Tao Geoghegan Hart: On Winning the Giro d’Italia and the Road Ahead
By Stan Portus – 12 February 2021
Despite a tricky start to the season, Tao Geoghegan Hart took the 2020 Giro d’Italia by storm with a ride that is worthy of the history books. Saddleback sat down with the INEOS Grenadiers rider to hear about what went down in Italy and what’s next.
Tao Geoghegan Hart didn’t go to the 2020 Giro d’Italia with the intention of winning it. The 25-year-old went to Italy as a domestique for Geraint Thomas, who came to the race in great form and was seeking out his second Grand Tour victory.
But on stage 3 a rogue bidon skidded across the road in the neutral zone and sent Thomas flying. A fractured pelvis meant the Welshman had to retire from the race. And as for Tao and the rest of the INEOS Grenadiers? Everything changed.
The 2020 season got off to a difficult start for Tao and the Grenadiers. Tao raced once in February before the season was put on hold due to coronavirus, and the team’s sporting director Nicolas Portal died of a heart attack at the beginning of March.
A former cyclist for the team, Nico stayed on after retiring in 2011 and became huge part of the team. When Saddleback sat down with Tao, he explained the impact Nico’s passing had and the valuable support that was given by the team and everyone around it.
“I think it was a matter of keeping perspective,” he says, “knowing that we had the support of our partners and sponsors, and team staff – that was massive for me.”
“That enable me to not lose too much fitness and keep ticking over, even when I was in confinement and lockdown.”
Come Autumn, the racing calendar had finally found its swing again, even if it was unusually compacted. The Giro overlapped with the Vuelta and kicked off only a couple of weeks after the Tour, with the World Championship sandwiched between the two.
The race got off to a great start for the INEOS Grenadiers with Filippo Ganna winning the opening TT. But after Geraint’s crash, the objective for the team changed from ensuring Thomas got to Milan in pink to going out and riding hard every day chasing stage wins.
“Every day we ride, we are remembering him.”
For the first two weeks of racing this is exactly what the INEOS Grenadiers did, and it looked like Tao was in with a chance of the top ten.
Having finished 126th in the opening time trial, Stage 9 saw Tao beginning to rise up the rankings finishing 22 seconds ahead of the favourites.
At the end of the second week on stage 15 in Piancavallo, Tao was the only rider to stay with Sunweb teammates Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman before beating them to the line, and taking his first Grand Tour victory in the process. With the stage win he moved from 11th to 4th, only a second behind Hindley in 3rd. In his post-race interview Tao dedicated the stage win to Nico, acknowledging the great influence Nico had on him and the emotions in the team at the Giro: “Every day we ride, we are remembering him.”
Despite the stage victory making Tao’s GC potential perfectly clear, Tao said that he felt the objective never really changed from chasing stage wins, something that was apparent even in the closing days of the race.
Stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia saw the riders taking on the infamous Stelvio.
“A lot of prep went into particularly the top of the Stelvio, at 2580 metres high with just over an hour flat out.”
The morning saw Tao choosing which jacket to wear for the descent off the snowy top of the Stelvio. He chose the Castelli Gavia Jacket in the end thanks to its stretch sleeves – which Tao could easily get on and take off over his hands – and the thicker 3-ply GORE-TEX fabric in the body to keep the elements out and act as his insurance policy. “In hindsight,” he says, “it was perfect.”
“From seeing Tao as a stagiaire at Team Sky in 2015 to seeing him battling for 1st... the lad form Hackney’s ascension to the top of the sport has been an incredible journey.”
The descent of the Stelvio was crucial, but the ascent even more so. Rohan Dennis had the ride of a lifetime ripping the GC apart, helping Tao secure 2nd on the stage and finishing the day just 15 seconds behind the race leader Hindley in the overall.
After a day for the sprinters on stage 19, Dennis played a similar role on stage 20, with Hindley and Tao battling it out once again. But this time Tao took the stage win in a sprint to the line. The win meant the two riders went into the final day’s individual time trial with no more than a second between them after over 3,500km of racing – an unprecedented event with no Grand Tour ever being so close.
Tao went into the TT as the favourite, taking on the 15.7km course wearing the white young rider’s jersey, with Hindley in pink due to a count back on seconds in the first two time trials of the Giro.
The relatively straight and virtually flat course through Milan to the finish line in Piazza del Duomo saw Tao develop an impressive lead over Hindley. Tao had 22 seconds over the Australian, which extended to 39 seconds at the finish, winning the Maglia Rosa for Tao.
Anyone who has followed Team INEOS and British road cycling closely over the last five years watched that time trial on the edge of their seat. From seeing Tao as a stagiaire at Team Sky in 2015 to seeing him battling for 1st at what is often deemed the hardest race in the world, the lad from Hackney’s ascension to the top of the sport has been an incredible journey. Seeing him seal the Giro with such style in the closing stages and developing a healthy margin in TT was the cherry on top of the cake.
“Bizarre” was Tao’s first word when he was asked how it felt after the TT in Milan, saying that it was beyond what he ever expected to achieve in his career and that it would take a long time to sink in.
But it seems like maybe it has sunk in now. His vision now isn’t just finishing in top tens or top fives of the biggest races – as it was before the Giro – but instead winning them. 2021 will see Tao heading to Tokyo as well as the Tour de France alongside Thomas, with Dave Brailsford saying that outright leader will be decided based on form closer to the race.
With a new cohort of young and exceptional riders coming through the pro ranks, there feels like a changing of the guard in the peloton. Teammate Egan Bernal winning the Tour in 2019 and Tadej Pogačar winning last year are just two examples of what might in store for the coming years, amongst a sea of wins for other riders just starting out and finding their Grand Tour legs. Tough competition for sure, but after Italy? We’ll be seeing Tao on the top step again, of that we’re sure.