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The toughest race of them all: A grand tour rookie’s daily battle with the time cut

Ian Garrison and Harry Tanfield both had their battles with the time limit at the Vuelta a España. One of them won, one of them lost.

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Primož Roglič and Richard Carapaz lit up this autumn’s Vuelta a España with their fierce tug-o-war tussle for the race’s red jersey. But half an hour down the road, two grand tour rookies were fighting an equally-dogged battle: Themselves versus the time cut.

Away from phenoms such as Tadej Pogačar and João Almeida, the main objective for many grand tour debutants is simply to survive their first three-week race.

Every day most rookies clip into their pedals boils down to a fraught four or five hours of avoiding ride-ending injuries, illnesses, or some other unforeseen setback, and a desperate daily pursuit race to finish within the time cut – a parameter set off a certain percentage of the stage winner’s time.

U.S. national time trial champ Ian Garrison (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) won his skirmish with the cut-off by a matter of inches at this year’s Vuelta. British rouleur Harry Tanfield (Ag2r-La Mondiale) waved the white flag of surrender as nagging injuries and illnesses left him certain he was fighting a losing battle.

After struggling with a torn muscle from early on in the Vuelta’s exceptionally tough opening week, Tanfield was scraping through by the skin of his teeth. Heading into the third week, he was dangling by a thread.

The 26-year-old started stage 15, a 230-kilometer slog through the rugged hills of western Spain. Unfortunately, like a growing number of riders in days prior, Tanfield finished the stage in the team car. To have made it so deep into the race was a victory in itself.

“I thought I wasn’t going to make it most days, to be honest,” Tanfield told VeloNews. “I went on stage 15 though. I kind of knew it was going to happen that day.”

“I was sick from a stomach bug, and my body just wasn’t recovering. I started sliding out the back any time the road went uphill, and on 50km I just popped completely. I just couldn’t ride over about 350 [watts] and I just knew if I couldn’t do that, I had to go home – end of.”

It was a team car that kept Garrison in the race, however.

With the Vuelta’s finish line in sight, the wheels nearly came off Garrison’s first grand tour at the very final hurdle. Having ridden a quietly confident through 16 stages, it all looked in peril on the final mountain stage to the Alto de la Covatilla on the Vuelta’s penultimate day.

“It was real cold and wet that day I just had a really bad day and wasn’t feeling myself and lost the group early on. I just blew up on a climb about 30 K in and couldn’t hold the group,” he told VeloNews. “It was one of those climbs where if you made it over you’d be safe with a solid group for the day. If you didn’t, you just had to see what you can do.”

With less than an hour of racing completed, Garrison slid out of the main pack, and lost contact with the gruppetto to start a long lonely time trial against the time limit.

“Luckily I had a team car with me so I was sorted for food and drinks,” Garrison recalled. “And it definitely made a difference that it was basically our last day. The next day was Madrid [a city center critérium] so there was a little bit more fight – I knew I could really leave everything out there.

“In my head, I just said ‘I’ve got to keep riding and see what happens.’ Every time I made it over a climb, I just said, ‘OK, make it to the next one, get to the next one,’ and kept doing that all day long.”

Four categorized climbs later and Garrison was at the bottom of the nine-kilometer grind to the finish line atop the Alto de la Covatilla. The clock was ticking faster than the Georgia native may have liked.

“On the last climb I had 40 minutes to get up or something, and I was just fighting all the way to the line,” he said. “I think I had two minutes spare change at the top, but I was really like, ‘just keep going and see how far you can make it,’ all the way up.”

A daily tightrope

Similar faces would be seen in the gruppetto on a daily basis. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Garrison successfully rode into Madrid to complete his debut grand tour, along with 142 other riders. Nearly three weeks earlier, some 176 riders had rolled out of Irún for the Vuelta’s opening stage – that adds up to 33 whose race finished earlier than anticipated. Three riders didn’t even make it through the first stage.

Many of those who left the Vuelta with a “DNF” in their palmarès got to spend more time with each other than they would have wished for, with a small pool of riders engaging survival mode in the gruppetto on a near-daily basis.

Garrison and Tanfield both got to know each other quite well from their hardest days dangling at the back of the bunch in Spain.

“We had a good group there at the back, working out the time limits,” Tanfield joked. “On those horrible mountain days it was me and the boys at the back – there was a prolific gruppetto group of six or eight of us. I think we all went home.”

For a rookie merely looking to complete a grand tour, every day is a matter of avoiding the looming threat of a mishap. The slightest hint of a cold, or one instant of wheel-loosing lapsed concentration and it’s over. The odds are stacked against some of them before they’ve even pinned a number on for the opening stage.

“When you’re like me and weigh 80 kilos with a five watts per kilo threshold, not six [watts per kilo] like these guys up the road, you’re on the balance all day just trying to hack around. It’s not like if you’re Egan Bernal and you have a bad day and finish mid-pack,” Tanfield said.

“There’s only so much you can do if you’re ill or something goes wrong, and then you lose your 20-30 watts off your FTP with that then like, you’re [expletive deleted].”

When racing kick starts again next spring, spare a thought for those guys you don’t see, dozens of minutes behind the race leaders. Their race is altogether different, yet equally as consequential.