Cycling tao2

Published on February 12th, 2013 | by Marcus Liddell

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Tao Geoghegan Hart: London’s second cycling prodigy

Great Britain junior cyclist, Tao Geoghegan Hart, tells Marcus Liddell about the perception of cycling in London, racing in France and the subject of doping.

I met Tao Geoghegan Hart at a coffee shop near Liverpool Street. A stones throw from the Gherkin and just a few stops from Tao’s native Hackney, it is not exactly the place you expect to meet one of the bright talents of British cycling; sure there are plenty of people riding bikes, but they are mostly of the folding or Boris variety.

“People don’t expect you to be a bike rider from London”, said Tao,  although, as he also points out, a certain Tour de France winner did grow up just five miles west of Hackney.

A shared hometown is not the only thing they have in common: on the track Tao competes in the team pursuit, an event Bradley Wiggins won Olympic Gold in; he is also sponsored by Condor, like Wiggins was at his age, and last summer he won the Bath Junior National Road Race – a race Wiggins won as a junior – on the same day as Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France.

It is a comparison Tao takes with a large pinch of salt. Still, he is on the right path. A member of the British Cycling Olympic Development Programme, he has competed for Great Britain on the road and on the track. He has also won two Junior National Road Race Series events riding for his local cycling club, Hackney CC.

“Roubaix is amazing. It’s kind of like entering a stadium for two kilometres, and then you get back out,  and you hit the next one.”

He describes his first ride for Great Britain at the Youth Olympics in July 2011 in Trabzon, Turkey, as a big turning point.

“I think it’s really special the first time you put on a national jersey, especially as a youth rider as that’s the only opportunity that there is. It was a big learning curb for me, not just the racing, it was the process around the racing, working as a team and getting selected, all those kinds of little things.”

The experience was the spring board for a successful 2012. Last season Tao rode for Great Britain in three Nations Cup races, the European Track Championships, The European Road Championships and World Road Championships – all major junior events.

One of the earliest Nations Cup events was the famous Paris-Roubaix, known in cycling as The Hell of the North. It is a race Tao remembers fondly – despite crashing. The junior race takes place on the morning of the professional race, taking in the famous sections of narrow cobblestones across Northern France.

“Roubaix is amazing. You come in from a reasonable width tarmac road to a super narrow cobbled road and all of a sudden the whole landscape changes; you’ve got all these fans lining it and barbeques, it’s kind of like entering a stadium for two kilometres, and then you get back out, and you hit the next one.”

The Junior World Road Race also took place on the same day as the Senior’s, with the junior team staying in the same hotel as Britain’s best. “It was amazing having dinner on the table next to the Tour de France winner”, though Tao was clear no one was asking for autographs.

“It’s nice to say hello to them, and Cav [Mark Cavendish] came over and said hi to us on the first evening, and shook all our hands, and that’s a really nice gesture. But at the end of the day they’re racing, everyone’s there to do their job. It’s a big, big race – the biggest.

As a rider, Tao is pretty versatile. Reluctant to pigeon hole himself, he says he prefers the hillier races where the climbs split up the field; it is when the racing is aggressive that he feels that he is at his best. But it’s not all about the road: “I also love riding the track, and the team pursuit at the European Championships is probably the best experience of my career. I learnt so much from that process and experience; even if we did only come away with second after aiming for the gold medal.”

And although different disciplines, Tao finds it relatively easy to slip between the track and the road. Pointing to important details like tactics and bike handling skills which are best learnt on the track.

Tao’s enthusiasm for cycling is clear as we talk about racing. But it was not his first sport. Initially he was a keen swimmer completing an English Channel relay at 13. It was around that time he started cycling, doing a 200km overnight ride from Hackney to the coast. The turning point came when he got knocked off his bike: “I broke my hand and a few bones in my fingers etc. And I was told, ‘you can ride your bike in four weeks but you can’t swim for two months.’ I never swam again after that.”

Asked why, Tao explains: “Maybe it never sat with me that well, but I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s just a different culture to cycling, I much prefer cycling, the training and more social side of cycling; just being outdoors not being up and down a chlorine pool. All these things made me suit cycling a lot better than I ever did swimming, which at the time I didn’t realise.”

He has not looked back, Tao started racing at 14 and quickly learnt everything he could about the sport. Currently completing his A-levels, he finds time to balance school work with training. Something he does not mind as long he can do enough work on his bike. At the moment training involves about 15-22 hours a week, depending on the balance between endurance and intensity. He usually trains alone, riding out from Hackney into Essex. His coach Matthew Winston sets the plan and he follows it.

It is a huge sacrifice to make at 17, but Tao says his friends and family are all very supportive, and that recent successes in British cycling have given them a better of understanding of what he does. Though of course, lately, cycling has also been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

““Everyone wants to prove themselves, everyone wants to win, there’s a lot less of a team element in British junior races.”

To his credit, Tao talks candidly on the subject. “I’ll never tolerate anything, for me its black and white.” It is stance he feels is easy to maintain in British cycling: “As a young cyclist I feel, not only protected, which is probably a surprise for most people to hear, considering what they know, but also educated massively on doping in elite level sport – not just cycling – in elite level sport.” Of course things were not always this way, at least not in the professional peloton. But Tao feels things have changed, and he is thankful that he and other young riders do not have to worry about what will await them should they turn professional.

The conversation turns to 2013, and it certainly looks set to be a big year for Tao. His overall aim is to earn a place at the British Cycling Academy, or join a semi-professional or professional team. Something which would be a new experience for him: “I ride for my local club, mostly because I’m racing a lot for GB in a season but also because it’s something that’s close to me, and because I don’t see it as essential to be on a team at this stage.”

Tao explained the more individualistic nature of junior cycling: “Everyone wants to prove themselves, everyone wants to win, there’s a lot less of a team element in British junior races. It’s different on the continent; when we race as GB it’s very much as a team”. It is also often the same people at the front of the British junior races, so there is a lot of watching each other, he explains, though it is a friendly rivalry, with the same riders who compete at national level, often linking up to ride for Great Britain.

One less rival will be Alex Peters. Also from Hackney, and year older than Tao, he has signed for new professional outfit Madison Genesis. It is a direction Tao eventually wants to follow, “To ride professional races, and make a career out of riding a bike would be my ultimate goal. And from there you take what happens, and you see what happens. But that would be my biggest, biggest ambition.”

It was a statement spoken with some belief. London might not produce many cyclists – but the ones they do tend to be pretty good.

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