By Andrew Greaves
To paraphrase – and slightly amend – an utterance from a man who knows one or two things about winning, ‘cycling, bloody hell!’.
In a season ravaged by the global coronavirus pandemic, nothing can be taken for granted.
But when Londoner Tao Geoghegan Hart stepped out onto the dais in the Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa it was, as the 25-year-old admitted himself, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
The golden Madonnina atop the majestic Duomo di Milano has seen her fair share of Giro legends crowned over the years but probably none as unexpected as this year’s.
It’s not that anyone doubted Geoghegan Hart had the talent required to win big races, it’s just that it wasn’t supposed to play out this way.
Rewind three weeks and the Giro d’Italia for Geoghegan Hart’s Ineos Grenadiers team looked so very different.
After the first stage time trial in Palermo, the Holloway-born racer was 126th in the general classification, just over two minutes off team-mate – and time-trial phenom - Filippo Ganna.
The Ineos rider expected to fight for the pink jersey – 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas – sat in fourth, seemingly perfect placed.
A crash in the neutral zone two days later saw Thomas head home to Wales and weeks of planning for Sir Dave Brailsford’s team went out of the window.
Geoghegan Hart – who crashed out of last year’s Giro and hadn’t won a top-tier World Tour race going into this year’s edition – found himself in 24th, more than three minutes adrift of race leader, Deceuninck–Quick-Step’s Portuguese neo-pro Joao Almeida.
Ineos went in search of stage wins and Geoghegan Hart made a steady rise into contention for a podium place.
A victory on stage 15 into Piancavallo was a real flag in the ground and as the race entered the final couple of stages, the talk of the young Brit as a potential race winner began to get louder and louder.
Ably-aided by former world time trial champion Rohan Dennis, Geoghegan Hart missed a second stage win by half a bike length after a gruelling slog up the 48 switchbacks of the legendary Passo dello Stelvio, pipped on the line by Team Sunweb’s young Aussie Jai Hindley.
Vincenzo Nibali, himself a two-time Giro winner, told reporters after the stage that we’d witnessed a generational changing of the guard on the Stelvio.
And he wasn’t wrong.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) October 25, 2020
Almeida conceded the pink jersey to Hindley’s teammate Wilco Kelderman but his time in the colours of Italy’s Gazetta dello Sport – which started the race back in 1909 in a bid to shift more newspapers – was to be relatively short-lived.
A rider protest cut stage 19 from the longest in the race to the shortest and Hindley and Geoghegan Hart took full advantage a day later, the latter winning his second stage of the race, the former moving into pink by a fraction of a second.
After 85 hours, 22 minutes and seven seconds of racing, the pair were separated by dint of count-back to fractions of seconds from the time trials.
Whichever rider finished quickest in the 15.7km flat time-trial into Milan would paint themselves into the history books. For the loser, an opportunity missed and perhaps never to be repeated.
Former Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins – an idol of the young Geoghegan Hart growing up – was in no doubt. His family, back home in Hackney where the drinks were starting to flow, were in no doubt either.
And his partner, fellow professional cyclist Hannah Barnes patiently waiting in Milan to congratulate her man, believed it too.
The 1989 edition of the Tour de France still send chills down the spines of cycling fans. The late, great Laurent Fignon lost the yellow jersey that day to American Greg LeMond by just eight seconds.
In the end it was close, though not quite as close as that balmy hot day in Paris.
Geoghegan Hart stuck to his task and by the first time check was more than ten seconds ahead of Hindley. The jersey was his as long, as he avoided a disaster on the roads into Piazza del Duomo.
A winning margin of 39 seconds may not have been as tight as some were expecting but it didn’t stop the nerves in Milan, in Hackney or down in Western Australia, from where Hindley hails.
Huge congratulations to SportsAid alumnus @TaoGeoghegan on his @GiroDItalia victory and becoming only the fifth British man to win a Grand Tour 🇬🇧
Here he is as a fresh-faced 16-year-old being interviewed by @IMBraid at our @RaynerEssexLLP Bloomsbury Lunch Club back in 2011! pic.twitter.com/k91vDrfeSz
— SportsAid (@TeamSportsAid) October 25, 2020
The victory won’t yet have sunk in for Geoghegan Hart. But the likeable Londoner will soon realise that all those days he skipped school to be with his bike and the hour after hour after hour riding in all weathers, have been worth it.
Like his idol Wiggins, Geoghegan Hart is a student of the sport. He attended the 2007 London Grand Depart of the Tour and the launch of Team Sky in 2009. Later that year he strode confidently into a Condor Cycles shop asking for a Saturday job.
He was supported in the early days by SportsAid – which helped pay for his time on the British Cycling development programme – and the Rayner Foundation, a fund set up in the memory of rider Dave Rayner which provides support for young Brits to race abroad.
He joined Axel Merckx’s famed Axeon Hagens Berman development team and picked up some impressive results at under 23 level before his big move to Sky in 2017.
The performances in the service of others have been strong since joining the World Tour-winning machine but individual victories have been much harder to come by - two stage wins at the Tour of the Alps last year the only notable marks on his palmares.
However, three weeks in Italy has changed everything for Geoghegan Hart.
He rides for a team which has made a habit of winning the biggest stage races in the world but the top table at Ineos is going to look very different once seven-time Grand Tour champion Chris Froome departs next season.
And having won the team’s second Maglia Rosa in the fading daylight of Milan, there’s no doubts now that Geoghegan Hart deserves his seat there.