Just a week before the start of the 2019 Giro d'Italia, with Colombian climber Egan Bernal set to attempt to lead Team Ineos – the new name for Team Sky – to victory at the Italian Grand Tour, everything changed for the British WorldTour team when Bernal crashed and broke his collarbone in a training accident.
Suddenly, the squad was left rudderless, and although 22-year-old Eddie Dunbar was drafted in as a replacement rider, it was the Irishman's first three-week race, and instead the task – or, rather, the opportunity – of trying to do whatever they could in terms of stage wins and a placing in the general classification was handed to young climbers Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart.
Geoghegan Hart then got things off to a flying start with seventh place in the opening time trial, and although two crashes on stage 3 set him back, dropping him down to 57th place, more than two minutes behind then race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), he battled back in the second week, and looked set to keep improving in what was only his second Grand Tour after riding last season's Vuelta a Espana.
However, the 24-year-old British climber then crashed out of the race entirely on stage 13, breaking his collarbone, and it was on the same day that 21-year-old Sivakov stepped up, infiltrating the top 10 overall for the first time.
From that point on, the race became about trying to keep the young Russian in as high a place on the GC as possible. And while the white jersey as best young rider – which Sivakov had also taken after stage 13 – had to eventually be given up to Astana's Miguel Angel Lopez, Ineos were able to ensure that Sivakov still had ninth place in Verona this past weekend.
"I feel proud of everyone, and of all the work done by the riders and staff," said sports director Nicolas Portal on the team's website. "Even if we didn't have any expectations going into the race [after Bernal's crash], we still wanted to push these guys and get some results – whether that was a stage victory or a top 10 or a jersey. We had to find something.
"We actually didn't think about a top 10 because it was such an ambitious target," Portal revealed. "But the guys rode really well – sometimes like they were defending a yellow or pink [leader's] jersey, and at the bottom of some of the final climbs we have had five of our guys – all super young.
"For us, it shows that we have the future here, and that we know how to pass on our experience. The guys learned a lot," he said.
"It has been a hard three weeks," admitted Sivakov after taking ninth overall. "You have to be really focused every day. You can never relax, and when you're doing that for a whole Grand Tour, it's not easy, so I'm really happy to have done it. The way the team worked so hard, the way they worked for me, was amazing.
"At the beginning of the race, it was all about learning how to race a Grand Tour with no pressure to get a big result on the GC," he continued. "We were a young team, but we had two experienced guys in Christian Knees and Salvatore Puccio, who helped me learn."
And it was 38-year-old Knees and 29-year-old Puccio – the next oldest rider after Knees on the young eight-man Giro squad – who came to the front of the peloton on stage 17 to ensure that Bora-Hansgrohe's Davide Formolo, away in the breakaway, didn't endanger Sivakov's position on the GC.
"It was a case of learning every day – things like learning to trust your teammates and how to create a daily routine that works for you," said Sivakov.
"That was the main thing – that they learned here," added Portal. "That's why we tried to focus on a goal. Without Egan, we didn't think a top 10 would be possible, but the guys stepped up because of this goal.
"That was brilliant for the group, and chapeau to Pavel. He's 21 and ninth on the GC. It's an unbelievable performance from him," he said.
Sivakov will now use his Giro experience to try to build for whatever come next.
"I'm not going to stop working hard. I'm going to keep putting the hard work in and achieve more in the future," he said.