“I’ve only got one pink jersey…. that feels like a pretty apt metaphor.”
British cycling’s latest Grand Tour winner Tao Geoghegan Hart is in a reflective mood as he poses for a photo on home territory outside Hackney Town Hall.
Over his right shoulder is the maglia rosa – the pink jersey he’s talking about, from October’s surprise Giro d’Italia victory. When he hands it over for a quick look I can still smell the prosecco from the podium ceremony.
In cycling’s Grand Tours, the race leader at the end of each stage is given a jersey to honour the achievement. When Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012 he had 14 to his name, after dominating for much of the three weeks.
Geoghegan Hart only has one, because it wasn’t until he crossed the line on the 21st and final stage of the Giro that he led for the first time.
Heading into that final day in Milan, Geoghegan Hart and rival Jai Hindley were separated by a few thousandths of a second. Never in the history of professional cycling had a Grand Tour been so close. And never in a million years would you have predicted Geoghegan Hart would be in the running after stage one.
The 25-year-old had arrived in Italy with one job. To ride in the service of team leader Geraint Thomas.
As a result, in treacherously-wet conditions, he took the opening individual time trial on stage one “easy”. So easy that he ended the day in 126th place.
More than three thousand kilometres later at the conclusion of the 21st and final stage – another individual time trial – Geoghegan Hart became Britain’s fifth Grand Tour champion following Wiggins, Chris Froome, Thomas and Simon Yates.
As well as being a metaphor for his unique 2020 Giro win, the solitary pink jersey is actually a pretty apt symbol for his unhurried, and unlikely, route to the top.
When Wiggins won Le Grande Boucle in 2012 he famously said that “kids from Kilburn” are not supposed to win the Tour de France.
By his own admission Geoghegan Hart lacks the Wiggins wit to produce such a quip.
But a football-mad kid from a non-cycling family in central London conquering one of the biggest bike races in the world is arguably even more remarkable.
His Ineos Grenadiers general manager Sir Dave Brailsford perhaps described it best in the aftermath of victory.
“The stuff of comic books.”
The story begins in 2008.
That was the year Geoghegan Hart, an Arsenal-mad goalkeeper good enough to represent Hackney – a London borough of over 200,000 people – took on a life-changing challenge.
Aged just 13 he was the youngest of a group of teenagers to swim from England to France across the English Channel, in 11 hours and 34 minutes. Going back to the local pool simply didn’t sate his new-found adventurous streak. Cycling did the job instead.
More than 10 years later, as we ride around the streets of his childhood, Geoghegan Hart remembers those early trips on his first proper bike – a second-hand women’s one. Often alone, he would head out into the Essex and Hertfordshire countryside, covering huge distances “getting lost and being out all day”.
He says: “It was something so different to everything I had done up to that point. Every sport up until then was always inside London. A football away game in Battersea or Croydon would feel like a real long way.
“Cycling was totally different because it removed me from all of that. I was independent and it just snowballed from there. The competitive spirit I always had led me to racing.”
This is where the Wiggins and Geoghegan Hart stories diverge.
Wiggins’ father Gary was a professional cyclist. His childhood was immersed in the sport. He spent “more time than was probably healthy” staring at posters dreaming of mythical foreign races like the Giro d’Italia.
Geoghegan Hart – the eldest of five children – is the son of a builder father and architect mother with no cycling background. His inspiration was found not in the high mountains but at Highbury – the then home of Arsenal football club.
“I was lucky that I grew up in the most inspiring and defining era of Arsenal,” he says. “When I was a football-mad seven or eight year old we were winning the double. I was at the open top bus parade for the 2004 Invincibles season. What kid could want any more incredible imagery than that, especially in your neck of the woods?”
The day before we met, Geoghegan Hart had arrived at a publicity event just after Arsenal legend Ian Wright left. It was clearly still bothering him.
Back in 2010, as a 14-year-old, he made sure he didn’t miss his man.
“Back when we launched Team Sky in London, we did a ride around Richmond Park and Tao bunked off school for the day and he came along,” Brailsford told BBC Radio 5 Live in October.
Incredibly, just six years later Geoghegan Hart was offered a contract for Team Sky by Brailsford. Perhaps even more amazingly, he said no.
Not for the first time in his career (he had a chance to join Britain’s track cycling programme) Geoghegan Hart preferred to play the long game, opting to remain in road racing’s under-23 road ranks with the American Axeon-Hagens Berman team.
“It’s really hard when you have the opportunity that is your dream, and you don’t know if it’ll come again, to say that you’d like to wait a year please,” he said in 2017.
That was the year he did eventually join Team Sky, now Ineos Grenadiers. He believes his slow and steady approach was the right one.
“I’ve always wanted to win and be the best I can, but I’ve also always been focused on improving every year by a few percent,” he says. “In this sport doing that is a great place to be and shouldn’t be looked down on.”
Far from look down on it, former coach and mentor at Axeon-Hagens, Axel Merckx, the son of cycling legend Eddy, has lauded his approach, saying: “Tao’s got a mature head on young shoulders. He’s older and wiser than most men. He’s an old soul in a young body.”
Maturity was Geoghegan Hart’s trump card in the Giro d’Italia.
It wasn’t until stage 15 of 21 that he even entered the potential winners’ conversation. Ineos were riding for stage victories by that point, after their leader Thomas abandoned the race with a broken pelvis sustained in a crash on stage three.
Stage 15 from Rivolto to Piancavallo was a 185km race over mountainous terrain. Geoghegan Hart waited until the final 100 metres to show his hand – sprinting clear of Hindley and fellow rival Wilco Kelderman and crossing the line in first place.
The win was Geoghegan Hart’s first in a Grand Tour. And it was more than that.
With overall leader Joao Almeida showing weakness, it was a win that offered a first inkling of the Londoner’s potential for overall victory.
At that time Geoghegan Hart was still nearly three minutes down in the general classification standings, but three days later dreams of victory became a real possibility. With second place on stage 18, a summit finish atop the iconic Stelvio, the Ineos rider moved to third overall, crucially just 15 seconds adrift of new leader Kelderman.
Geoghegan Hart says that was when he and his team-mates began sensing a first whiff of victory.
“I think we definitely changed our mentality a bit after the Stelvio,” he says. “Our approach to Sestriere (stage 20) was quite different. We went into that day quite confident that the podium was somewhat in the pocket, which afforded us more freedom to aim big.”
Thinking big – but remaining calm.
As he had on stage 15, Geoghegan Hart waited until the last metres of the 190km race to the ski resort to sprint clear of Hindley.
A second stage win moved him to second overall. Incredibly, after more than 85 hours and 3,300 kilometres of racing Hindley and the Briton were locked on the same time – only separated by a few thousandths of a second.
Having spent a few hours in Geoghegan Hart’s company it’s unsurprising to hear that on the final morning in Milan he was in relaxed mood.
He listened to a playlist his brother Bede had sent him featuring London rappers Loyle Carner and Dave, and then produced a perfectly-measured 15.7km individual time trial, overhauling Hindley to take the Giro title.
Having begun the day level he ended it 39 seconds in front.
Britain had its fifth Grand Tour champion.
On the cold November morning of our meeting, Geoghegan Hart is tucking into an array of pastries at one of his favourite Hackney coffee haunts.
The people of Hackney are obviously proud – when our ride around the borough took us past his former school, a pair of teaching assistants made a beeline for him to offer their congratulations, a character reference (“a good kid”) and some words of encouragement (“Tour de France next Tao?”).
For Geoghegan Hart the question of what comes next is uncertain. Using his new-found celebrity as a force for good is on the to-do list – he talks enthusiastically of mentoring budding London sportspeople and organising a mass-participation bike ride for Hackney.
The Olympics is a big target in 2021. But typically, his game plan for the December Ineos team meeting that will decide his schedule for next season is to wait and see.
“I won’t say anything,” he says. “I’ll be interested to hear what the team is thinking and their ideas. This (the Giro win) is a big step forward but it’s only one step and hopefully there’s plenty more to come.”
And with that Hackney’s local hero pedals off. He’s heading to his mum’s house round the corner to get changed for an afternoon photo shoot.
Tao Geoghegan Hart. Britain’s latest cycling superstar. An ‘overnight sensation’ more than 10 years in the making.