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by Iain Treloar
October 26, 2020
Photography by Massimo Paolone/RCS & Cor Vos
In the shadow of Milan’s Duomo, one of the tightest Grand Tours in history came down to a time-trial between two young climbing domestiques. Racing to retain a race lead of milliseconds was Sunweb’s West Australian, Jai Hindley. Racing to claim Ineos’ 11th Grand Tour was 25-year-old Londoner, Tao Geoghegan Hart.
As has so often been the case over the past decade, Ineos came out on top, but the way it got there was a breath of fresh air. The team has been accused of stifling cycling. At the Giro, they helped resuscitate it.
In the strange and chaotic 2020 season, things hadn’t always seemed to be going Ineos’ way. Egan Bernal failed to fire at the Tour de France. Geraint Thomas crashed out of the Giro. Chris Froome dropped out of contention at the Vuelta as soon as it began.
But even with all three prongs of that trident blunted, Ineos found a way to turn it around: with Kwiatkowski, with Carapaz, with Ganna and with Geoghegan Hart. With seven stage wins, the GC, the young rider’s classification and the team classification, this Giro will go down as one of the team’s most glittering results in a long string of them – not just for the outcome, but for the journey to that point.
Photo: Massimo Paolone/LaPresse
The brutal crash that felled pre-race favourite Geraint Thomas on stage three of the Giro looked like it would define the race for the Ineos Grenadiers. The Welshman limped to the stage finish with his clothes held together by safety pins, nursing a broken pelvis. Geoghegan Hart lost over two minutes, having waited for his team leader.
From there, however, Ineos executed a deft pivot, just as they had at the Tour de France following Egan Bernal’s abandonment. There, it had been Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz who helped salvage the race for their squad; here, it was the monstrous Filippo Ganna who won four stages, Jhonatan Narvaez who won one, and Tao Geoghegan Hart who climbed back up the general classification, scoring two stage wins on summit finishes in the final week.
Those were each phenomenal individual performances, but they were built on the back of teamwork. Geoghegan Hart would not have been able to win the race without the tireless work of Rohan Dennis who, on the Stelvio and at Sestriere, rode the GC group down to just Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley. Dennis has a long and impressive palmares, having worn the leader’s jersey at all three Grand Tours before, but this was among his greatest performances yet.
On the slopes of Sestriere, Geoghegan Hart was never far from loyal lieutenant Rohan Dennis, who whittled Geoghegan Hart’s rivals down to just one: Jai Hindley (Sunweb).
The Giro for Ineos also flipped the narrative of how the team races Grand Tours. Rather than controlling the peloton with an assumed race winner, they were able to ride aggressively as underdogs. It was a good look for them.
Speaking in a press conference in Milan, team manager Dave Brailsford spoke of how the race had revitalised his squad. “What I liked about this is, we’ve done the train, we’ve done the defensive style of riding and won a lot doing that, but it’s not as much fun, really, compared to this, is it?” Brailsford enthused. “At the end of the day, the sport is about racing… it’s about emotion and the exhilarating moments of racing, and that’s what we want to be. We’re Grenadiers now.”
For years, the team has been characterised by the strength of its line-up and the robotic precision of the Froome era. In Tao Geoghegan Hart, there’s a standard-bearer for the revitalisation of Ineos.
The final days of the Giro d’Italia was an extended battle royale between Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley, with Geoghegan Hart ultimately coming out on top.
“He grew into the role. There was no pressure on him – it was an adventure every day,” Brailsford said. “It was his dream to be a pro bike rider, coming into the team, and he’s gone and won a Grand Tour. It’s the stuff of comic books, really.”
Geoghegan Hart’s pathway into the World Tour has been a long and winding one. Born into a working class North London home, Geoghegan Hart’s first sporting love was football. By his teens, he was a swimmer. In 2008, he began cycling and by 2010, he was racing nationally, supplementing his passion with a part-time job at Condor Cycles.
In 2014, his first year as an U23, he signed with the well-regarded Hagens Berman Axeon, a US-based development squad run by Axel Merckx. He stayed there for three years, passing up an offer from Team Sky in 2016 so he could hone his craft a while longer. Sky extended the offer again in 2017, where a year older and more experienced, the Londoner joined the sport’s biggest team – not as a pedalling automaton, but a well-rounded human who loves his coffee and can string a sentence together.
Tao Geoghegan Hart enjoying his final season with Hagens Berman Axeon.
As Britain’s fifth Grand Tour winner, Geoghegan Hart now finds himself in illustrious company alongside current or past stablemates Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. (Simon Yates, of Mitchelton-Scott, is the other). It’s a surprise result, although not entirely surprising given Geoghegan Hart’s characteristics as a rider.
In the aftermath of time-trialling to a result that will change the trajectory of his career, Geoghegan Hart was humble in victory. “Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine this would be possible when we started almost a month ago in Sicily. All of my career I’ve dreamt of trying to be top five or top ten, maybe, in a race of this stature. So this is something completely and utterly different to that, and I think it’s going to take some time to sink in,” he said, a little dazed in the post-race press conference.
“It’s like a strange dream. I was just so focused all day on doing my stage and performance. It was pretty simple: it was just about being your best and focusing on doing a good TT. In the end, it went pretty well.”
Trailing by milliseconds, the Giro came down to a 16 km time trial. Geoghegan Hart held his nerve, taking 39 seconds out of his Australian rival.
As Geoghegan Hart concludes his 2020 season, Ineos will look to the year to come. On its roster, it will have four Grand Tour champions, and a line-up of super-domestiques that is the envy of the WorldTour. But from this year’s Giro d’Italia, the team seems set to bring a revitalised racing philosophy – an understanding of its place in the peloton, and the fact that it can win through animating the race rather than maintaining the status quo. “The freedom and the confidence just to go ‘you know what, balls out, let’s go and have a go,’” as Brailsford succinctly put it in Milan.
“We’ve won a lot over the last ten years but then you think: What’s it all about? It’s how you go about racing – it’s about the racers. It’s about Rohan Dennis’ story or Tao from London. He went to see Bradley Wiggins when we launched Team Sky and here he is now doing this; it all connects. I’m relishing the new philosophy that the sport has. We’ve got to embrace that and see how good we can be at racing.”
As for Tao Geoghegan Hart, he plans to just continue in his unassuming way. “I’m going to stay the same person, I’m going to stay as professional as I believe I always have been,” he reflected, in the wake of a gritty and resilient debut Grand Tour win. “Dedicated, wake up every day looking forward to riding my bike, loving my life and being grateful for the amazing position – the privilege – that I’m in to be in this team and at these races.”