By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - When Londoner Tao Geoghegan Hart finished 126th in the opening stage of the Giro d'Italia in Sicily, his only focus was his job as domestique to Ineos Grenadiers main man Geraint Thomas.
Three weeks later in Milan, after an extraordinary turn of events, the 25-year-old slipped on the fabled Maglia Rosa having become only the fifth British man to win a Grand Tour, joining Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Thomas and Simon Yates.
Geoghegan Hart, who joined Team Sky (now Ineos) in 2017, produced a barnstorming last week in the Italian Alps and after winning Saturday's 20th stage in Sestriere went into Sunday's 15km time trial 0.86 seconds behind pink jersey holder Jai Hindley after 2,000 miles of racing.
Geoghegan Hart bettered Australian Hindley's time by 39 seconds to snatch overall victory and emulate Froome who in 2018 became the first Briton to win the Giro d'Italia.
"This morning I had a strange two hours in the room on my own, trying not to over-think it and listening to some good music," Geoghegan Hart, raised in Hackney in London's East End, said. That was the only moment where it was sinking in.
"Otherwise it was a pretty simple TT -- going through the process and whatever happened, happened."
But for a discarded water bottle, Geoghegan Hart's opportunity may never have arisen.
Welshman Thomas, the Tour de France champion in 2018 and favourite for the Giro, crashed after hitting the bottle early in stage two and pulled out the next day with a fractured hip.
Suddenly Ineos Grenadiers changed tack and hunted stage wins but by the time the final week in the mountains arrived, Geoghegan Hart was in touch for overall victory, something not even his team could have envisaged.
And how sealed the deal. On the mighty Stelvio on Thursday he went head-to-head with close friend Hindley (Sunweb) just being pipped on the line. On Saturday Hindley repeatedly attacked on the final Sestriere climb but each time Geoghegan Hart refused to crack, taking the stage win.
"Brad (Wiggins) gave me super advice just to focus on myself and the process. The same with G (Thomas), he sent me a super nice text last night," he said. "Those are guys I've looked up to near enough half my life."
It has been quite a journey.
Before his ride to glory he Tweeted about his memories of Sunday mornings as a youngster kicking a ball on Hackney Marshes and then heading to Brick Lane market.
Hours later, on what he described as "just another Sunday" he made off with one of cycling's jewels.
The eldest of five siblings, Geoghegan Hart swam the English channel with five other Hackney teenagers in 2008, the same year he took part in his first organised cycle event, a 200km night ride from Hackney to Dunwich on the Suffolk coast.
Hooked, he joined Cycling Club Hackney, got a job in a bike shop, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now he hopes his incredible rise might inspire inner-city children to take up cycle racing.
"Diversity in cycling that can definitely come from the sport increasing in popularity in cities like London," he said. "I hope I can inspire a few kids in Hackney to dream big. Even if it's not just in cycling."
Keir Apperley, his first coach at Cycling Club Hackney, said the sport desperately needs more Geoghegan Harts.
"It needs to change," he said. "I knew after the Stelvio he could win it. Then this morning I knew he would win it."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)