After a tough Giro d'Italia in early May and a promising Tour de Pologne in late July, Team Ineos' Tao Geoghegan Hart finds himself back in a Grand Tour at the Vuelta a España for a second year running - but with a fresh approach.
Geoghegan Hart had to abandon the Giro d'Italia this May after multiple crashes and injuries. But rather than adopt the same pre-race buildup to the Vuelta that he had last year, this time, he tells Cyclingnews, he's tried a less complex strategy.
Instead of doing the Vuelta a Burgos in the immediate build-up like in 2018 and risk getting over-tired, Geoghegan has spent the last few pre-Vuelta days at home, quietly satisfied with a fifth place overall in the Tour de Pologne the previous week, and, as he tells Cyclingnews, "keeping it simple." Above all, he made sure he kept the brakes on to keep from going too deep in his racing and training.
"When you're really motivated to race it doesn't hurt you to do a lot, to do great efforts. You get really good motivation and adrenaline from seeing how well you're going, and it's always easy to do a bit more, push on a bit more and do a few more hours." the 24-year-old explained.
"This year, and it's not just in the Vuelta, I've not been afraid to go into races really fresh. You have to learn that whilst you train super-hard, when it comes to races you have to pick the moment a bit more."
"I've had more time to rest up and try and implement some of the lessons I learned last year. So hopefully I'll be coming into my second-and-a-half Grand Tour feeling a bit stronger."
The Alicante area, where the Vuelta starts this year, is steeped in Sky/Ineos Grand Tour history. Sunday's stage begins in Benidorm, where Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome rode the opening team time trial en route to their podium finishes in 2011 in Madrid (eight years on, Froome was awarded the victory). Sky finished third to last that year in the Benidorm TTT after a bad crash on a fast descent shattered the team's line-up, something they'll be hoping won't be repeated this Saturday evening in Torrevieja.
Geoghegan Hart will not commit to whether he's going for GC in the Vuelta, stages, or both. The idea in the Spanish media this week that he would be a candidate for the Vuelta's white jersey of Best Young rider is something he dismisses for now as "speculation".
"By the time trial in Pau, we'll have a pretty good idea of where everybody is."
One stage that is marked with an X in his mental route book is Andorra, where he knows the climbs very well.
"Actually it's probably only stage I know," he reflects, "although in bike races you always have that thing where you think don't know something and then you remember it from other times. But I know the Andorra stage super-well from training there, it'll be a really nice stage."
Ineos are playing a ‘two-hander' in the Vuelta this year, as both Geoghegan and Wout Poels will have protected status. Poels is, as Geoghegan Hart points out, far more experienced in Grand Tour racing than he is, and it will be intriguing to see how their co-leader roles plays out.
"We've got a team with a mixture of younger guys and experienced ones, not just very young guys like in the Giro d'Italia, so it's a nice balance," Geoghegan Hart says.
"Wout's so much more than a domestique, he's had so many big wins, and he's been one of the most consistent Grand Tour riders in the last half decade."
"We've seen him countless times next to Froome and G [Geraint Thomas] in the mountains. I remember watching him in this race a couple of years ago. He was one of the strongest and he almost won a couple of times in the last week, whilst working for Froome. So it's nice to have him here, and it's a big opportunity for all of us as a group to come together and try to make the most of the race."
As for Geoghegan Hart, with the exception of the Giro d'Italia, overall it's been a very good season, with the Tour des Alps, placing second and with a stage win, one notable highlight. And it's not just about Spain, either, from hereon: after the Vuelta, he aims to go on racing deep into the autumn, with the Worlds one goal, although he's yet to be selected.
But rather than feeling that he has unfinished Grand Tour business after his unlucky Giro, Geoghegan Hart is looking at the Vuelta as a goal in its own right.
"It's more I want to make the best of it and the most of this opportunity. For guys who don't do the Tour this is very much a season of two halves, with a clear break in the middle and mine happened to be a little longer."
"So I'm hoping having that period at home will be beneficial. The Giro was not great with how it ended and even with the crash before. But it's still an experience, so I'm just trying to build on it, I know I had good legs there."
"And they were good in Poland too after 70 something days, a really long period without racing. This is a very different proposition to a seven-day stage race with two to four kilometre climbs like Pologne, but I'm looking forward to it."
First up comes the Vuelta's opening team time trial, where Geoghegan Hart is guardedly optimistic about his and his team's chances.
"Most of us did a TTT session earlier this week. It should be good for us. It's not pan flat, few little bumps and one fast descent. But with 13 kilometres, the times are going to be super tight."
"We've no big specialists other than [former World TT champion Vasil] Kiryenka, but then of the core group below him we've got some strong TTT guys."
"It's not always TT specialists that have a punch in a course like this, specially something that's not going to be a little more than 14 minutes effort."
" TTTs are always a good goal for Ineos as it is for most teams, because it's something where always improve, even if you win. So we'll get stuck in and it'll certainly get the race off with a bang on Saturday."