Cummings, Phinney, Dowsett, Hutchinson: the art of the time-triallist
The motionless upper body, contorted impossibly, cheating the wind. The metronomic cadence. The massive engine capable of pushing an improbably high gear non-stop, for an hour or more. The brain capable of controlling that engine, resisting the surges of adrenaline and the urge to go faster, ignoring the heavy pull of fatigue and the body’s painful appeals to slow down. When done well, the TT is a visceral, corporal work of art.
That said, it doesn’t stop the armchair directeurs sportifs around the world tut-tutting every time they see someone whose skill against the clock is less than exemplary. Like sighing in exasperation when a footballer balloons a gilt-edged chance over the bar, upon seeing a bad time trial, the default response from a weekend warrior is almost always the witless thought: “What the hell is he doing?”
The answer, of course, is obvious, and always the same. He’s doing his best. But anyone who watches a fair bit of racing knows what a good TT looks like, so it shouldn’t be that hard for well-paid professionals to sort themselves out and do it correctly, right?
Wrong. You can take a plucky climber, peel his eyeballs back, Clockwork Orange style, and subject him to hours of Tony Martin footage, but it’s not going to turn him into a three-time TT World Champion. There’s always some riders who just have that natural TT factor.
What’s interesting, though, is that among those lucky few, there are some stark differences, from their position on a bike to how they train. Wondering, as we are wont to do, if it was more of an art form or a science, Rouleur spoke with some of the discipline’s finer practitioners to find out more about how they go about what looks, from the outside at least, to be the most idiosyncratic of cycling’s callings.
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Rouleur: Is time trialling as scientific as it seems?
Dowsett: “Everyone who wins time trials, you can see that it’s something they’ve worked on. There’s no fluke win. Even if you get weather conditions changing, a good time triallist will still win the race. The only time that might change is a short course with a climb at the end and that’s where more Classics-type guys could win. I think Jimmy Engoulvent used to win a lot of prologues because he’s a big guy and he could punch up climbs in the way that no one else could.”
Steve Cummings: “The preparation might be scientific, but it’s pretty simple in the end – you have to go as fast as you can. I like to keep it simple. The scientific part comes, for me, before the race, in terms of my position, training and looking at the course. But once you have the strategy, you just go out there and give it everything.”
Rouleur: What goes through your mind during a time trial?
Dowsett: “Firstly it depends on the type of time trial, anything up to 16km, or 10 miles, goes something like this: I start far harder than I ever planned to, I then settle into a pace far faster than I ever planned to, and then I simply think, “Well Alex, yet again you’ve set the level of effort bar far higher than we ever planned to, bloody idiot – God help you if you don’t hold this to the finish!” Then it’s a case of hanging on…”
“A long time trial, 30km-plus, is a little more calculated … but not much more, as the pain is the roughly the same. Throughout the whole duration my mind is processing three things simultaneously that seem to detract quite nicely from the pain.”
“First: gear selection. Am I in the right gear to be putting out as much power as possible? Everyone rides at different cadences, for me it seems to be around 95rpm.”
“Second: Aerodynamics, which is predominantly my shoulders and head. Are they tucked in? No? Well, tuck them in then.”
“Finally, and for me the most important thing: speed, distance and time. In short, simple math. On a normal course – start and finish in the same place, not too hilly – I’m aiming for anything above a 50kph average speed. From experience, I know I’m capable of it and that it should get me a there or thereabouts result.”
“So once I’m settled into the TT, the math starts. I’m working out how far to go, the time I have to do it to achieve my desired speed and whether it’s feasible. This then progresses into specific sections of the course. For an out and back course, it’s easy: if I’m travelling at 45kph on a particular section on the way out, I know I need to be doing at least 47kph-plus on that same section on the return leg – the extra 2kph accounts for speed lost at the start, technical sections and accelerations…”
“As for the last 10km, I refer back to my short course mentality.”
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Taylor Phinney: “The thoughts that spring up in my mind during a TT really depend a lot on my current state of fitness as well as the distance of said TT.”
“Let’s start at the top. If I am absolutely crushing a TT, and it is one of those races that just flies by, one that barely hurts, then my thoughts are pretty consistent, and very positive. The phrase “let’s go, you are the man” pops up a whole lot. Due to my restricted ability to think since I am right at my physical limit, repeating that phrase is about all I can manage. Over the course of a prologue, I am able to keep this phrase on repeat for the entirety of the race. This is mainly due to the brevity of prologues, and also the fact that I love doing them.”
“You see, as a bike racer, wins don’t come often for 99 per cent of us. Being a prologue specialist is actually quite a fortunate trait, because it offers me the opportunity of a win more often than if I was a climber, or pure Classics rider. So pushing myself, knowing I can win – change the course of a season, reap the spoils of victory – is just that much easier.”
“On the other hand, let’s say that the TT course is hilly, and I mean very hilly. And let’s imagine that it is on the longer side. Let’s assume that I am not in peak form, that I know I am not going to win. Mentally, this is the worst type of TT for me. I don’t use SRM numbers in TTs, I mainly go off feel. I’ve barely ever used a radio, so I try to focus on what I am doing, try to find a rhythm.”
“The worst feeling is when you just know how slow you are going; you feel it, you know the people in the team car behind you feel it, and anyone watching can see that you aren’t a superstar. Tunnel vision is your friend, so blocking everything out is key – and often the hardest part.”
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Cummings: “The plan before is really important to me, because I like to have two or three things to take into the race. If the route is technical, you have to prepare where you want to put more of your power down because it might be more beneficial to go really fast on a climb, for example, because you can gain, or lose more, there. If there’s a climb, to stay in the race you’ve got to be within contact of the smaller or lighter guys when you reach it, knowing that you can bring a bit back later.”
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Michael Hutchinson: “Time trialling is all about feel – I’m tempted to say that anyone who relies on taking their inspiration from a two-inch screen is not a natural time triallist. Time trialling isn’t about walloping things with a big mallet. It’s as intuitive and skilful a discipline as sprinting.”
“You need to know when to push on a little, when to pull back, what the return for a bit of extra power is going to be any point on the course. There is, for instance, no point in going bananas down a steep hill, because the speeds are already so high that you’ll get almost no seconds in return for your watts. I’ve seen riders shovelling as hard as they can down a hill right after the start, when the adrenaline is high, and the yelps of effort haven’t yet made it from the legs to the brain. They’re just chucking away time.”
“I tend to use the technical execution of a TT to mask the actual effort. My focus is on doing it well, not doing it hard. And if you do it well enough, it will usually be hard enough. So I think about my position on the bike – is it right? Is there a crosswind? If so, do I need to adapt my position to deal with it? I think about cues that prompt me to get into the right position, like how I hold my hands on the bars, or how hard I grip the bars. Odd though it sounds, I think about words like “precision”, or “accuracy”, because if you do things right, you go faster.”
“Only races that I’m really targeting are in any significant way powered by heroism. You can only do that so often. I can remember a handful of races where I got it all right – I rode really well and I rode really hard, and on the magic days, those two feed into each other. You just seem to go faster and faster, as if you can’t help it, as if you’re being pulled along the road by the Fabian Cancellara fairy.”
“Even when I look back on those races, though, I don’t think of the “pain” – in fact I find it hard to use the word without using inverted commas, because pain isn’t a positive thing. I think of TT’ing as sitting right at the edge of a cliff – try to hang out there a little further, and… disaster. All the “pain” does is help you feel where that edge is. There is a lot of willy-waving about how much pain you can take, but in the end the race is about how fast you go, not how often you see Jesus.”
Rouleur: Have you ever crossed the line thinking there was a bit more left that you never got out?
Dowsett: “I rarely get black spots, tunnel vision, that blood taste in my mouth that people talk about. I’m not entirely sure what blood tastes of. That makes me question whether I’m pushing myself hard enough, but through the years, I’ve felt sometimes the competition of time trialling also lies not only with speed but the levels of exertion.
“So, one man’s “it hurt so much I wanted to cry” would be raised by another man’s “it hurt so much I went light headed and had to back off”. I try nowadays not to listen to those sorts of things and just think: “The quicker I go, the quicker it will all be over”.
“In terms of crossing the line with anything left? Never. In fact, coming into the last kilometre I rarely have anything left, I just hope it will look after itself in terms of adrenaline and simply rolling along if it’s flat.”
Rouleur: And personal favourites?
Dowsett: “I’m not a big hero guy, in terms of those guys who are well above me. I looked closer to home, to find the guys who I aspired to be as fast or faster than. One of them was my coach before I joined the national team, Steve China.”
“He was one of the only over-50- year-olds to be doing sub 50- minute 25-mile time-trials – this is at the time when I was doing 55’s, 56’s. I remember the day when I broke the hour-mark for the first time – which didn’t take much to do, it was more concentration than anything else – and he told me that the next goal was to get it under 50 minutes.”
“He taught me that hard work is crucial. A lot of people get lost in science and position and all that, but he didn’t use a wind tunnel or anything. He looked at his position, what was comfortable and what was aerodynamic, but only to the point where he was drawing an outline of himself on his garage door with a light shone behind him."
This article is an extract from Rouleur #49.
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