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Notes on Time Trials

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Photographs: Jakob Kristian Sørensen

The ideal is not being forced to give too much too soon. Finding the right cadence early on is important; never doubting what gear you should be in.
If you ride a big gear from the beginning, you can’t shift to a smaller gear later on – your legs can’t handle the change during that kind of concentrated effort. Compared to Jacques Anquetil, Ole Ritter rode an extremely small gear, but he was still one of the best of his day.
Eddy Merckx rode a bigger gear as well, but you won’t necessarily go faster if you do the same. If a rider hits the wall, he won’t be coming back.
If you go too hard at the start and you can’t keep it up, you’re done. It’s not a mistake you can correct.
Miguel Indurain’s style in the race against the clock was a miracle of harmony and smooth propulsion. He rode a smaller gear than Tony Rominger did.
The demands of the time trial make the rider push himself beyond a threshold of pain. Ritter would torture himself in the first phase, seeing nothing but the black tarmac. Then it would become normal. He’d enter a rhythm and create a balancing act on the edge of what he was able to endure. His expertise lay in knowing exactly his limits.
The time trial is an individual and power-based discipline. But there’s room for psychology. When to push yourself? You’re told you’re 15 seconds slower than Merckx at 20km. You push yourself a bit harder. Then you’re told that Merckx is still 15 seconds faster. And then you know that Merckx has been pushing himself too, and you don’t let that bit of information demoralise you. There’s still time to win back what you’ve lost.
If Felice Gimondi is 42 seconds faster, he knows that Ritter will push himself to reduce that difference, so Gimondi does the same. If he stays ahead, he has a shot at breaking Ritter. When Greg LeMond won the Tour de France by eight seconds in that drama on the Champs Elysees, he didn’t want to be told anything. Didn’t want to be disturbed at all. So it was important to Ritter that he could choose what information he needed, from whom he wanted to get it. He only wanted the messages he’d asked for himself. Anything else would be a disturbance. He wanted things to be just so, and he wanted to decide how he was told.
There’s an element of sorcery to it. Making his own system is important to the rider’s confidence. There was the directeur sportif’s megaphone. There were his people, standing with their blackboards in predetermined places along the route with their thumbs turned up or down; quick shouts of, say, “22!” Where he was, compared with the competitor he’d selected as his reference.
You’ve chosen your competitors for the day. And you only want to know about them. Everything else is a disturbance.
The time trial is a science, passionately cultivated by a hierarchy of riders: the strong time trialists. But being strong isn’t enough; you need motivation to ride yourself into the ground on the day.
Plenty of riders turn up as if facing an apocalypse. There’s no room for miracles in this discipline. The time trial is hell. It’s a punishment and a disability. Who can and who can’t? It’s clear to see. Nothing else is as revealing. The style will tell on the man.
What does a time trial look like from the inside, from the rider’s point of view? The specialist under a microscope, a mix of fear and expectation, that mental charge days ahead of the moment. Driving through the route in a car with the DS. The day before, he feels demoralised, like an actor who doesn’t remember his part. He feels insecure, isolated, goes quiet. On the day, he eats by himself, four or five hours before the race. The effort of digestion is over.
And then he’s on the starting ramp, intensely introverted. Rides the first 2km without thinking, without seeing. Like a sprint. When that first explosive phase is over, the glide begins. The rider’s consciousness begins to open up so he can consider the messages he gets. How well he glides is directly influenced by whether those messages are positive or not.
The ideal is not to have been forced to give too much. Then you can give your all in the last phase. You mustn’t have anything left at the finish. The final 2km is a long sprint. 

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