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Harry Tanfield is taking a step backwards to keep moving forward

16 Nov 2020

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Peter Stuart and ASO 

Harry Tanfield is having to take a backwards step in his career. After two years riding with cycling’s elite, the 25-year-old will drop down two rungs on the professional ladder from WorldTour team AG2R La Mondiale and join up with the Continental Ribble-Weldtite team for 2021.

Come 2021, AG2R La Mondiale will be known as AG2R Citreon. With the new sparkling sponsor comes a big bump in budget and with that a raft of new signings including Greg Van Avermaet and Bob Jungels. The team is attempting to revolutionise into something different from 2021 and with that has asked 10 of its existing riders to kindly exit stage left.

In September, Yorkshire-born Tanfield learned he was one of those unfortunate riders.

The undeniably talented rider has been trying to ply a trade in the WorldTour for the past two seasons. Aged just 25, his experience of racing with the best has been as colourful as the most experienced of pros' careers.

Halfway through his first year at Katusha-Alpecin – where he described racing as regularly ‘getting my head kicked in’, he was greeted with an email no rider wants to see. It was notice that the team’s sponsors would be withdrawing at the end of the year and that Tanfield would be without a team.

A frantic search began during what Tanfield describes as the ‘toughest period’ in his short yet eventful career. For a while, it looked as if a drop back down the ladder would be necessary until AG2R La Mondiale got in contact, willing to honour the second year of his neo-pro contract.

Things were looking up for Tanfield. A year’s contract with one of WorldTour cycling’s most stable teams and the opportunity to put into practice what he had learned from a year with Katusha. Then Covid-19 hit. Racing was put on pause, uncertainty about the future gripped all of cycling and lightning struck twice for Tanfield.

‘AG2R wrote to me at the start of September giving me formal notice that I wouldn’t be kept on,’ Tanfield told Cyclist.

‘At that point, I’d done like one stage race and a one-day after lockdown and they’d decided to let 10 guys go. The budget is going up with Citreon coming on board and the team’s going after different riders who have proven some stuff in Classics, things that my record doesn’t have.

‘The budget has gone up so they want to spend that money on new riders and get rid of guys like me, a neo-pro, to go get riders like Van Avermaet and the domestiques who come with guys like that,’ he explained.

What AG2R did was just business. It’s a team going through a restructuring process and there was no place for Tanfield going forward. That does not stop it from being a rough deal for the individual, though.

After all, this was a unique season in which Covid-19 blurred the lines as to what usually happens in the transfer market. The uncertainty of teams' futures created less buoyancy and the usual merry-go-round of signings remained reserved for only the biggest teams and most notable of riders.

‘A few teams, like Mitchelton-Scott, told me they were keeping with riders that they have for 2021 due to the circumstances whereas AG2R decided to get rid of a load of its team,’ wryly joked Tanfield.

‘I looked around for a WorldTour deal for a month, maybe, and then I realised I needed to look elsewhere. There was a lot of uncertainty from teams unsure about their positioning next year, teams trying to just survive and I realised there really wasn’t any room anywhere.’

Luckily, Tanfield is a talented rider who has proved his worth and has always been smart enough to keep other options constantly open.

Regular contact with Jack Rees, team manager of Ribble-Weldtite, led to Tanfield eventually fielding questions about a ride for 2021. As it became increasingly obvious that a step down would be necessary to continue riding next season, the approach was made.

‘I had a few offers on the table alongside Ribble. I could have gone to Europe to race, I could have even gone to Asia to race at Continental level but I picked Ribble because I know what I’m getting in terms of race plan and opportunities,’ explained Tanfield.

‘I asked Rees to see if he could talk to the sponsors and whether they could sort out an offer for me, which they did. Really, money isn’t a factor for me currently, I want a chance to step back up to that top level and Ribble can offer me the programme for that.’

For Ribble-Weldtite, this is a big coup. The acquisition of a rider with two years of WorldTour experience, a proven track record of winning at Continental level – he is the team’s best chance of a big victory in 2021.

Tanfield will be given the freedom to race a 2021 programme tailored to his abilities. No longer will he be acting domestique for small French climbers, he will be given the chance to race aggressively and for victory, as he did in 2018 when he first caught the attention of the WorldTour.

In return, he will be a rider who will be able to give a lot back to the team having taken on a wealth of knowledge in his two-year WorldTour stint. From the big things such as learning how to build the body's aerobic capacity to the small things like packing a suitcase more efficiently, it will all be passed on. Not least, too, the experiences of racing a Grand Tour.

‘I learned more in the three weeks of the Vuelta a Espana than I had in the previous two years of WorldTour riding,’ said Tanfield.

‘What I managed to do at the Vuelta proved to me I could manage the biggest races. Riding day in, day out at the level of a one-day race over here in the UK but backing it up for two, three weeks consecutively, learning what your body can and cannot do. Being able to look after myself in the bunch, protect teammates, you cannot regret that experience.’

When Tanfield returns to the British racing scene, however, it will be a shadow of what he left behind in 2018. Riding for Canyon-Eisberg two years ago, Tanfield was in a thriving British Continental-level circuit consisting of six teams: Canyon-Eisberg, JLT Condor, Madison Genesis, One Pro Cycling, Team Wiggins and Vitus Pro Cycling.

Next year, the only confirmed Continental British team will be Ribble-Weldtite, an issue Tanfield is acutely aware of.

‘The scene is terrible, yeah. I know there are plans to resurrect the UK scene but it needs help getting off the ground. It’s all about money, teams are struggling to attract the money needed to run a good team that can return on its investment,’ said Tanfield.

‘Jack does that very well with Ribble, they engage with the sponsors and treat them like the fundamental part of the team that they are, making sure they get the payback in exposure. I think it’s fundamental in times like these. Everything is monetised, everything is accountable and you need to see the return in investment.

‘Gone are the days when you can go to a brand and demand money to run a bike team. They want to see the return. Ribble has seen growth from their support of the team.’

For now, however, Tanfield will take the chance to regroup over the winter, enjoy being back in North Yorkshire and making the most of his £40 Aldi pizza oven before taking a charge at some pretty lofty ambitions for next year.

‘I know I’m good enough to race at WorldTour, I just need the time to get results and develop which next year should provide,’ says Tanfield.

‘Hopefully this time next year when you call me, I will be talking to you about my new ride on WorldTour team.’