Exactly a year ago, Tao Geoghegan Hart was celebrating victory at the Giro d'Italia and savouring the emotions of pulling on the maglia rosa in the shadows of Milan's magnificent Duomo.
He had emerged as a contender in the final week of the rescheduled October Corsa Rosa as Ineos Grenadiers cracked race leader João Almeida and then leader-elect Wilco Kelderman on the Stelvio stage before the Londoner took enough time from Jai Hindley in the final time trial to snatch the maglia rosa in Milan. All in the final week.
A year on, Geoghegan Hart is in a different place after a season of suffering. He crashed hard at Paris-Nice and suffered a concussion, then crashed hard again on stage 1 of the Tour de France.
He fought on to Paris trying to help his team and Richard Carapaz salvage something from the sport's biggest race but then crashed again during the Olympics road race in Tokyo. The 26-year-old raced on until Il Lombardia but in the end, it was impossible to pull his season around.
After winning the 2020 Giro, 2021 has been one of pain and suffering, of disappointment and introspection.
Geoghegan Hart has fought back time and time again, but he is now a little more despondent. He better understands his privilege than ever before and has shown several times that he is not afraid to take a stance on diversity and politics. His ambitions still smoulder below the ashes of defeat, but his confidence has taken a blow.
"Not the best season for sure… but that's life," he tells Cyclingnews, starting off an exclusive end of season interview.
"I've always picked myself up and kept trying, that's all you can do. That's what I'm doing again. But this year every time I felt things were about to go well, something happened."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not crying about it all. I know I'm in an enormously privileged position: I'm doing what I love, I've got some strong, supportive teammates, who have helped me, some special people in my life and my family too. I know I'm fortunate in life."
Geoghegan Hart is based in Andorra during the season, taking advantage of the altitude and the mountain roads. In contrast, he's spending his off-season with family and friends, returning to London to hang out in his beloved Hackney and recharge mentally and physically.
"I'm not licking my wounds," he insists. "I just want to enjoy time with my family and friends, that's something I can't do much during the season. I'm also enjoying some quiet days."
Quiet days mean no racing, no training, no calorie counting, no putting recovery first. It also means a moment of reflection.
"I've been reflecting on what's happened; on the season that has just wrapped up," he says. "In October and November, I always try to reflect on things, on the mistakes I've made, on the good moments and on changes I perhaps need to make.
"I've already started the process of my cycling introspection. You've got to keep reflecting on things and keep trying to learn from your mistakes and keep improving. Our sport is always changing and progressing, you can never stand still."
A crash-affected 2021
The hard knocks of 2021 taught Geoghegan Hart plenty of lessons. Instead of the ever-increasing emotions of success at the Giro d'Italia, the season was often a battle back from injury or a battle to race on with pain.
He hit his head when he slipped out on the descent of Mont Brouilly during stage 4 of Paris-Nice, suffering a concussion and injuring his knee. It set off a spiral of events that were difficult to correct.
"It was quite tough because with your head and concussion, it's more intangible, you don't know when you will recover," he explains, highlighting the complexity of the problem that a number of other riders have faced and which the sport has finally addressed.
"The knee injury meant I also couldn't ride for two weeks. I also got sick in that period and quite badly. It was three shit things all together to be honest. Then I definitely came back too soon but I knew that and wanted to try to find some shape for the Ardennes Classics."
Geoghegan Hart and Ineos Grenadiers had decided during the winter that he would not return to the Giro d'Italia to defend his 2020 victory. Instead, he was part of the team's Tour de France long team and one of four possible leadership options alongside Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz and Richie Porte in what would be his debut in the sport's biggest race.
Geoghegan Hart helped Porte win the Critérium du Dauphiné and finished tenth overall himself in what was his biggest result of the year. In July he secured selection for the Tour de France and even seemed somewhat offended pre-race when his leadership role was doubted.
However, his Tour ambitions painfully ended during the opening stage, when the now infamous 'Allez Opi-Omi' spectator held her sign into the road and looked at the television camera rather than at the riders about to hit her.
"I was in good shape at the Dauphiné and confident I was building for even better. Then the crazy crash pretty much took out of the Tour," Geoghegan Hart explains.
He lost 5:33 on stage 1 and was suffering with lower back pain. He played a team role on stage 2 to the Mûr-de-Bretagne and lost a further 3:38, his overall hopes over before the opening weekend had ended. He loyally rode on to Paris, suffering in silence while working for his teammates.
"I had a lot of back pain for most of the race, it wasn't enjoyable but that's cycling, and crashes happen," he says. "There were plenty of my colleagues and my friends in the peloton already back home and seriously injured, so I felt almost fortunate to reach Paris on my Tour debut."
Grand Tour ambitions for 2022
Despite the setback of 2021, Geoghegan Hart ambitions remain. Some have already written him off as a one-Grand Tour winner, but his natural self-belief is stronger than a season of suffering and uninformed opinions on social media.
"I just have to go into 2022 and try again," he says succinctly. "The ambition is to win races, to be a protagonist, to race well and so do my job for the team whatever is asked of me. They have to be the goals of every professional."
Securing a Grand Tour leadership role at Ineos Grenadiers is a success in itself. In 2022 the team will have Egan Bernal, Richard Carapaz, Adam Yates, Tom Pidcock, Pavel Sivakov, Geraint Thomas and Geoghegan Hart as possible Grand Tour team leaders.
The team has yet to decide its plans, but Geoghegan Hart will again pursue a leadership role. Securing a place in the Tour de France team is not enough as he enters the best years of his career at 26, after an apprenticeship in Axel Merckx's development team and five years at WorldTour level.
"I think my ambitions are bigger than that. Being selected for the Tour de France is the bare minimum I expect for myself. If not, then I'm not happy," he tells Cyclingnews, his confidence again emerging, with little ego or bravado.
"From what I've seen in the sport, there's a place where I can find success. The best days I've had in Grand Tours, when I'm on form and healthy, have always been in the last week. That's perhaps not relative to my own performance but to the fatigue that emerges during the final stages of a Grand Tour. I think that situation and that final week racing suits me more than either moment; so, I think Grand Tours have to be my goal.
"Of course, there are a lot of moving parts in a Grand Tour that have to click together and that then lead to success or lead to defeat. Winning a Grand Tour is the most complex thing in our sport, that's why they're so special."
Geoghegan Hart's confidence is built on the foundations of his 2020 Giro d'Italia victory and lesson learnt during the suffering of 2021.
"Success doesn't make it any easier or the puzzle any easier but if I've learnt one thing by winning the Giro d'Italia and then facing a difficult season the year after, it's that you've got to keep trying," he concludes.
"Problems like I've had this year don't mean that I can't win another Grand Tour. I'll be back in 2022."
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