With split screens showing riders in unbending aerodynamic positions and inexorably-shifting time differentials, time-trials are not often exhilarating viewing for a spectator. Yet last year’s women’s World Championships time-trial was different. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a bike race in such belief.
Chloé Dygert was off 19 riders before pre-race favourite Annemiek Van Vleuten. Before the race, she had removed her power meter – pro cycling’s version of laying down the gauntlet, perhaps.
Drizzly conditions and standing rainwater didn’t seem to phase her or slow her down. Moving visibly faster than the rest, she was a minute up on the virtual leader after nine kilometres – a minute! – and kept extending her lead. If you’d put one of Yorkshire’s dry stone walls in her way, she’d probably have demolished it as neatly as she did the field.
At the finish, her bike had to be taken from under her as she crouched in the foetal position, recovering. She had wrung everything from herself and the course. Cancellara and Wiggins, eat your heart out; it was as close to perfection in the art of the modern time-trial as we’ve seen. She won by 92 seconds, the biggest margin in the event’s 25-year history. It was possibly the beginning of the Dygert era, certainly a ‘where were you when?’ cycling moment.
It was a performance to expect from a protégé of Kristin Armstrong, another ferocious American competitor who won three Olympic time-trials. Dygert made the difficult look almost straightforward, but the result was far from a given, despite her track pedigree. It was global affirmation of her talent on the road after years of injury setbacks. Most seriously, a crash and concussion at the Tour of California in 2018 led to a long period of rebuilding; her confidence in bunched racing is still shaky.
Nearly as frightening as the performance was her post-race interview. There was little apparent joy or relief. It gave me a frightening thought for rivals, an enticing one for the public: here is someone who believed she would win and this is just part one of her grand plan. It’s not the last time she reacted like this either. Minutes after winning a third world individual pursuit title in March and lowering her own world record to 3-16, her first words were that she was a “little bummed” to not hit her goal time of 3-14. Rather akin to Michelangelo being irked about an imperfectly-painted little fingernail on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Olympic medals in Tokyo are likely, it’s more a question of how many as she tilts at the team pursuit and time-trial. It remains to be seen how this basketball-loving, aerodynamic predator in pink overshoes will fare in the mountains in the future but one thing’s certain: she will never be underestimated again after that supreme display in Yorkshire.
Originally published in Rouleur issue 20.4, on sale now