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Tour de France

Tragedy and triumph in the race against the time cut at the Tour de France

Some of the hardest racing of the Tour de France takes place way off-camera as the 'gruppetto' battles against the jury's stopwatch.

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The cruelest race of the Tour de France is one that doesn’t make it onto television.

Some 30 minutes down on the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Richard Carapaz, and Rigoberto Urán, dozens of riders face a nerve-riddled battle with the ticking clock of the time cut as they race through the unrelenting Alps and the Pyrénées.

The battle for the sprinters, rouleurs, and the walking wounded to avoid elimination in the high mountains has become a central story of this year’s Tour.

Mark Cavendish was a tearful survivor of the race against the clock on the frozen haul into Tignes, keeping him in contention to draw level with the legendary “Merckx mark.” Seven others were ruled hors délais that day, including the trailblazing Nic Dlamini and top sprinter Arnaud Démare.

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“I couldn’t do more,” Démare said after being booted from the race Sunday. “This is sport at the highest level. In the Tour, it is race or perish.”

Just three days later, Luke Rowe lost the race against the commissaires stopwatch after two ascents of the Ventoux.

“This race has been good to me over the years, but this is the harsh reality of the sport,” he said. “One bad day, and it’s pack your bags and off to the airport.”

The Tour de France is a race that makes or breaks dreams. Mathieu van der Poel, Matej Mohorič, and Nils Politt have lived out their fantasies with debut Tour stage wins. Meanwhile, Dlamini was unable to complete his history-making ride as the first Black South African to start the Tour.

“It’s sad to finish the Tour this way, but the most important thing was to not stop and ride to the finish regardless of being outside the time limit,” Dlamini said after he resolutely rode to the line, 90 minutes late. “I honored the dream.”

It’s in the Tour’s gruppetto — the last group on the road — that many riders’ Tour de France dreams go to die.

Eight riders have had their Tour ambitions and aspirations quashed as of stage 12. That list is likely to increase as the Tour heads toward a series of heavy days in the Pyrénées starting Sunday.

Mental arithmetic in the high mountains

The cutoff time is published at the finish line – but riders may not know what it is. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The time cut for every day of a grand tour is calculated from a percentage of the stage-winner’s time, with different percentages applied to stages of differing difficulty. A “generous” 14 percent was applied in the race to Tignes. The gruppetto was afforded a 15 percent margin to complete the twin ascent of the Ventoux on Tuesday. A tougher fraction of around one-tenth has been used for bunch sprints.

The varying factors in the time cut equation require racers to make mind-boggling estimations in real-time as their brains swim in the midst of mid-ride suffering. Many of the peloton’s stragglers have no idea how much time they can afford to lose as they and their directors make ever-shifting guesstimates.

While no rider purposefully pushes the time limit too fine, many are cautious not to empty the tanks mid-race and come in with too comfortable a margin.

Søren Kragh Andersen and Greg Van Avermaet cut it as fine as it could possibly be. Van Avermaet beat the clock by five seconds in Tignes. Kragh Andersen went even closer — his final dash to the line in Malaucene gave him a three-second victory over ejection.

The Belgian duo got very lucky with their final sprints for survival.

Stefan de Bod was not met with such fortune. The South African had crashed the stage prior and then lost a contact lens on the rain-sodden stage to Tignes. A blurry-eyed and bruised De Bod lost contact with the bunch and rode the 20km summit finish alone.

“Did I make it?” was the first thing he said when he crossed the line.

He was four minutes too late.

A bus without drivers

Tour de France stage 9
Cavendish and his Quick-Step train have been the men to follow when the road points uphill. Photo: James Startt

The gruppetto used to have strong figureheads that would “drive the bus.”

Respected – or feared – riders like Eros Poli, Mario Cipollini, and Bernhard Eisel would control the pace so that it was never too fast or never too slow. Dozens of riders would bunch together as they looked for an easy ride home and hoped for a kind eye from the jury should they come in late.

Lotto-Soudal leadout man Roger Kluge said there is no rider bossing the so-called “autobus” anymore.

“It’s not been well-organized for a few years,” he told VeloNews earlier this week.

Kluge explained that smaller, less organized, groups are looking toward the cool heads and experienced minds of Deceuninck-Quick-Step in the race for survival. Michael Mørkøv and Tim Declercq paced Cavendish through to Tignes last Sunday and over the Ventoux this week as Quick-Step goes all-in to keep the sprinter’s Tour de France alive.

“These days, if Cav gets in trouble, he always will be surrounded by teammates,” Kluge said. “So if you have a bad day you try to hang around with those guys. So far they brought him home, so if you’re in his group, you’re safe.”

Kluge will be one of many sprinters, leadout men, and walking wounded hoping to hang tough in the Pyrénées so as to make it through to Paris. With Cavendish and Co. going all-in for stage win number four, the green-jerseyed Manxman will be marked just as closely in the high mountains and he will be in the fast finishes to come.

However, the tally of eight that have already lost out in the time cut time trial is only likely to increase.

The next high mountain stage arrives in the Andorran “Queen Stage” on Sunday. When the cameras are focussing on Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard, and Ineos Grenadiers at the front of the bunch, spare a passing thought for the battle at the back of the race.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.