Let’s face it: it is an intrinsic risk when it comes to time trials – a risk significantly larger than in other kinds of road racing – that it becomes a bit, well, dull. [And, regardless of Nibali’s risk-taking antics and Arroyo’s brave attempt to at least try to win back that pink bicycle of his, it was a very real factor at the epilogue of this year’s Giro, even in such grand surroundings as the Arena in Verona.] The time trial is devoid of tactics, of politics, of anything that makes road racing what it is – there’s no drafting, no hiding, no attacking. There is a man [or a woman] on a bike, trying to go as fast as humanly possible for the required distance.
In theory, it sounds great. It’s a personal, almost private battle – but it’s out there for all to see. A man [or, again, a woman] on a bike, against the clock. There’s no one to fight but yourself. In some cases, of course, you can fight the equipment, but that’s hardly the core of the thing. The bike is merely incidental, if necessary – which is not necessarily true, but it lies closer to the core of the idea than the possibility that you might win a time trial by having a better bike. It’s road racing cut down to its most simple basics. Man, bike, clock.
That is, perhaps, why I’m such a huge fan of time trials – at least in theory. Take its name in French: contre-la-montre. Say it out loud. Doesn’t it sound good? Such a marvellous name for a discipline, and so sufficient and accurate as well. Against-the-clock wouldn’t sound nearly as good, and neither does “time trial”. There is naturally a case to be made for the image evoked by said trial: is it in front of a judge and jury? Will the rider be found guilty [and if so: of what?] or not? Contre-la-montre is still, I’m sorry to say, infinitely superior. It suffices exactly; it tells you exactly what we’re all about here. And it rhymes to boot.
Which brings me to another reason to like time trials: the official who keeps time and sends the riders on their way with a simple set of gestures counting down. Five fingers, four, three, two, one. It’s so elegant and simple, that set of movements, and so perfectly timed.
You can stand there for hours [I spotted one family in Verona who had brought an entire picnic of feast-like proportions to their good spot at the start of the epilogue, ensuring that they wouldn’t have to give it up for anything], observing rider upon rider as they each count down from five seconds. It takes on the steady reliability of a metronome, and it gives the race with that rare and beautiful quality: rhythm. You wonder if that rhythm lingers while they pedal an entirely different, but equally important rhythm, whether the rhythm of the seconds ticking away still sounds in his ears, serving as a constant reminder of the nature of the thing, the point and purpose of the battle – and the opponent who’s named by the discipline: you’re not just battling yourself; you’re in a war with time.