Tao Geoghegan Hart was not supposed to win the Giro d'Italia. Not this year, at least. Certainly, he would have been expected to take another step or two forward in his career. That would have meant, at most, a stage win in the originally scheduled May edition of the Giro d’Italia, or one in the late summer Vuelta. At the start of 2020 the latter looked more likely - assuming he was prepared to ride two Grand Tours for the first season in his career - as he was originally due to ride the former in support of then defending champion Richard Carapaz. Ineos don’t exactly have a history of letting a GC contender’s top domestiques run wild and free. Perhaps he could have taken a decent position in either one. The top ten might have been pushing it, but it wasn’t hard to imagine him knocking on the door.
Back in early February, when Geoghegan Hart finished third at the Tour of Valenciana behind Jack Haig and Tadej Pogacar, a “normal” 2020 season still seemed possible. Perhaps he could have parlayed that into his first overall victory from a worthy one-weeker. The Tour of the Alps, perhaps, or the Tour of Poland. His team-mate Pavel Sivakov won both of those last year.
That Sivakov had already hit those important marks was why he, rather than Tao, was viewed as a (back-up) Grand Tour contender for Ineos. The Russian being more than two years younger, with one less WorldTour season in his legs showed him to be accelerating up a much steeper career curve, and is why Sivakov had been talked about in more exuberant terms than his team-mate. Some pundits would like to lump him into the same bracket as the likes of Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar. Before last weekend, few would have been inclined to put Tao Geoghegan Hart in that category.
Now they might. They still shouldn’t.
For as impressive as his first Grand Tour victory was, it belongs in a separate, somewhat sturdier space than that of his Colombian team-mate and UAE Emirates’ Slovenian star.
Tao is young, yes, but not obscenely so. Of the riders who rolled off the ramp in Sicily a month ago, he was older than 49 of them. In the bottom quartile; eligible for the young rider's jersey, but only just. Next year he won't be. Even two of his team-mates were younger. Both of them won Giro stages, too.
This is Tao’s fourth WorldTour season. Neither Bernal nor Pogačar made it past their second before winning the Tour de France. Both had even taken top spot in the same WorldTour stage race, the Tour of California, in their first.
Before last week Geoghegan Hart had never taken the overall prize in any.
Unlike either, the Briton has seemed in no rush to get to the very top of the sport. Nor has he allowed anyone else to rush him. Axel Merckx last week wrote in the Guardian that Dave Brailsford wanted the rider to join his team a season sooner than he did. Merckx felt that he would be better off spending one more season as a bigger fish in a smaller pond, before making the leap to the larger one. “You haven’t proven to yourself that you can be a true leader,” he told him. “If you move up to a team like that you want to go as a potential leader.” Tao clearly took the advice onboard, agreed with it, and turned Brailsford down. How’s that for maturity?
Before and since joining Tour Racing Ltd, Geoghegan Hart’s career has been on the steadiest of trajectories. If you were to plot his progress on a graph it would be a straight 45 degree line, and would contrast with the cubic or semicubical parabola that would represent both Pogačar’s and Bernal’s paths in the lead-up to their first Grand Tour victories.
He has spent those four seasons honing his skillset, acquiring experience and improving his physical capabilities.
In that first season, 2017, his best results came in the Tour of California (two top tens in stages; 8th overall; 2nd best young rider), the Tour de Suisse (14th overall; no youth competition, though he would have won it) and first with his team in the Hammer series.
In season two, he finished the Tour of California three places higher, four behind his team-mate Bernal, and experienced his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta.
In 2019 he won for the first time in a WorldTour team jersey. Two stages of the aforementioned Tour of the Alps. A second GrandTour start saw him unfortunately crash out of the Giro d’Italia, but was followed later that summer by a third. He arrived in Madrid 20th in the general classification, higher than any of his team-mates, and marking just the amount of progress you’d expect him to have made.
It's a reasonable assertion that, in a “normal” version of this season, the Giro d'Italia would not have been contested by a pair of Plan B’s. Ben Swift told Orla Chennaoui that the team only started seriously targeting the maglia rosa before the penultimate stage, so even the suggestion that there was a plan behind Geoghegan Hart’s victory might be stretching it.
Yes, the race had a weaker overall field than it would have been otherwise, with only a few top riders ready, prepared and aiming for it. But that context does not diminish or devalue the win one bit. Nor does the fact that he has made his way to the top table in a measured rather than explosive way. It arguably means that Tao’s win, unlike those of the other two riders talked about, is a win built on brick, not sand.
Tao Geoghegan Hart’s first Grand Tour victory has come a year earlier than it would have, probably, without the pandemic, but make no mistake, he was well on his way to winning one.