Tao Geoghegan Hart scares the hell out of me. He has done since the first time I met him, in London’s Condor Cycles, when the then 15-year-old accosted me and started talking intensely about everything bike racing; my career, pro racing, UK racing, his racing, bikes, kit, training and so forth and so on. He unsettled me because he was the most confident 15-year-old I’d ever met.
Tao’s natural confidence off the bike is even more apparent on the bike, anyone who viewed his recent exploits at the Tour of California would agree. And that’s something British riders on the whole have never previously had. For a nation of polite losers, at least until recently, the fact that young British riders now brim with confidence and ambition is a seismic shift.
Last year I headed to Girona, where Tao (who has also ‘modelled’ for Rapha) is based ahead of his first season in the senior ranks with the American U23 outfit Bissell, to find out what makes one of the UK’s top young talents tick.
Tom Southam: You’re making the step up from junior to senior this year. Now you’ve moved up, does it feel like going back to zero?
Tao Geoghegan Hart: I feel everything I’ve done, results-wise, up until now isn’t worth anything, anyway. My coach on the O.D.P [Olympic Development Programme], Matt Winston, was always adamant about that. Being a junior world champion doesn’t mean anything in the long run. Did you know Greg LeMond is the only guy who ever won both titles, junior and senior?
TGH: Maybe, I mean, it is always the start of something; the start of juniors was something, riding Roubaix, then the World and European Championships. This is just the next step. It’s like a computer game, you reach the next level, it gets harder and distances increase, and you have to step up. You ride with the big guys you’ve had on your bedroom wall and you realise, suddenly, you could actually be racing them in a month’s time.
Well, you can run 53.11 now, so no hiding.
That’s it. I can’t say, “I’m only 18”, any more. Once you’re racing, there are no excuses.
Have you mapped out, in your own mind, how you’d like to turn pro?
In a way it’s really rigid and you know what you want to do. At the same time, it has to be flexible because things change along the way. This time last year there were different routes, now it’s narrowed down because I made a decision with the team I joined. That dictates your calendar and I’d like to see what I’m good at because juniors are different. I’d like to do well at the U23 Roubaix but that might not be possible now that I have to specify my races more.
Have the careers of your predecessors influenced your own decisions?
Definitely, because it shows it’s possible. Wiggins winning the Tour, he’s a Londoner and there are not many guys from my area who’ve done that well on a bike. It’s not like Yorkshire, where every man and his dog have won a big bike race, or Belgium, where every village has a Classics winner.
There used to be this attitude in the UK that you just couldn’t do it, you were somehow a second-class cyclist. Your generation has the advantage of knowing what can be achieved.
In British Cycling they make the pathway really clear. When I joined the talent team Pete Kennaugh was emerging, among a group of guys who’d gone the whole way through the system. In our first talent team meeting, they had it on a Powerpoint presentation, step by step, this is what you can do.
It’s interesting, too, that your generation should – if things really have cleaned up – be the first to race not only as clean riders but without thinking you’re up against guys who have doped for the majority their career.
Yeah, but I think that as long as it wasn’t going on around me, I’d never get stressed about what others are doing because its an uncontrollable thing. If you start worrying about what everyone else is doing, it’s going to crack you. At the same time, it’s really cool that the professional side of the sport isn’t like that anymore. I know it’s been tough for cycling but as a young rider I’m glad I know so much about my sport. I’ve had anti-doping seminars and information all the way through, with the ODP and 100% ME [a leading UK anti-doping initiative].
Who have you been riding with out here?
Matt Brammeier a lot, Erick Rowsell, Dan Martin, Paul Voss, David Millar, Christian Meier. I stick rigidly to my programme, so sometimes I do two or three hours with them, then the rest of my stuff on my own. Doing that first hour in a group makes a big difference, especially when you are living on your own.
You learn from those guys on every ride. They’re all great riders but it amazes me how laid back some of them are. If it rains they’ll just be like: “Ah, take a day off.”
Being in the right place has clearly helped Tao but it is undoubtedly his talent that has seen him taken into the fold among pro cyclists in the area. The following morning we meet up for breakfast and I’m surprised to see Tao isn’t kitted up to ride. “I needed a day totally off the bike,” he explains. It seems that, after a number of tough days, common sense has prevailed. I take note because Tao will need a great deal of that in the future, not to mention talent, determination, a work ethic, and real hunger for success. As we chat over a coffee, he demonstrates he doesn’t lack any of these qualities either.
You told me recently how you feel time passes quickly; I think you’d worked out, as a percentage, how many days of your U23 career had already passed.
I live to make the most of every day. Some days are shit and you can’t do anything about it but I’m not one for letting things slip by. I sat down at the start of last year and when I looked at it, the UCI races that actually get you spotted by big teams, Nations Cups and things like that, there were maybe 20 race days all year. Take out the sprint days, the time trials, and the pure climbing days where I can win; there were less than 10 opportunities in the year to do something.
What’s changed in your training from last year?
A lot more volume and I haven’t done much high-intensity yet. Maybe one or two twenty-minute efforts, some tests and some sub-threshold stuff, too. Basically, a lot of time in the saddle but it’s very scientific, which is cool. Tracking the ‘build rate’ and all these things, so I’m not overdoing it.
Where does your determination to succeed come from?
It’s a cliché but I look up to parents. My old man works so hard. He’s a builder and he’s 54 and if the job needs to get done, it gets done. The hours he puts in are scary. I think I’ve always just wanted to be the best. If you want money go into banking. I just have a drive to make something of my life.
What are you working towards, what’s your ultimate goal?
I’d like to have a good career and be respected within the profession. And of course if I can do that, get to that level, then I wanna win some big bike races. If you ride with a guy from Liège, he just wants to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while the Belgians live for Flanders and Roubaix. For me, it’s all such a foreign sport, I’d just love to do well.
I’m quite a planner, I’m always looking at the next step ahead. Like hairpins on a climb, you’re looking for the summit all the way up, but you focus on each hairpin in turn and enjoy getting from one to another.
[This interview was originally conducted in January 2014, as Tao was preparing for his first season with the Bissell Development Team, recently relaunched as Axeon Cycling Team.]
By Tao Geoghegan Hart
And now I am purportedly a hairpin ahead of those last words. Certainly a year has passed, I have become stronger in some ways, wiser in others. But that is maybe the biggest lesson I have learnt in that time: that the goalposts are ever moving. In some ways I alluded to this before, the ‘video game’ analogy and all.
However, cycling really is one great oxymoron. For whilst it is easy to determine you are stronger, weaker, faster or fitter, that all becomes ever so blurred when placed in the surroundings of ever increasing competition. Am I really a hairpin further up? Sometimes it feels I may have actually pedalled backwards.
Life gets harder as you get older I guess. Moving into new apartments, bills, more and more responsibility piling up. I left school less than eighteen months ago – nobody taught me about all of this, especially not how to do it in a foreign country.
It was a year of up and downs – of course. I raced some incredible races, California, Utah, Avenir and the Tour of Britain, to name a few. I raced against those idols from my bedroom wall. I was in awe. But I also improved and even slowly started to believe I could be nearer their level.
When Tom wrote about my confidence, he relayed a brimming over of self-belief. But line up at the Tour of Britain, look to your left and see a Tour de France winner nearly twice your age? Confidence isn’t the over-riding emotion. Trust me.
But above all that, because it doesn’t really matter, ultimately I remain the same: pedalling furiously, living for the races and trying to do something new.