easy feat with the number of World Tour teams in the race this year.”
4. He’s shown a considerable degree of ambition and has pushed himself hard to get to where he is
Speak to Geoghegan Hart and it’s hard to believe he’s just 21 years of age. He comes across as far older, both in his measured assessment of the sport and life, and also even in his tone of voice. It’s hard to believe he’s just out of his teenage years.
At an age when many others are partying in college, living wild, he comes across as an ambitious, driven person who is ready to put in the hard work to get to where he wants.
A story from his first year with Axel Merckx’s development team [now Axeon Hagens Berman, then the Bissell Development Team] in 2014 shows that.
“From day one Axel really – probably above all else – encouraged patience in me,” Geoghegan Hart explains. “I would imagine he saw that I was a character who wanted everything as quickly as possible. Someone who was pushing as much as possible.
“In my first year, there was a meeting at the training camp where I said to Axel that I wanted to do [the Tour of] California.
“I don’t think a first year had done it before on the team. Axel said, ‘I think it is too early, I don’t think you are ready. Let’s take it one step at a time and let’s target the bigger races later in the year.’ I pushed and Axel kind of stuck his ground.
“I took that with me into the early season races and into my training every day, and ended up pinning the number on in Sacramento.”
5. Since then, Merckx has continued working hard to try to pace Geoghegan Hart
“To me, he has got everything that you need to have to be a very successful rider,” explains his team manager, a former pro who is also the son of the most successful rider ever, Eddy Merckx. “He has the commitment, he has the passion, he has the determination, and he has the talent.
“The only thing that he needs to learn, which he has learned quite a bit already from the previous year, is to be patient and take his time and not be frustrated with little things in the racing part of things.”
Geoghegan Hart has accepted the wisdom of this. “Axel has had a big influence on me seeing that your career isn’t the next week or the next two weeks or the next month, or even the next year.
“It is about longevity and hopefully trying to have a successful career of 15 plus years if you turn pro around the age of 20 or 21.”
6. He secured a stagiaire slot with Team Sky last Autumn. Some reports suggest he turned down a contract
Geoghegan Hart rode several races with Team Sky towards the end of last year. He said he was impressed by the scale of the team and its professionalism. “It is one of the biggest and best teams in the world and to have the opportunity of being a part of that for a few race days and training camps was a massive learning experience,” he says. “I am really, really grateful to have had that chance.”
However some articles suggested that he said no to a deal with the team. “I don’t think it is too important, really,” he answers, when asked about such reports. “For me, I am much more interested in just focussing on the future and building on that.
“The way I see it is that from January 1st, everything starts from zero. We try to build on last year, but that is kind of it from me.”
Merckx won’t clarify the situation with the WorldTour team, but sees value in Geoghegan Hart’s decision to remain with his squad in 2016.
“I don’t know what has been offered or not been offered,” the Belgian says. “That is something that is dealt with by his agent. All I do – and it’s the case with all my riders – is tell them my opinion in that matter. My opinion was that if he trusted me and if he had believed that I would tell him the right thing, it would be to wait one more year. I think Tao was almost there but he was not quite ready yet.
“He has the talent for sure. He absolutely has the talent to go up. He could get a spot in every ProTour team, I think, whenever he thinks he is ready to go. Was he ready emotionally and physically? I don’t think he was quite ready yet. That is why I think this year he will make that step up and then he will be ready.”
7. He’s been a big asset to his team this year
In addition to taking some big results himself, Geoghegan Hart has played an important role in helping others on the team. Jon Dibben finished second in the under 23 Tour of Flanders while Logan Owen dominated the espoir Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Both can thank their team-mate for his role.
“In Flanders I had really great legs,” he said. “However the way the race played out it turned into a scenario whereby Dibben would have the best chance, so I pulled for him. We were almost rewarded with the win, Jon narrowly finishing second.
“Liège was very frustrating. Seemingly quite a few teams had based their tactics on following me. It was a remarkably slow race compared to the last years, with the peloton effectively just watching the break ride off up the road. Thankfully this was a great situation for us, with Logan Owen riding away from the rest of the breakaway with relative ease to take the win.”
8. His build is that of a climber, but he’s long worked on his weaknesses rather than relying on strengths
As a schoolboy and junior rider, he raced as often as he could in West Flanders. It was a conscious decision not to just target hilly races, and he continues to endorse such a long-term view.
“A lot of guys when they get to 20, 21, they regret not doing races as a junior that maybe they could have done because they felt like they didn’t suit them,” he explains. “I always use Roubaix as an example. It doesn’t matter to me that I never rode up a mountain until I was probably 17 or 18. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t grow up in the Alps, because I had a skill set from growing up doing different things.
“To put it bluntly, every day I see bike riders who probably could have done with that skillset.”
There is a reason behind his logic, and it’s part of his career plan.
“If you look at something like the Tour route these days, there is consistently crosswind stages and cobblestone stages and all the rest of it. Those are races that I have always loved doing.
“I think it is easy to start to be pigeonholed as a rider, whether it is something that you do to yourself or that is done to you by a team or by the press. It is easy just to start slipstreaming your programme into races where you are getting results and chasing results. That is natural because every young rider is chasing a contract, at the end of the day.
“But for me it is really important to have the opportunity to ride races like Roubaix or Ronde de l’Oise, which I did with Great Britain. I love that racing, I really enjoy it. It is so different to going through the mountains wherever.”
He sees it as a huge part of his apprenticeship.
“Roubaix was rainy and muddy and absolutely crazy. I think that day maybe I had my best legs of the season and in the end I had nothing to show for it due to the circumstances. But I think I learned more in that day that in 50 of the other days’ of racing I had put together.”
That kind of mindset could well pay off in spades in the future.