The Team Sky mountain train rolls on, and every year it seems like a new carriage adds extra driving force. Once upon a time it was Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, burying themselves in the mountains to deliver Bradley Wiggins to a first British Tour de France victory in 2012. Then as Chris Froome took over it was Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels, and Michal Kwiatkowski who emerged, in turn, as the revelations of the past three Tours.
At this year's Critérium du Dauphiné, there's a new rider catching the eye, turning heads, and giving international television commentators a headache as they try to pronounce his name: Tao Geoghegan Hart.
In his second year as a professional, and with a new contract in the works, the 23-year-old has been the standout support rider as Geraint Thomas has stamped his authority on the Dauphiné.
He set the pace on the front of the peloton on the top half of the hors categorie Col du Mont Noir on stage 4, before coming back to thin the group once again on the summit finish to Lans-en-Vercors. His display on the stage 5 summit finish to Valmorel was more striking, as he shredded the yellow jersey group to fewer than 10 riders in the final kilometres. On Saturday's short but mountainous stage 6, he stayed with Thomas over the Col du Pré as Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon were dropped, set a superb tempo and even managed to finished 9th at the summit in La Rosière.
He sits 15th overall, with one stage remaining.
"I kind of knew where I was at coming into the race. I’ve just been building since the start of the season really," Geoghegan Hart told Cyclingnews.
"I had always something minor at the start of the season after Colombia, a bit of sickness, a bit of an injury… Never something to stop me racing but always something small. Since the training block I did after the Ardennes I've been feeling really good. I'm just focusing on performing and showing where I'm at I guess."
The Londoner, who has been touted as a big talent for several years, enjoyed a solid neo-pro season last year, during which he had the chance to ride for himself at the Tour de Suisse. This year, he has been most notable in guiding Egan Bernal to victory at the Colombia Oro y Paz and Tour of California. However the Dauphiné represents another step up.
"It's a different role. In California it was kind of like 'work for Egan then try not to lose tons of time,' whereas here it's purely about delivering for the guys on GC. I guess it's progression in a way, because this is probably the majority of the Tour squad here, so for me to be a part of that group is a massive experience, and I'm really grateful to the team for having the belief in me to come here and perform," Geoghegan Hart said.
"It's definitely a new… well not new, but it's a learning experience because in the U23's you mostly ride for yourself, so getting to know the right pace is hard, I guess, because as you’re getting stronger the pace feels easier so it's about getting that balance of what’s right for the guys behind you and just going as long as you can. It’s not something we get trained for specifically – you're just training to keep improving as much as possible, especially when you’re young."
No Tour de France but the Vuelta a Espana is a goal
Geoghegan Hart's performances at the Dauphiné have led some to wonder if he'll be deployed at the Tour de France next month. Team Sky have come to the Dauphiné, after all, with the bulk of their Tour squad, Chris Froome being the notable exception as he recover from winning the Giro d'Italia.
However, Geoghegan Hart, who has yet to ride a Grand Tour, insists he isn't part of the team's Tour plans, and is setting is sights on the Vuelta a España later in the season for his three-week debut.
"I haven't ridden a Grand Tour yet, so this is another one of those steeping stones," he said. "It's a bit of cliché but last year in Suisse, that was the longest race I've done – nine days – and I didn't have a bad day, I think I was top 15 overall, so I'm moving in the right direction. It’s just about absorbing more and more workload.
"The Vuelta is my kind of short term goal. But I guess it's easy to lose track of what you're doing right now, so I've been trying not to think past this race, this weekend, otherwise it just slides away I guess, and you don't realise how big an occasion and how big a race it is at the time if you're always planning forward."
Yet Geoghegan Hart is not completely short-sighted. With every kilometre at the Dauphiné he seems even more perfectly cut out for driving that relentless Team Sky train, but he has his own ambitions and is keen not to pigeonhole himself.
"I don't think that's the end goal to be honest. It's a role I'd be more than happy to do but you're always aiming to be as good as possible," he said.
"I guess if you look at it like it is on the road, then the aim is to be moving further and further down that string of riders, if you want to put it in plain, layman’s terms. I think I’ve been doing that this year. To be here is a big achievement for me personally, so I want to use this as the next step towards bigger races."
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