Where there is despair, always hope.
For an often dominant team who have conquered all before them in the past, Ineos Grenadiers’ 2020 saw its most iconic figures – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal – fall far from their pedestals.
But it began with a tragedy that changed everything.
In March, Nico Portal died, aged 40.
A pivotal figure – both professionally and personally – in building Ineos’ (formerly Team Sky) unrivalled success.
A sporting director – calling the tactics and orders from the team car – the French former Sky rider was a warm and self-assured character who made those around him feel safe and supported.
His only weakness a heart condition, which ended his career in 2010 and caused his death at home in Andorra on 3 March a decade later.
“You can’t think about this without thinking about Nico,” said an elated team boss Sir Dave Brailsford as Geoghegan Hart lifted the golden trophy in front of the Duomo di Milano on Sunday. “Tao’s had a lot of support along the way and from certain people.”
It was a sentiment echoed after Geoghegan Hart referenced Portal himself following his first Grand Tour stage win a week ago in Piancavallo. “Every day we ride, we are remembering him.”
Losing Portal so unexpectedly forced a change in how the team have had to operate this season. But, more importantly than that, how they felt.
“He is completely irreplaceable, to the point where it’s hard to imagine where to go from here,” said Froome days after his friend’s death.
And this is what gives Geoghegan Hart’s victory so much more gravitas. It is so much more important than just that realisation of a talent pool filled by high budgets and exacting science. Or the fact he is only the fifth British man to win a Grand Tour.
“This season has had great highs and lows, in the Tour [de France] and for me personally, and also in this race,” added Geoghegan Hart.
“We just have to foster the Grenadier spirit in this team and keep fighting back like we know we can.”
Privately, Ineos’ fall from grace has been hard to take for a team who are often surprised by the public perception that they are cold winners.
The very reason Geoghegan Hart was able to win was down to pre-race favourite Thomas’ abandonment following a crash in which he suffered a fractured pelvis after a loose bottle became lodged under his front wheel ahead of stage three.
Add to that the mystifying loss of form during the Tour of defending champion Bernal, and Froome’s departure to the Israel Start-Up Nation team next season, and it’s easy to see why the world believes Ineos are a team in free fall.
While a changing of the guard in the competitive order in men’s cycling has refreshed the sport, the team’s spirit, if anything, is more vibrant than ever.
And Geoghegan Hart’s presence on the team coach, where he is well liked, has been part of a transition to what could secure the team for another decade at the top of a sport of which they appeared to be losing their grasp.
“He’s kind, courteous and respectful of everyone – a great guy,” said one staff member.
Following the wheels
An east Londoner from the now hipster confines of Hackney, Geoghegan Hart’s presence at Ineos began as he followed his unwitting heroes down The Mall in London during a procession in 2010 to unveil Team Sky. He even skipped school to ensure he didn’t miss it.
Ten years later, he is at the centre of the squad. Geoghegan Hart was always considered a rider with the potential to win big races, but even at 25 it looked as if he would have to wait some time before he would ever get the chance at a team which still have riders with nine Grand Tour victories between them.
But, as he has shown on the bike, patience appears to be one of his strengths, following as he has his competitors during this race.
Always matching, but not seemingly over-reaching himself on the Giro’s steepest climbs, including the legendary, snow-covered Passo dello Stelvio this week.
But he has a stinging attack, and entertains with an aggressive, snaking style on the bike when he unleashes his power – usually at the end of stages, as he did on stage 20 up Sestriere.
It is this character which is giving Ineos a new, distinctive feel – when in the past the team were defined by dominance and calculation.
Billionaire owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe is likely here for the long haul – promoting his Ineos company in cycling, F1, football and sailing – and wants the team to reflect a Britishness which sets it apart from other teams in the peloton.
It’s an approach that appears to be changing Brailsford’s outlook too. “We’ve done the train, we’ve done the defensive style of riding and we’ve won a lot doing that, but it’s not much fun really compared to this,” he told Eurosport.
The team can be made up of several nationalities – 13 at the last count – but there will be a Briton at the centre of things one way or another, attracting the attention of a country obsessed with sport, and which makes money for everyone involved.
Geoghegan Hart fits this ideology perfectly – he is already speaking his mind publicly and wins races. Big ones.
He’s not alone of course. Ineos have signed Adam Yates – whose unquestionable race winning ability can be fulfilled – and Tom Pidcock for 2021, and already have Chris Lawless, Luke Rowe, Owain Doull, Ethan Hayter, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift and, of course, 2018 Tour winner Thomas – who, at, 34 should have at least one more big moment in him.
Can he do it again?
Just as Froome did at the 2011 Vuelta, Geoghegan Hart has come good at Grand Tour level four or five years into his professional career.
The most satisfying thing of all? He has done it the hard way.
He arrived in Palermo at the start of October with a set of instructions to carry bottles, and fight through the wind – a domestique’s role which requires him to empty the tank stage by stage, but preserve enough to recover to do the same again the following day.
Instead, after losing his team leader, he adapted to put his body through unexpected levels of pain as the newly protected rider.
When everything went wrong Geoghegan Hart was ready.
He had an unexpected chance to win a Grand Tour – and he took it.