'You can be so close between complete anonymity and success' - Tao Geoghegan Hart on the Giro d'Italia, Hackney roots and what's next
There’s a lot more to Tao Geoghegan Hart than a Giro d’Italia win and a reputation as one of the Ineos Grenadiers’ most dependable riders. He tells Rouleur where he has come from and where he is going
This article was produced in association with Supersapiens.
When Tao Geoghegan Hart talks about being a teenage racing cyclist in London, it is not the wins, the defeats or the action that are the most prominent memories. It is the evening rides back across London from the Crystal Palace circuit or Herne Hill velodrome that have burned themselves into his mind’s eye.
A London sunset on a clear summer’s evening is one of the finest and most evocative views in the world. The topography to the west is flat, so the thick orange-golden light cuts almost horizontally across the city, bouncing off glass buildings and refracting through the dusty air. From the low hills in South London, the clustered skyscrapers of the City and Canary Wharf hog the attention, but the other classic spikes on the horizon - the BT Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Shard - also all glow.
Geoghegan Hart’s personal locus is Tower Bridge, the crossing point en route back to his home in Hackney from south London. The classic Thames cityscape sunset is more linked in the collective British folk memory with Waterloo Bridge, because of the Kinks song, but a Tower Bridge sunset is just as striking.
This article was originally published in Issue 117, the Body Issue. Subscribe to Rouleur to get your copy and support our independent journalism.
“Some of my best memories of growing up are riding across Tower Bridge on a track bike,” says Geoghegan Hart. “You’ve got an amazing view of the city, coming in on a late summer’s evening. I used to love the rides back from those weeknight races as much as the races themselves because there’s the city in the summer when it’s really quiet, a beautiful evening, and you’ve got the adrenaline from a race. It is something really special. I couldn’t see myself racing when I retire, like some guys, but if I think about those moments, that’s something you would want to capture over and over.”
In the course of my research for my interview with Geoghegan Hart, I found a short interview with him on the back page of Cycling Weekly, in a regular quickfire Q&A slot called Famous Last Words, in the April 25, 2013 edition. He said, “For me, London is the best city on Earth.”
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He also added, in a later answer: “One of the most interesting places I’ve been to through cycling is in the Czech Republic. The Course de la Paix race has a stage start in an old Jewish Ghetto. The buildings are the shape of a star and it looks like the town hasn’t been touched by time. There’s rusty barbed wire lying around and 10-year-old kids on street corners smoking.” (I should add that he was 18 years old when this interview was printed, and there’s a decent chance that he was 17 when he produced these quotes (along with outlining his A-Levels: English, economics and biology), because his birthday is at the end of March, and CW used to have a stack of these interviews done well in advance, ready to run.)
Geoghegan Hart’s recollections of riding across London, probably not many months and years before he was interviewed for Famous Last Words, sound like happy memories, a Proustian madeleine of warm colours, a satisfied and well-earned post-race fatigue and a beautiful view. But the retrospective glow of these images burned into the mind of a teenage cyclist illuminates two of what I think are the most important things about Tao Geoghegan Hart: firstly, he is a Londoner, and his attachment to his Hackney roots is deep; secondly, he is one of those people who go through life with their eyes open.
Geoghegan Hart is a man who knows whence he came and where he is and he seems to be at home on his life’s path. He’s a little harder to define as a cyclist, however. When he turned pro, he was talked up as a mini-Bradley Wiggins, because he was good at stage racing and was from London. They both share the kind of rough-edged, hard-squinting demeanour that is formed in London comprehensives (notable alumni of Stoke Newington School, Hackney, include Geoghegan Hart and Sid Vicious).
Both Geoghegan Hart and Wiggins are avid historians of cycling; however, they are not much alike beyond that. Wiggins is the class clown; Geoghegan Hart is an earnest, serious individual. He still says funny stuff, but is in his comfort zone being politically and socially engaged. However, he didn’t immediately look like he would match Wiggins’ cycling achievements, and it seemed as his early career unfolded that he was evolving into a decent climbing domestique, future road captain and Team Sky/Ineos stalwart (for which, read: not the team leader).
But then came the extraordinary Giro d’Italia in 2020, which he won after his team leader Geraint Thomas crashed out early on. You occasionally hear grumbles on social media that the context of that race, in the weirdest cycling season there has ever been, bodged together in a brief early autumn window between lockdowns, somehow diminishes it, but to my mind a win is a win, and a grand tour win, whether followed up with one or 10 more wins, or none, elevates a rider into a permanent position in the history of the sport. There are only six Giro champions in the current peloton, and 12 Grand Tour champions in total.
There is also only one Tao Geoghegan Hart. “Fundamentally, I don’t think that I changed as a person and I don’t think my life has changed after winning the Giro,” he says. “I think these races are probably, more than fans would like to think, very isolated events. The way cycling works is that you do a race and whether it goes amazing or awful, you get to Sunday night, you rush to the airport, you get home at God knows what time and you’re back training Tuesday morning.
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“But the Giro was still an amazing experience, and it’s something that I will spend the rest of my career not trying to replicate but trying to live again in a different way. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that. I think the biggest thing for me was the real feeling internally, not an external thing, not even an output thing, but the stars really aligning.
"There were a few moments in that race when things could have gone two ways but for whatever reason the toast fell butter side up. It went the right way, and that’s not to say that everything went perfectly because it didn’t. I rode, like, 100 watts less than I could have in the first time trial because that was my job, and I lost two:something minutes to the best riders on purpose.”
The biggest memories for cycling fans of that race are probably the mountain stages of the second half of the race, where Geoghegan Hart slowly and implacably clawed his way back into contention and then emerged as one of the strongest two or three climbers in the race, and of those, the best time triallist. He was outnumbered at the top of the GC by the Sunweb duo of Jai Hindley (Bora Hansgrohe) and Wilco Kelderman (Jumbo-Visma), but he and then-team-mate Rohan Dennis ground them down through freezing conditions on the Stelvio, then the British rider won the Maglia Rosa in the final time trial.
Geoghegan Hart’s biggest memories of the race, however, were more specific and under-the-radar moments. On the uphill finish of stage two in Agrigento, his job was done before the climb and his instructions had been to sit up at the bottom, but he noticed that team leader Thomas only had Jhonatan Narváez for support near the front.
“I thought, Narváez rides a size 48 or 50 bike, and G rides 56. If something happens, he’ll have to wait for the team car and he’s going to lose two minutes, so I thought maybe I should just follow. I don’t need to be in the front group, but I could be near enough if something happens and I’ll be able to give him my bike straight away,” he says.
“At the bottom, we turned left and 30 or 40 riders at the back of the peloton all sat up, so I had to go around all of them. Jon Dibben (Lotto Soudal rider) texted me later saying something along the lines of, ‘I saw what you did at the bottom of that climb and you still finished top 50. You’re absolutely effing flying.’
“And that one moment defined the whole race because I could have lost five minutes that day. Instead I finished not many wheels behind G and stayed with him. And nobody in the world knows about that. Little things happen, but these are the margins of cycling. That’s the best explanation I can give of how close you can be between complete anonymity and success, but that’s life and cycling.”
Since the 2020 Giro, however, it’s gone a little quiet again for Geoghegan Hart, and 2022 was a frustrating season. He caught covid for the first time at his opening race of the year, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. He’d been happy with 12th place on GC, which is more or less where he expected to be, but he woke up tired on the following Wednesday and felt sick by the evening.
Five of the team came down with covid at the same time: there were rumours that a rider on another team had been pulled out midway through one of the stages when his team car took a call saying that his PCR test from that morning had come back positive.
The covid itself didn’t affect him too badly, but it made him susceptible to subsequent infections, which hit him hard. Anecdotal evidence in the real world suggests that there have been some nasty bugs going around post-covid; that was no different in the peloton. He got ill again after Itzulia Basque Country and spent 10 days on antibiotics, and the season never really came together.
“It just felt like a year of missed opportunity, really,” he says. “There were moments I was really thinking that everything was starting to line up, and then something would go wrong. It takes a lot out of you, whether it’s injury or sickness. Picking yourself back up and slogging through when you feel really rubbish is tough on the body as well as the mind.”
Geoghegan Hart is philosophical about the disappointment. It comes, he says, with the territory of being a cyclist. “I don’t think there are many characters in cycling who aren’t able to deal with disappointment, because I don’t think you would become a cyclist if you weren’t able to,” he says. “Maybe many of us did grow up winning a lot when we were much younger. But there’s always going to be a stage in sport where you are going to face the reality that you definitely don’t win every race that you line up to. And there are sports where the chances of winning are much higher.
“That’s inherently a big part of cycling and it’s probably why so many people are drawn to it in quite a unique way because they see the ups and downs. I always find it fascinating how adored Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is. I’m not sure but he seems to have much more of a fan base now than he did perhaps a few years ago when his results were much better. I think that speaks volumes for the types of personality and fans that are interested in cycling as opposed to other sports where it’s much more glory, glitz and glamour.”
I was thinking about Geogheghan Hart when I was out for a run the morning of our interview, and the thought came out of nowhere in particular that he was an old soul, and had been since he first came on to my radar in 2013 or 2014. It’s true – I’ve observed him at training camps and races, and in his behaviour around journalists, and he’s got quite an earnest disposition.
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Then I read a few pieces about him, and it turns out I’m not the only one who thinks so. In an interview in Cyclist magazine in 2017, the journalist observed that Geoghegan Hart had “an old head”, while Axel Merckx, his manager at the U23 Axeon Hagens Berman team, reflected in a blog he wrote following the 2020 Giro that his former rider was “an old soul in a young body”. I tell Geoghegan Hart about this and he thinks it’s quite funny; then his face straightens.
“I think I just try to approach everything with balance really, and to enjoy it,” he says. “Like, when you say, ‘Taking things seriously’, I think you should. People should be incredibly proud that they take things seriously and that they grasp opportunity and that they also recognise privilege and the experiences they’re afforded.
“We do live an incredible lifestyle and certainly a very privileged one. We get to live a life that we dreamt of as adolescents and teenagers. To take things seriously does justice to that and you don’t lose that perspective of how lucky you are. I don’t think that means you can’t really enjoy everything and have balance. The more dynamic and diverse you are, and the more you drive your interest in different things, that only benefits you as a human and also as a partner, a son, a daughter, a sibling and in so many other ways. I’m very cognisant and aware of this being a very specific lifestyle.
“I really enjoy my training, I take it very seriously and I’m quite a perfectionist. At the same time, I think you have to find a balance. There are times when you train super hard and you just need to sit on the sofa and do nothing or read a book or watch a film. But there are also plenty of times where we’re travelling in beautiful places and you can see a bit of culture that you otherwise probably wouldn’t have had the chance to. At a gallery; or try some local cuisine. And probably for me the biggest joy of cycling has been meeting so many different people from all over the world and getting to know them in a way that you otherwise wouldn’t.”
This is why, if you want to begin the task of understanding Tao Geoghegan Hart, procyclingstats is not the place to go. The races and results are not the end, but the means, and this makes him different from many professional cyclists, though he gently chides me for suggesting that he is unusual among his peers for his worldview. He goes places in order to learn about them, but that desire to explore is an expression also of his strong attachment to his Hackney roots. Professional cycling is an excellent way of seeing the world, but that world can sometimes consist of airport lounges and generic hotels; not for Geoghegan Hart.
“I love where I’m from,” he says. “I love the diversity, the culture, the eccentricity and the creativity especially. Everything is tied quite closely with that, even if right now it’s not somewhere that I spend a lot of time. I think it still kind of lives in parallel with my life.”
There are two ways of looking at cycling, and therefore two ways of looking at any journey from point A to point B. For some, getting to point B is, well, the point. For some, it’s what lies in between that is the thing.
“I think my favourite thing to do in the off-season, or even occasionally if I’ve been for a ride, when I’m visiting my family and have the afternoon somewhat free, is spend one, two, three hours just walking. It‘s something I’ve been doing for probably almost 10 years.
“The important place for me is the next place around the corner because there’s always something new there. If there’s something that’s changed, you feel nostalgic about something that’s gone. You come back after six months away and things you’ve known for your whole life have suddenly gone. But there’s also a sense of excitement because new things constantly arrive, new people arrive, new cultures, and I think that’s really important.
"In Hackney, the creative community is what really matters, and because of the strength of that, it allows you to see past some of the difficulties in terms of regeneration and the way the area is changing. I guess to some extent everyone has that. We all have memories of things that we loved as children and for whatever reason cease to exist, and that’s how the world moves on.
“With cycling, you go to places that are less like that. Now I’m in Alcúdia, and it’s a ghost town, completely shut up. But I really value these places, because they’re a necessity for our job, and I like the contrast of what I really consider life to be. I live on the side of a mountain, and I love the training there; it’s the best place in the world to be a professional cyclist. But last week I spent a week staying on the edge of Palma and I could walk 15 minutes into the centre and visit some interesting galleries and just generally walk around and enjoy a little bit of what the city has to give.”
The poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou gave an interview in 2011 in which she said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” It’s something that was true of Tao Geoghegan Hart when he was a teenage boy travelling from a south London race venue back to his home in Hackney, but it’s equally true now.
This article was originally published in Issue 117, the Body Issue. Subscribe to Rouleur to get your copy and support our independent journalism.
Tao x Supersapiens
The Supersapiens ecosystem works with the Abbott Libre Sense Glucose Sport Biosensor to monitor glucose levels and track energy input and output. The biosensor attaches painlessly to the arm; the app lets you know about spikes in glucose levels and enables athletes and non-athletes alike to work out how to better maintain energy levels. It allows athlete to validate whatever their fuelling strategy is - now they have data to show if they are making the right choices when it comes to quantity and timing.
Tao Geoghegan Hart is not just using the Supersapiens app to measure and monitor his glucose, he’s bought into the company as an investor.
“It’s something I really believe in, and I find it incredibly interesting data,” he says. “We are bombarded with data, but this is different. You can link it to your intuition, behaviours, tendencies and nutritional practices that you already follow, consciously or subconsciously.
“When people start using it, they just want to see this kind of ‘one plus one’ of what goes into my mouth and how my glucose responds, but it’s quite fascinating how many things affect your glucose. For me, it’s a recovery tool and one that doesn’t so much change my food as how and when I eat it.
“Before investing I had a deep dive into the competition and firmware. And the Supersapiens app is unbelievably better. The interface is incredible.”
Find out more at supersapiens.com