Geoghegan Hart storms to surprise Giro victory

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When Geraint Thomas fell in the neutral zone of stage three of the Giro d’Italia, it seemed as though 2020 was finally the year in which Ineos Grenadiers’ (formerly Team Sky’s) eight-year domination of the world of professional cycling came abruptly to an end.

Three weeks on, and Tao Geoghegan Hart’s sensational victory in Italy’s grand tour has seen Dave Brailsford’s team record the most successful race in their history, just 19 days after their hopes looked to have been dashed by the most wretched of crashes.

Indeed, 18 Stages and over 15000 metres of climbing after Thomas’ injury, his heir to the throne of British cycling was crowned atop the podium in Milan. Clad in the iconic maglia rosa, Geoghegan Hart was clearly struggling to believe in what he had just achieved.

The east Londoner, who started racing at Hackney Cycling Club, was originally part of the Ineos team to support pre-race favourite Thomas in the gruelling final week of the race, which saw the riders climb the iconic 21 hairpins of the Passo dello Stelvio, as well as two other huge mountain stages. As unfortunate as Thomas’ crash was, Geoghegan Hart would have been carrying water bottles up the Stelvio had he not been given the chance to assume the team leadership.

And so, in the most gruelling edition of La Corsa Rosa in recent memory – one that saw teams withdraw due to coronavirus infections and a peloton-wide rebellion against the 258km Stage 19 – a 25 year old who skipped school to watch the launch of Team Sky in 2010 emerged victorious while riding for that very same team. As Ineos Grenadiers manager Dave Brailsford aptly noted, ‘it’s comic book stuff’.

Beyond the extraordinary emergence of Geoghegan Hart as a grand tour winning rider, it has been a remarkable team effort by Ineos Grenadiers overall. As well as the pink and white jerseys won by Geoghegan Hart, the team claimed their best tally of stage wins at a grand tour in their history. Filipo Ganna (4 stage wins), Jhonatan Narvaez (1) and Geoghegan Hart (2) meant that a staggering third of the race’s stages were won by Ineos.

Clad in the iconic maglia rosa, Geoghegan Hart was clearly struggling to believe in what he had just achieved.

The reaction of the team to Thomas’ retirement was a quite remarkable effort and underlined the new approach that Ineos has taken to the grand tours this year. During its years of dominance in the Team Sky era, the riders would control the race from the front of the peloton, forming the renowned ‘Sky train’. This allowed them to protect leaders such as Wiggins, Froome and Thomas, before allowing them to kick on in the mountains with fresher legs than their rivals.

While this clearly was a successful tactic, Ineos/Team Sky won 9 grand tours between 2012 and 2019, it has been criticised for being a very defensive approach to bike racing. However, with injury to both Bernal and Thomas in this year’s first two grand tours, the shackles have been released and Brailsford has encouraged the team to attack freely.

Before Geoghegan Hart moved into general classification (GC) contention, the team had taken up the challenge with great success, most notably through Filipo Ganna, who stormed away to a sensational solo breakaway win in the mist on stage 5. The first man to congratulate him after the finish line was Geoghegan Hart himself, completely oblivious to what he was about to achieve himself in the coming weeks, as he went on to take two stage wins on the way to the race victory.

Beyond the success of Ineos and Geoghegan Hart, this year’s Giro has also seen the emergence of two other outstanding young riders. Firstly, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s João Almeida, who produced a remarkably tenacious display to hold the pink jersey for 15 of the race’s 21 stages in his debut grand tour.

Although he cracked on the Passo del Stelvio to eventually relinquish the maglia rosa to Wilco Keldermann, he showed incredible grit to defend his lead up to that point, and fought back valiantly in the last few stages to finish fourth, 2 minutes 57 seconds behind Geoghegan Hart. All in all, a mightily impressive debut for Almeida and one which makes him look a safe bet for grand tour success later in his career.

Another rider who looks destined for GC glory in the future is Sunweb’s Jai Hindley, who outrode his leader Keldermann to finish second on the podium. As bitter as it must be for Hindley to finish second having worn the pink jersey on the final stage of the race, it is nevertheless a phenomenal effort from the Western Australian.

Geoghegan Hart has certainly proven his credentials as a multiple grand tour winner for many years to come.

He constantly attacked on the final climb of the race on stage 20, but despite looking fresh, couldn’t distance the stubborn Geoghegan Hart. Hindley looks perfectly build for high altitude climbing, and never looked strained on the Stelvio or the climb up to Sestriere, so the future looks bright for man that arrived at this year’s race as a domestique to Dutchman Keldermann.

This leads to the intriguing question that lay in the air after the finish of the 2020 Giro d’Italia; we will ever see Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley in a position to race for the GC in a grand tour again? The answer is currently unclear.

Both riders have realised their huge potential in this race, but they were only given the opportunity to do so due to factors that prevented their designated team leaders from challenging for the lead themselves.

In Geoghegan Hart’s case, he finds himself in a team that contains two Tour de France winners in Bernal and Thomas, as well as last year’s Giro winner Richard Carapaz. The Ineos management now have the conundrum of dividing up their star-studded squad across three grand tours next year, when each rider will want a shot at yellow jersey glory at the Tour de France in July.

However, with his performance in this year’s Giro, Geoghegan Hart has certainly proven his credentials as a multiple grand tour winner for many years to come. Whether Egan Bernal and co. are happy to give him the opportunity to do so is another question, but his attitude and British nationality mean he will surely be given his opportunity by Ineos.

Team manager Brailsford, the mastermind behind British cycling’s unprecedented success in the last ten years, is keen to maintain a strong British core to the team, and will surely see Geoghegan Hart as the ideal figure with which to do so.

Having followed behind Bradley Wiggins’ wheel at the Team Sky launch in 2010, Geoghegan Hart now looks ready to emulate his hero’s 2012 success and lead the next generation of British cycling stars. Let’s hope he gets the opportunity to do so.

Image: Løken via Wikimedia Commons

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