Tao Geoghegan Hart Coming of Age
Tao Geoghegan Hart Coming of Age
Today (March 30) is Tao Geoghegan Hart’s 20th birthday. Still so young. The promising British rider falls well within the Under-23 age category of his Axeon Cycling Team. Yet, shortly before his birthday, Tao sensed a milestone of sorts on the horizon.
“It’s a bit scary, actually, to not be a teenager anymore. It seems like the last great milestone of any great promise of youth that’s lost,” Tao said with a slight smile in a tone hinting that his lament is intended as a last bit of, well, teenage overstatement.
Yet our conversation with Tao during Axeon’s training camp this month in Southern California was a reminder that even top U23 riders are the products of years of focus, training, refinement and mentorship. Axeon team owner and director Axel Merckx’s mission is to help each athlete in his program development beyond that base for prepare for careers as professional cyclists. It’s something Axeon – in its seventh season with SRAM as a founding partner – has done exceptionally well. Tao, from Central London, is one of the riders to watch (we’ll be profiling others). He’s an all-arounder who can climb but who also has a nose for the nail-hard races of Belgium and Northern France.
This is Tao’s second season with the team, which last year operated as the Bissell Development Team. Photo ©Davey Wilson
Signs that Tao had the ingredients, mental and physical, to become an elite cyclist can be found in his boyhood experience as a swimmer crossing the frigid English Channel as part of a relay team.
“We used to go down to Dover, which was the harbour to go to France, and train in the sea there for two to three hours,” Tao said. “Just swimming trunks and swimming cap and goggles, and that’s it. It’s hard. It’s actually mostly just mental. When we started training it was like 10 degrees (50 Fahrenheit) in the water…. When we got ready to do the actual swim on the day it was kind of a lot easier than the training. It was like already 15 degrees Centigrade and it was only 2 hours, where we’d done 2 ½ hour swims (in training). In the race, you did like an hour then you go in the boat for like 5 hours and then you do another hour…
“The training was a lot harder. It was a mental thing. … We used to do laps of the harbour. It was about 20 minutes across. It was like an interval. You knew roughly how long you had been going. The best thing to do is to not see that time. There was one session I remember where I looked at the time. It was like 15 minutes in, and it was a 2 hour swim. And that’s a long time…. You can stay warm, but your brain just freaks out, and that’s when it gets hard.
“Certainly that’s a part of mental strength, not constantly accessing the situation, not kind of feeding too much energy to that pain and trying to not get overwhelmed by it all… People know their limits … but sometimes you have to get as close to that as possible, and it’s not the easiest thing to do.”
Showing a bit more focus, Tao participates in yoga at Axeon’s recent camp. Photo ©Davey Wilson
Soon after the Channel swim, Tao developed an interest in cycling. He joined a club in his native Hackney and started to ride, at first just for fun, then for competition. He benefited from living not too far from the historic 450-meter Herne Hill Velodrome, used in the 1948 Olympics. But he also struggled to balance training with school and to escape London traffic. Tao now lives in Girona, Spain, but fondly recalls the hardships and thrills of self-discovery of those days.
“We used to just go out on a Sunday and do like 120 miles in Essex and bonk all over the place,” Tao said. “We’d just follow one guy who knew where he was going and the rest of us were just in never-never land. It was good memories. I remember rides where I was so low on sugar I was just dizzy.
“It was good fun. I started doing some racing at the old Olympic velodrome in South London which is an outdoor velodrome called Herne Hill. We used to ride down there on track bikes. It’s like an hour and a little bit through Central London. Then we’d screw the brake off and race the track league and then ride back kind of in the dark.
For training, it was 45 minutes to get into the countryside. I used to go out after school. I don’t know how I used to do it, really. Go out in the evenings in the dark, riding in the dark every ride almost other than the weekends. It was pretty crazy.”
Tao developed a love of training in bustling London and in the less busy English countryside. Here he trains in Southern California. Photo ©Davey Wilson
Tao’s parents aren’t cyclists, but he sees in them many of the traits he hopes to develop in his quest to become a pro rider.
“My dad’s a builder,” Tao said. “He does renovation to old Victorian houses in the area where we live. A lot of people are trying to expand. It’s so expensive to buy housing in London. My mom works at an art university in Central London. She’s a trained architect. I’ve always said this a lot. My parents both have real traits that would make them great athletes, but they never had the circumstance. They’re just really resilient and hard working and, not really single minded, but quite dedicated in what they do and good at working away for a goal that’s a few months or even sometimes a few years down the road.”
In our conversation, Tao makes one point especially clear. He’s a fan of pro cycling and its history, and he wants to remain one as riding his bike becomes his job. He appreciates how bike racing helped give him an identity. And – as with so many cycling fans – he has a special affection for Belgium.
“It’s a passion of mine,” Tao said. “I’m a fan of the sport, and me being a rider doesn’t affect that. The history of it. The kind of romance of it. One of the things is how different it is to growing up in Central London, or how different it is to other sports which I did when I was younger… like football (soccer) or swimming, or anything like that… It’s so alien being out in those mountains or on the cobbles in Northern France or Belgium… I used to race a lot in Belgium when I was younger. I used to race there more than in England because it was so easy to get from the southeast of England across the Channel. And I just love racing there because they just have that passion for cycling…. Going into the pub… going into this random little village hall for changing rooms on a plastic chair and (riders) having their little foot baths and their moms or girlfriends giving them their leg rubs… I really miss racing there, actually.”
Tao is one of many talented British riders racing internationally these days.
Axeon is a development team focused on helping Tao and other rides make that difficult transition from promising athlete to full-fledged pro. Yet Axeon Cycling, under the vision of Axel Merckx, also wants to help equipment sponsors in their development process. Riders such as Tao learn to effectively communicate with team mechanics about their gear and to take responsibility for their own bike, its setup and its cleanliness. They also learn how to evaluate high-level cycling products including prototypes.
“I really like working with companies when there’s like a personal feel to it,” Tao said. “It draws you to the individual story of what goes into that product and working with real people who are a part of it, and that product is their passion just the same as our performance and our team is our passion. With certain individual companies you see they’re going the extra mile, whether it’s with equipment or just whether it’s with the personnel they employ…. When you’re riding your bike for four or five hours most days, then you do notice the difference when stuff works and when it doesn’t, and when stuff feels good and when it doesn’t. SRAM is great actually at just saying, ‘OK, this is good.’ Certainly my experience working with SRAM, Quarq and Zipp is it’s always an ongoing kind of development procedure. You never reach that final finish, just like in cycling, because there’s always something that can be refined.”
Tao enjoys riding SRAM, Zipp and Quarq, and working closely with each of brands. Tech liaisons from SRAM are in regular contact with Axeon riders and staff.
This year, Axeon – in addition to riding SRAM RED 22 componentry and Quarq power measurement – adds Zipp wheels, bars and stems. Tao viewed this addition, again, from his perspective as a fan, of cycling and high technology.
“I’ve never raced Zipp’s before, and I was really excited when I found out we were on Zipps this year,” Tao said. “They’re quite an iconic brand in the sport. They’ve been kind of innovative and ahead of a lot of other manufacturers. Stuff like the Firecrest was just so game changing. If you go back to being more of a fan than a rider… As a fan I always saw that Zipp profiles were then copied a year or two later by their competitors. Or the competitor wheels started looking more and more like Zipps. I think that’s the true telltale sign of who’s innovative in the sport and who’s leading the way for product development. Without a doubt, you get on a set of those wheels and you can feel the difference. You don’t need the numbers. You know that there’s a lot of resources and technology that’s gone into that and as a rider it’s really nice to ride something you’d choose to ride.”
Top Photo by ©Davey Wilson