Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov outwitted and outperformed Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohge) on stage 4 of the Tour of the Alps, with the 24-year-old British rider taking his second stage victory of the race, while his even younger Russian teammate Pavel Sivakov defended his overall race lead.
Team Sky’s young talent, who will play a key role support Egan Bernal at the Giro d’Italia, respect the palmares of their older, big-name rivals but were not afraid to take them on and beat them in the sprint finish in Cles.
"You can’t respect your rivals too much, you just get stuck in the mud if you do that," Geoghegan Hart told Cyclingnews.
"It’s important to think of everyone in the bunch simply as your equal; you give them respect and you hope they respect you. Whether that’s a first-year professional on a small team or a big, big champion like Vincenzo. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
"Of course, you grow up watching people like Vincenzo on television, and so it’s a huge honour to really race against him and not just be in the same peloton. But whoever it is, you have to commit and stick to your plan and not get distracted by a huge champion."
Majka and Nibali worked together on the final climbs, and in the final 25km of the stage took turns attacking Sivakov and Geoghegan Hart. They managed to distance Chris Froome after he worked for the two, but Team Sky’s next generation outwitted them, and then Geoghegan Hart had the confidence and speed to win the sprint from the front.
"We’re young riders, but we perfectly managed the situation. I had the legs to follow Majka, but we let him go a little bit so that Nibali didn’t attack," Sivakov explained, mature beyond his 21 years.
Geoghegan Hart has already been a road captain for Team Sky in WorldTour races. He and Sivakov outmaneuvered Nibali and Majka with a nod of the head and an instant understanding of how the race would unfold.
"Tactics are a mix of being clearly in command of things and instantly understanding what you teammate is thinking and then acting with in that in mind," Geoghegan Hart explained.
"When it’s two against two, you don’t have to be smarter or stronger, you just race your bike and stick together. We also have one of the most successful ever DS’s in the car. Nico Portal always gives us a plan and advice to keep us calm and collected. With the confidence Nico gives us, it’s difficult to be stressed, even when two big champs hit you time and time again."
The photo of Geoghegan Hart beating Nibali in the sprint is one worth keeping for the Londoner, but with success so rare in professional cycling, he does not need reminding of the significance of any victory.
"I think it's important to win bike races, really important, especially as a young rider. I haven't had that many opportunities really in my pro career, so it's really special to have some chances and to take them is even better," he said after the stage.
"We have a really nice group all together at Team Sky. A lot of us are hoping to go to the Giro, so we keep looking forward to that. That's my big goal, I keep focused and motivated for that."
Geoghegan Hart will travel from Italy to Belgium after finishing the Tour of the Alps on Friday to ride Liege-Bastogne-Liege in support of Michal Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels. It will be vital experience for his major goals and the longest Monuments. Geoghegan Hart refuses to be pigeon holed.
"You have to embrace each situation and be willing to break down barriers because everyone wants to perceive you as something: a domestique, a climber or whatever. You have always challenge that and push for more," he said, when asked about the future direction of his professional career
"I’d like to stay open minded, it’s important to discover all the races. I did a nice variety of races as a Junior and Under 23, including Paris-Roubaix and races on the pave, as well as Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
"I was very lucky to be in Axel Merckx’s team [Hagens Berman Axeon - ed.] because half of my races were amateur and half were with the pros. I perhaps didn’t win as many as I could have but learnt a lot and the important skill I’d need for the races I’d like to aim for in the future. I tend to suffer in the early days of stages races, but I get better as the race goes on and I’m consistent. I’d like to target the Grand Tours in the future."
Geoghegan Hart and Sivakov want to seal overall success at the Tour of the Alps before they turn their focus towards the Giro d’Italia, where they will support Bernal in Team Ineos’ first Grand Tour.
"I think we did pretty well today. I think we can do the same tomorrow," Sivakov said, with natural confidence. "We have a strong team here, including Chris Froome, so it’s going to hard for them to do something."