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In praise of time-trials

Trevor Ward
2 Jan 2019

The time-trial has a colourful past, but retains an everyman appeal for cyclists of every level

Photography: Tapestry

This article first appeared in Issue 79 of Cyclist magazine

I had just started work as a reporter on the Bournemouth Evening Echo when I caught the attention of the local government correspondent.

He spent every morning in a corner of the office hunched over his typewriter with his back to the rest of us, and every afternoon attending assorted obscure council committee meetings.

He was significantly older than the rest of us and wore tweed jackets and industrial-strength bi-focal spectacles.

Only his furled trouser bottoms and steel bicycle clips gave a clue to the maverick persona that lurked behind his conventional façade.

One day he shuffled up to me and introduced himself in a low whisper. He said there was something happening in the New Forest just off the Ringwood bypass that night that might interest me, but that I shouldn’t tell anyone else.

He’d give me the exact location and time only if I was certain I’d be able to attend.

It wasn’t quite the Deep Throat scene from All The President’s Men, but the young newshound in me was carried away with thoughts of playing Bernstein to his Woodward as we won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing a council scandal.

The reality was slightly more down to earth, though no less exciting. He’d noticed I sometimes arrived by bike and thought I might be interested in taking part in his club’s weekly 10. (His clandestine demeanour, I would learn, was a hangover from the sport’s secretive past).

I’d like to say this was the start of a lifelong love affair with cycling’s oldest discipline, the time-trial. But it wasn’t. The taste of abject failure – I finished last that balmy summer’s evening in Hampshire – lingered for years.

But occasionally there still comes a warm summer’s night when my legs feel good, I’m consumed by an unbearable lightness of wellbeing and I can’t resist the call of riding my bike as fast as I can in a competitive environment.

All the peripheral details – the ‘Warning: Cyclists’ signs along the route, the buzz of riders warming up on rollers, the volunteers counting you down – make it a much more thrilling, and even slightly glamorous, affair than the drudgery of trying to bag a Strava segment.

Midweek TTs are a club staple. They provide a remarkably inclusive opportunity for everyone – of any shape, gender or age – to experience the intensity and punishment of a full-on race environment without the stress of having to worry about bunch etiquette or sprint finishes.

As the saying goes, it’s the race of truth. You are racing against yourself.

Most prefer routes unencumbered by turns, hills or junctions. It’s purely about the sensation of speed, and fast courses are hallowed strips of tarmac.

That’s why there was an outcry over the recent banning of cyclists from a stretch of the A63 near Hull – this was part of the famed ‘V718’ course where Marcin Bialoblocki and Hayley Simmonds set their British 10TT records.

While the act of individuals setting off at intervals against the clock may not be the most exciting spectacle in sport, time-trialling has been an essential skill for GC riders in stage races since the Tour introduced its first one in 1934 (a 90km stage won by eventual overall winner Antonin Magne).

A few years earlier, Tour organiser Henri Desgrange had tried turning flat stages into the slightly more interesting spectacle of team time-trials – ‘the hardest, most brutal discipline in cycling’, according to former British road champion and team manager Brian Smith – but these were scrapped for favouring bigger teams too much.

The winners of the 1989 Tour and 2012 Giro were decided in spectacular fashion when Greg LeMond and Ryder Hesjedal won their respective final stage TTs by just handfuls of seconds.

And while LeMond and his aero bars were delivering misery to Laurent Fignon in 1989, two other riders were embroiled in an intense and bitter TT rivalry on this side of the Channel.

Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree clashed over 10 and 25 miles in a series of events, including the British Championships, which gripped cycling fans.

In his autobiography Triumphs And Turbulence, Boardman acknowledges that without this rivalry ‘I don’t think I would ever have won an Olympic title’.

It’s ironic that the success of Britain’s first Olympic champion cyclist should have its roots in a discipline born 120 years ago as a result of circumstances that sound eerily familiar today.

At the end of the 1800s, other road users just didn’t like cyclists racing around on their machines, scaring their livestock and getting in the way of public transport (stage coaches) on narrow lanes.

Rather than fall foul of the authorities, the National Cyclists’ Union – clearly lacking an impassioned advocate such as Boardman – caved in and imposed its own ban on road racing.

To get around this, clubs either confined their racing to tracks or offered riders the chance to test themselves against the clock on the open road.

But to evade suspicion, these road events were top-secret affairs, taking place during pre-dawn hours on roads given code names, with riders setting off at intervals so as not to draw attention.

A start card for a typical event organised by Anfield Bicycle Club in 1903 was marked ‘Private and Confidential’ and instructed competitors ‘to be as quietly dressed as possible and to avoid all appearance of racing through villages’.

The ban on road races was finally lifted in 1959, by which time the Brits lagged well behind their European counterparts in road racing nous.

They had, however, become masters in the art of time-trialling, a tradition that continues to attract a diversity of characters – from skinsuited Olympic champions to bespectacled local newspaper hacks – to windswept dual carriageway laybys on a weekly basis today.

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