I never realised it at the time but the local club ‘10’ was the ideal introduction to the genteel art of time trialling.
Renfrew to Bishopton and back along the A8 of a Wednesday evening in the summer months. Rarely any cars coming past due to the motorway option and only a couple of roundabouts to worry about, not that I thought of the consequences when I dared myself not to touch the brakes to get through them. Trust in tyre grip is total when you're young and relatively scar-free. Injuries? Pah! Bit of Savlon, an Elastoplast or two and it'll be fine.
Mountains? Yes. Time trials? Well, maybe... pic: Offside/L'Equipe
I'm sure I wasn't alone in taking great delight from bouncing off the kerb on the exit of the last roundabout when my trajectory calculation and steering input didn't quite match up, but I can see that might not have been everyone's idea of fun. Bunny hoping wasn't an option, given the mix of gravel and worn grass waiting on the landing spot for the over-ambitious, so scraping the rims along the concrete edge was the only option left for the committed. I preferred the description “committed” to “nutter”.
And that was the point: it was fun. Ride out to the start, off with the long sleeve jersey and leg warmers, which were then carefully left on the grass of the lay-by, and off we go. If I was thinking about doing a time, I might get out the Lycra shoe covers and wear a jersey one size too small, but anything other than that was trying too hard. The club ‘10’ was the equivalent of a game of football with jumpers for goalposts down the park with your mates – you couldn't turn up for that with boots, shin pads and a Brazil shirt. The finishing time didn't matter that much to me, it was a comparison to the last time I fought with the elements more than it was a competition with the others.
That kind of carefree mentality has to change, though, as you move up the levels and the racing gets closer. Time gained or lost suddenly matters for tactics, results and ultimately potential employment prospects. The days when it's actually fun may be few and far between, but there's still satisfaction to be had if you do a good ride, and nowadays you get to play on some pretty cool kit too.
When people talk about time trialling being a matter of how much you are prepared to suffer, I'm always reminded of a short time-trial stage I rode at the Tour of Aragon in 1988. That'll be a race that many of you have never heard of, and with good reason. It's one of those lost events that takes place in front of more animals than people. Situated in the north-east of Spain, once you leave the main cities, you’re literally riding through the middle of nowhere.
So I'm at this race and wondering what I'm doing there – no mountain-top finishes, it's not that hilly, but not entirely flat either. It's the kind of race the smaller Spanish and Portuguese teams love, so there are some enthusiastic riders involved. No one from our team is, though. Our riders (me included) will be glad when it's over, the staff are red-faced and the DS looks like he's going through a personal crisis. It's overbearingly hot and staying in small towns means no air-conditioned hotels. Given the sparse nature of the area, I'm thankful they even have electricity. Four stages in and I've been lingering on the back of the bunch with consistency, staying out of trouble and trying not to be bitten by some pretty nasty looking flies.
Today is a split stage, a hundred-and-odd kilometres in the morning, then a short time-trial round town in the afternoon. I say afternoon, but it's Spain, so that means the second part starts at six when everyone is waking up after their siesta. If I were serious about the GC, I'd avoid falling asleep after the morning excursion through the sun-blighted landscapes, but I'm not, so I crawl onto my bed and am quite glad to nod off.
When I'm eventually awakened by the soigneur, informing me it's an hour to my start time, I'm not best pleased with him, or the Tour of Aragon, or the fact that it's still roasting hot. And there's seven kilometres of tedium to be done. As I struggle to fix the number to my skinsuit, I'm kind of wishing I hadn't chosen the lazy option of sleep, because my head is throbbing and the resulting lack of co-ordination has seen blood drawn by rusty safety pins. Safety pins? Now there's a misnomer if ever there was one.
Skinsuit donned, I head down to the team truck fully expecting to see the aero bike waiting complete with – given there's not a breath of wind – two disc wheels. I'm disappointed to find my steed for the challenge ahead has not even a rear disc option, or even a pointy helmet awaiting on lo-pro bars. That's because it's not the TT bike which is before me, but my ordinary road bike from the morning stage with this morning's wheels, tyres and sweaty handlebar tape, just as I left them not three hours previous. Looks like the mechanic had a siesta as well, then.
Not to worry: I have my excuse now, and with that, I head out of the car park onto the course which, luckily for me, passes right by the front door of our hotel. I haven't done 200 metres when I meet a team car and fully aero'd rider coming in the opposite direction. Oops… As it seems I was going the wrong way, I perform a nonchalant U-turn and hope they haven't noticed my lack of local knowledge. To tell the truth, I don't even know what the town is called, never mind which way the course went. Suitably redirected, I round a corner and come across the red kite marking the kilometre to go and then, after two more corners – left, left – I find myself in the finishing straight. And it's where the start ramp is too. That's what we like to see: not too many complications.
Thinking I've only done three corners and don't really know what to expect or where I'm going, I ignore the temptation of the freebie from the Café de Colombia truck and set off for a recce of the course. It'll be my warm-up, though given it's 30 degrees, I could reasonably just sit on a chair in the shade instead.
The first kilometre isn't too bad: slightly uphill with a couple of curves. The surface is a bit bumpy and there's a couple of holes to avoid, then there's a right-hand corner into a pedestrian area, a chicane, and a left corner in quick succession, none of which is smooth, and there are paper bags blowing about too. I'm kind of getting the idea this isn't going to be the typical time-trial experience when I take two more corners – right, left – and head up a steep section through a car park to what has to be the top of the course because it's been all uphill until now. There's gravel, plastic bags and a loose dog to deal with, as I take another corner and find myself on a cobbled street. Judging by the number of stones that are missing, I take it the cobbles were last renovated in the previous century. You need a BMX for this course, not a time-trial bike.
And so it continues: a left off the cobbles onto a downhill, into an off-camber left-hander with a drain cover missing on the exit, then a long straight – hurrah, some peace and quiet – and into a trio of right, right, right, with barely 300 metres between each corner. Then I pop out onto the street where our hotel is. Hallelujah! I know the way from here.
I think about stopping off at the hotel to put on a long sleeve jersey, just in case I fall off, as it might save some skin, but decide that a sit down and a strong dose of Colombia's finest caffeine is probably a better idea. To some it would be a chance to prepare mentally, but I'm thinking more along the lines of getting my breath back after all the excitement.
As I sit with my coffee, I decide I'm not looking forward to this TT. I don't fancy falling off here, in the middle of nowhere, in 30 degrees of sweaty heat. I've never liked prologues and as I'm going home the day after tomorrow, the sensible thing is to get it over with, professionally, with a bit of effort but not too much.
And so those are my tactics when it's my turn to climb up onto the start ramp. Steady ahead and no risks.
The countdown goes “cinque, quatre, trois, deux, un” and I’m off, pushed into the circuit of death. Immediately I feel crap, really crap – legs like wood and no sensation of speed. I avoid the holes, negotiate the chicane and chuck the bike into the left-hander before the steep hill. I can't afford to brake as I'll never get going again, not feeling this bad and going this slow. I struggle up through the car park and notice the dog is now on a lead with a grotty kid at the other end of the chain. He shouts what I recognise, having been in Spain for far too long, as some abuse questioning my intelligence, but I'm so out of breath I can't think of a smart reply and instead concentrate on avoiding the holes where the cobbles used to be. Another left-hander and another brush with the kerb on the exit. By now I'm feeling sick and it's only halfway. Oh Lord, I hate time-trials.
Down the hill and round the off-camber corner it's the long straight where I'd thought I might rest, but I can't now because the DS in the team car is beside me shouting something. It could be derogatory or encouragement for all that I can make out. I still feel terrible and it all feels dreadfully slow.
Into the sequence of corners that pops out by our hotel and my head is hurting so much I can't see the corners properly. I figure if I do fall off, I'll be able to avoid the last day through injury, but I make it and grovel under the kilometre flag with no dignity at all. Left, left and at last the finish line is in sight, though there'll be no little sprint to the line as I'm worn out and very disappointed with my business. If only I hadn't gone to sleep, if only I'd had a proper warm-up, reconnaissance, been motivated. If only…
Then I hear the speaker announce, with great fanfare, “Mejor tiempo!” followed by my name. Eh? That can't be right. I felt terrible, ached all over and wanted to be sick. I had wooden legs, couldn't breath and struggled on every corner. I didn't have the time-trial bike, wheels, tyres, or even the pointy helmet. It was all horrible, all of it.
I had to wait ages before two other guys went faster than me, then I had to go the medical control wagon. I couldn't believe they got my time right, but apparently they did. The guys in the car had been saying I was catching the rider in front, but I couldn't see straight. All I could think was “this is horrible and I hate it”.
I often wonder what the dog thought of time trialling.
This column appeared in Rouleur issue 49. Subscribe here to receive Robert's next column.