Contre-la-montre

Probably the first thing to get out in the air is this: this blog is about time trialling…. And the mountain, but that is for later.

For the uneducated: cycle racing on the road can be fairly simplistically divided into two disciplines. For the man in the street road racing is probably the image that most readily springs to mind: Le Tour de France or the Milk Race. Riders line up in to start in a big bunch, tackle the majority of the course together and, more often than not, fight it out for the win in a final sprint. In the amateur cycling scene in the UK races are often run as several laps on circuits on the open road, cycle or motor racing circuits, or on closed roads in town centres rather than from place-to-place as the professionals tend to race. Collaborating with your fellow competitors is essential and often it is not the strongest rider, but the cleverest who takes the win, timing their efforts to best take advantage of the situation.

However, for a host of tedious reasons, the UK road racing scene is probably equalled in size by the discipline of time trialling. The race starts, not with a cacophony of cleats clicking into pedals, but with a simple 5 second count down and often a cheery ‘good luck!’ from the time-keeper as, one-by-one each competitor is released onto the course, usually a minute apart. The aim is quite simply to make it to the finish line in the fastest time. ‘Alone and unassisted’ is the mantra and, with the exception of specific team events, the outcome is entirely dependent on the strength of the rider and their ability to maintain their effort from start to finish. The race is contre-la-montre. Against-the-clock.

Road racing is often described as ‘chess on wheels’. No one cyclist is strong enough to simply power through a race alone and win, the laws of aerodynamics dictate that a group of riders can always travel faster than an individual. Therefore the race, and the outcome for any given rider, is defined by the tactics that are deployed and the will of the other riders to work together. The physical experience swings between lung bursting efforts to close the gap to the rider in front, often as the strongest riders make a bid to escape from the front of the race, to sitting up and chatting as the peloton awaits the next move.

Time trialling is rather more like going into a boxing match against a slab of concrete. The rider has to ride from A to B as fast as possible. This will be painful. The first few minutes of the race will probably not be too bad, the legs spin away powering the rider down the course but the lungs and heart will take a short while to catch up. As soon as they do the… beauty… of the race is holding the delicate balance between trying too hard, and not trying hard enough. Oft quoted time trialling wisdom is ‘you want be trying so hard that you throw up just after you’ve crossed the line’. It is all too easy to over reach your ability and do so before the finish line is reached. 100 times a minute the legs pump round and round on the pedals – forcing bike and rider through the air. Lactic acid builds in the blood and is cleared, scorching the veins, capilliaries and arteries as it passes through. Muscles become leaden and scream in protest. Hunched over the bike, desperately trying to hold the most aerodynamic position possible, the back and forearms ache as the road surface provides instant feedback from every bump. Breathing quickly becomes ragged as the rider tries to drag in enough oxygen to fuel the next pedal stroke. One kind of pain provides distraction from another, and from the remaining miles, until the chequered flag that invariably marks the end of the ordeal.

Road racing produces plenty of heroes for us to dream of emulating: Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish, Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen (cycling afficiandos can scoff at / add their ire to the debate around these choices in the comments section below).These are epic riders who can climb over Alpine mountain passes leaving others in the wake or who can sprint like bullets fired from a gun towards the finishing line. And their achievements are all given instant perspective, as they dance up the road, ahead of the other riders in the race.

By definition some of these riders will also be accomplished time triallists. But typically as a by-product of their broader racing careers, viewing it as a means to an end when competing in stage races which can often feature a time trial as one of the stages. Very few people are drawn to time trialling because of any sort of magical cachet that surrounds it, at best a rider who has an exceptional strength in time trialling might be viewed as strong or machine-like…. Not the greatest accolade in a sport that values bravery and daring.

So what is the attraction?

Road racing is with doubt an exciting experience for a rider. For a few brief miles you feel like a real professional rider, sitting in the slipstream of the rider in front and harbouring dreams of a Cav-like sprint, or risking a solo attack from the main bunch of riders to try and grab glory alone. The whirr of spokes, click of gears and hiss of tyres rolling over the tarmac is the soundtrack to an amazing adrenaline rush – fuelled no doubt by the ever present danger of a crash, an occupational hazard for the amateur (or pro) rider.

Time trialling though has a sense of brutal honesty to it. The performance of your competitors is practically irrelevant until the finish times are collected. Tactics are almost invariably internal to each rider: when to push harder, when to conserve energy. You are entirely responsible for your own result, there is no-one else to blame if it goes wrong. There is nowhere to hide. Not for nothing is it known as ‘the race of truth’. The positive side to this is that you tend to get out what you put in. The negative side is that your performance is dependent on how much you can extract from yourself.

So this blog will chart my journey as I try and extract as much as I can from myself on the way to the mountain.

9 thoughts on “Contre-la-montre

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