Stuart Blunt remembers the exact moment he knew he had something special on his hands. The British Cycling youth coach was holding a training camp in the summer of 2011 but one of his young riders, Tao Geoghegan Hart, had got stuck in the London riots.
“He was trying to get to the train station while all hell was breaking loose outside his front door,” Blunt recalls. “Kids he was going to school with and so on. It must have been a huge distraction. Bless him, he was just focused on his training and his racing. Tao’s got a really good perspective on things.”
Fast forward nine years and Geoghegan Hart, 25, is riding high at the Giro d'Italia. His brilliant stage victory into the ski station of Piancavallo in the Italian Dolomites on Sunday lifted him from 11th overall to fourth, just one second off the podium and 2min57sec off the overall lead.
Those who declared British interest in the maglia rosa over when first Geraint Thomas crashed and broke his pelvis on stage three, and then Simon Yates contracted Covid-19, are having to revise that opinion because this race looks wide open and Geoghegan Hart has as much chance of grabbing the initiative as anyone.
Blunt would not be at all surprised if he does. Geoghegan Hart (‘Tao’ pronounced ‘Tayo’, and ‘Geoghegan’ pronounced ‘Gaygan’ are Irish, Tao meaning Tom, which is his father’s name, in Irish Gaelic) always stood out.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work on the talent pathway at British Cycling for 18 years now, and I’ve worked with some very talented riders, and Tao is right up there,” he says of the Holloway-born rider who grew up near London Fields in the heart of Hackney. “You could go through any of them, [Tom] Pidcock, anyone. Not only his physical ability but his attitude and his application. He’s very level headed.”
Sir Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Londoner, called Geoghegan Hart a “geezer” following his stage win on Sunday, particularly enjoying the way the Ineos Grenadiers rider sized up his two breakaway companions at the finish, and then out-sprinted them both, even finding the time to adjust his sunglasses before crossing the line.
“It’s a good description,” agrees Blunt. “Tao’s a nice lad, but he’s quite streetwise, too. He has a bit of character. My wife, who has no interest in cycling, thinks he’s cool. Maybe that’s just from growing up in the East End.”
Geoghegan Hart is also, Blunt notes, a well rounded character, with an interest that extends far beyond his own orbit, even if, coming from Hackney and with a long Rapha association, he gets the ‘cycling hipster’ label jokingly thrown at him from time to time.
“During lockdown I got him to do a Teams Q&A thing with the young lads here on the U16 programme and he was brilliant,” Blunt says. “I mean, I used him for a reason. You know he’s going to say good things. But he was just very inspiring, listening to him talk to 17/18 year olds about what’s important, about their education and so on, he’s very switched on. Very mature.
"When he left our umbrella it was to go out to America [to join Axel Merckx’s Bissell Development Team] which was brave of him. Then he went to Sky, which is a heck of a team to try to make your name at. He’s had a couple of chances to lead, at last year’s Giro [Geoghegan Hart crashed out on stage 13] and again at the Vuelta. But he was destined to do something big sooner or later. You could tell at 15 he was going to be a very, very good bike rider. ”
There are just six stages remaining after Monday's rest day, and Geoghegan Hart looks to have as good a chance as anyone. The current leader, Portuguese Joao Almeida [Deceuninck-QuickStep], is even younger and less experienced than Geoghegan Hart, and cracked on the final climb on Sunday. There are then two Sunweb riders, Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley, between the Londoner and the race lead.
Of the two, Kelderman is the more experienced. But while he has had a few top 10s at grand tours, the 29 year-old Dutchman has not won one yet. And while 2min42sec might sound like a lot, it could vanish in an instant on some of the massive climbs coming up later this week, which include the infamous Stelvio Pass and the Colle dell'Agnello and Col d’Izoard. That is, assuming snow, ice, hail or Covid-19 don’t intervene.
The truth is anything could still happen. Vincenzo Nibali, the one serial grand tour winner in the field, may be 35 now but he is still lurking dangerously, only 32 seconds behind Geoghegan Hart.
If he does make it into pink at any point this week, Blunt has no doubts the British youngster can cope with the pressure. “He hasn’t won many pro races - just a couple of stages at the Tour of the Alps last year before Sunday - but just his character and his belief in himself. He’s level headed. I think he will cope fine.
"I messaged him yesterday. You just get a really calm and assured type of reply. He knows what he could achieve but I don’t think that will overawe him. The guys around him are so experienced; Ben Swift and so on. He’s going to go from strength to strength, I’d put my mortgage on it."
It is faith borne of an assuredness he recognised in a 16 year old boy back in the summer of 2011. Did Geoghegan Hart ever make that training camp? “Yeah, he did bless him. I remember speaking on the phone and there was a police helicopter overheard and it was all kicking off in the street, but he got on the train and got there.”