A British rider was always expected to challenge for the pink jersey at this Giro d’Italia. It just was not expected to be this one. And certainly not like this.
An extraordinary race will reach an extraordinary conclusion on Sunday when Tao Geoghegan Hart, not Geraint Thomas, not Simon Yates, but an unheralded 25 year old from Hackney in east London who was not even among the top-20 favourites at the start, rolls down the start ramp of the final day time trial in Milan in a bid to claim his maiden grand tour win.
Geoghegan Hart will start, against all odds, as the odds-on favourite, courtesy of what are deemed (by the bookmakers) to be his superior time trialling skills compared with his nearest rival.
The truth, though, is the situation heading into the final day could not be more delicately poised. For the first time in grand tour history, the first and second placed riders in the general classification are tied on the very same time.
Geoghegan Hart drew level with the even less heralded Jai Hindley [Sunweb], after beating the Australian in a two-up sprint into Sestriere on Saturday to claim his second stage win of the race. The bonus seconds Geoghegan Hart picked up on the line helped him to make up the slender three-second deficit he was giving away to Hindley at the start of the day. But it was the Australian who was awarded the maglia rosa after long deliberation by race commissaires, who worked out that he was 0.86sec ahead overall.
Geoghegan Hart will not mind that. The momentum is definitely with him after another excellent performance from Ineos Grenadiers, and from his team mate Rohan Dennis specifically.
Just as he did in the race’s Queen stage on Thursday, when he blew the race apart on the Stelvio, Dennis put Geoghegan Hart’s rivals in the red with an extraordinary effort on the front. Even after dropping the rest of the field and delivering Geoghegan Hart to the final kilometres, the former world TT champion came back to help his team leader after Hindley attacked.
Wilco Kelderman [Sunweb], who began the day with a 12-second lead over Hindley, had no answer to Dennis. The Dutchman was gapped on the third and final ascent of Sestriere, and now lies third overall at 1min32sec. Not out of it by any means – on paper Kelderman is the best time triallist of the leading GC contenders – but a fair gap now to Geoghegan Hart who, naturally, was delighted at the finish.
“Certainly before the Giro I wasn’t expecting this scenario with 15km left in the race,” he admitted. “Although this is a lot like last year, with unexpected and young contenders.
“What Rohan Dennis has done for me has been incredible. I owe him for the Stelvio stage and for today. Having a two-time TT world champion and the current world champion [Filippo Ganna] helping me the way they did is fantastic but tomorrow it’ll be up to me to perform against the clock.”
Can Geoghegan Hart do it? On paper he should. In nine time trials head to head, Geoghegan Hart has had Hindley’s number seven times. It is true Hindley beat the Briton by nearly a minute in the opening stage time trial in Sicily three weeks ago. But Geoghegan Hart was still riding for Thomas at that point and had no thoughts of the maglia rosa himself. After assuming team leadership on stage three, Geoghegan Hart has ridden himself into the race and he beat Hindley by over a minute in the (admittedly much longer) 34km time trial on stage 14.
History beckons for a man who, until this race, had only claimed two stages of the Tour of the Alps as a pro racer. If he can pull it off Geoghegan Hart would become only the second British rider to win the race, after Chris Froome in 2018, and only the fifth British rider to win a grand tour after Froome, who has won seven in total, and Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates, who have all won one each.
It would also be the second grand tour in a row in which a rider has won the race on the last competitive day, having not worn the leader’s jersey up until that point, after 21 year-old Tadej Pogacar destroyed fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic in the penultimate day time trial at last month’s Tour de France. 2020 has been a brutal year for sport, and cycling has not escaped unscathed, with teams, sponsors and races all going to the wall. But the racing has been enthralling.
“I’m very happy for myself, for my team and for the Giro,” said Geoghegan Hart who was reportedly flown by helicopter to his team hotel last night while Sunweb had to make the 3hour journey by bus.
“Today was a beautiful day. I felt good the whole way [up the final climb]. I was pretty focused on the bonus seconds at the end and my race. Tomorrow’s time trial will be a matter of legs, the route is short, I hope to have a good day and a bit of luck, then we will see.
“It’s a bike race. Anything can happen [tomorrow], especially after 20 days of racing in tough conditions. We’ll see how it goes – I’ll do my best and I can’t change anything beyond that.”