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The Art of Time Trialling, with Dowsett, Phinney, Cummings and Hutchinson

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Photographs: Paolo Ciaberta

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. It might not be as dramatic as the final throes of a climber’s exertions on the mountain, but to the connoisseur, it’s every bit as special.
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 messes up his first touch or 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 at one time or another we’ve all been guilty of it. Anyone who watches a fair bit of racing knows what a good TT looks like, what the rider’s supposed to do, so it shouldn’t be that hard for well-paid professionals to sort themselves out and do it correctly, right?
You can take a plucky climber, peel his eyeballs back, Clockwork Orange style, and subject him to hours of footage of Tony Martin, but it’s not going to turn him into a three-time TT World Champion. The bike will still waggle uncontrollably, he’ll still come out of his tuck, he’ll move his head too much, his pace will still gush and then wane. There’s always room for improvement, obviously, but some riders 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. Fabian Cancellara is said to go on long rides, 150km or more, on his TT bike, which is presumably why he’s so good at suffering. Francesco Moser, who lived in the mountains but was too big to be a climber, just cycled uphill in the big ring, on a copy of the track bike he used to break the hour record. Jacques Anquetil used to train with a track Derny – but he’d often ride in front of the little motorcycle, rather than behind, so that his coach could check his riding position. It was no wind tunnel, but it got the job done.
So much of the focus in the modern time trial is on aerodynamics, watts and marginal gains, but for all of that it still seems more magic than math. Wondering, as we are wont to do, if it was more of an art form or a science, 1 got in touch with some of the discipline’s finer practitioners, to pick their brains about what they feel makes a good time triallist, and 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.

1: Is time trialling as scientific as it seems?
ALEX DOWSETT: I don’t think it’s so scientific. In the same way that the 100m sprint record keeps getting broken, no one has put it so far out of reach that it’s never going to be broken again. The four-minute mile was the same – now runners are doing it in well under that time. It’s like sport in general, it always progresses.
Everyone who 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.
140: 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.

1: 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. I heard a story about the Aussie, Dale Parker, mid Tour of the Gila TT. Descending at 80kph, he dropped into the 54×11, didn’t like it so shifted back into the 12. He also won – convincingly.
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.
Of course, everything in that third thought process is kind of irrelevant. Races have been won at less than 40kph and at over 55kph, and even if I’ve done well enough to give me 30 minutes to cover the last 10 miles, it doesn’t mean I’m going to go any slower or easier. If anything, it just means the added morale of a high average speed and good performance will make me push and suffer that little bit more, perhaps with the hint of a smile on my face.
So once I’m settled into the TT and know I’m feeling good enough to not revert to damage limitation mode – a whole different approach to a TT altogether, for when the legs are, as they say, pedalling squares – 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… You get my drift? The slower you go in one place, the faster you need to go in another.
As for the last 10km, I refer back to my short course mentality.
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. Frequently, yes, the mind will wander off to anything from a cute girl on the side of the road, to what you are going to have for lunch. “Focus, focus, focus” remains the mantra of suffer-fest TTs.
140: 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.
Before the start, I try to think about my strategy, what I need to do. I break the race up, maybe there’s a particular section where there’s a climb, or I want to start really hard and try to be aggressive, or it could be better to start a bit slower and build into the time trial… it always depends on the course. I’ve broken it down before and I’m just thinking about executing the plan. They’re clear thoughts. When you do it right you just go into the zone. If you’ve broken it up into two or three parts then you just do the first bit as best you can, then the second might be a descent, so just try and stay in the middle of the road, relax, and almost use it as a bit of a rest before the next part, which might be flat, so you’ll have to really get stuck into it again.

1: With all the technology in cycling, going from feel seems like a dying art. Is it more about the numbers and the gadgets these days?
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. Naturally, I have a quiet snigger to myself.
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 – or at any rate, I can only do it 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 don’t want to do something that hurts; I’m neither a masochist nor an idiot. 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.
It’s why I think some of the best TT rides have been done by riders who afterwards said that it didn’t really hurt at all. The edge is physiological, and for some seriously motivated riders in the form of their lives, the edge isn’t all that far into the pain-zone. They can give everything they have to give, and they can give it easily. 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.

1: Have you ever crossed the line thinking there was a bit more left that you never got out?
DOWSETT: I most definitely know when I’m trying, and I’m forever mid-race thinking “I can’t push any harder”, yet at the end, especially if you’ve lost by a small margin, there’s always that self-doubt of how hard you’ve actually pushed yourself.
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”.
I’ve always looked at speed. I’ve gained a lot of seconds by thinking I’m at full speed for the effort I’m exerting, then shifting into a higher gear out of curiosity and gaining one or two kph, just like that.
As for power and heart rate, I think it’s useful to have to analyse post-race. Everyone would love to have a massive power figure to tell the world, but it’s also irrelevant as a comparison between riders. For example, I rode a 25-mile TT on the infamous E2 course in April: I knocked out a very pleasing mid 46-minute ride, and a good friend of mine, Mark Howard, who is a 6’8” giant, pushed an average of 15 watts more than I did, but finished six minutes behind, which I feel proves my point. I think there is a similar story of Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte finishing on a similar time yet averaging 100 watts difference.
As for heart rate, Boardman would hit 200bpm during his hour record attempts – I cant get anywhere near that. I found that fairly demoralising at first, but then logic sets in and I know I’m pushing my limits so I quickly put those feelings to bed.
I also had a solid piece of advice off my former coach, Steve China, who said: “Waste of time those heart rate monitors, it doesn’t matter if the thing reads 500bpm, I’m not slowing down.” That would be the attitude of someone secure in knowing they are wringing everything out of themselves and don’t need a machine to tell them otherwise.
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. Actually, even if it’s not I’ve – maybe stupidly – taken the same approach. Three times this year I started the finishing climb of a time trial comfortably inside the top three and in all three I finished outside the top 20! That could just be a reflection of my climbing ability though, which is a work in progress …
MICHAEL HUTCHINSON: Crossing the line with anything left? Sometimes, if I’m winning and I know I’ve got a good margin, I’ll back off and be conservative. No point in living on the edge of the abyss if there’s no need. Other times, like Alex says, you empty yourself. But I’ve never yet, not once, looked back at a time trial and not reckoned I could have done it better.
CUMMINGS: Again, it’s the plan. I’d roughly know where I was before a time trial in terms of what power I can put out, and you just aim for the ideal, but it’s not like I’m staring at the SRM. I use heart rate, power, but feeling as well. Sometimes it might be a bad day or something. I’m using everything, it’s all a guide. In the end, it’s how you feel.
If you’re breathing’s good and you hit your threshold and you can maintain it, that’s a good sign. You can start massively over power, but feel good and you have to knock it back a bit, because it might be the adrenaline and it’ll catch up with you, and vice-versa. Sometimes you can feel crap at the start, but you have to just dig in. Especially in the middle of a stage race, those first few minutes can be pretty grim. But then the legs can clear and it becomes easier. That’s when I’ll be checking and double-checking the power a bit.
This year, I had very clear and structured goals, and that’s when I’m at my best. When I don’t have that, I can just get lost. I struggle. I find that sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing. You can start a time trial, and your mind is somewhere else – that’s when you know something’s wrong. You need to be concentrating on what you’re doing, but if there’s been no structure beforehand, you don’t know what you’re doing, so your mind will drift; it’s normal.
The year before, I’d had a crash the previous December, but I was still in good shape and I was supposed to be doing the Tour of Med, so I was out training for that. Then I got a call saying I had to go to Qatar the next day, and from that moment on, I never knew where I was going or what I was going to do and that was a big problem for me.

1: Can good time triallists have different styles or is it mostly uniform?
DOWSETT: No, not at all. Like Matt Bottrill, from the UK scene, it’s incredible to me how flat he can get his head, aero helmet and back. Obviously he’s done a lot of work in the wind tunnel and he puts out a good amount of power, but his position on the bike is… I don’t know if it’s the best I’ve ever seen, because it’s very different to Tony Martin, who’s got a very rounded back, so I don’t think there’s a golden rule there. You could look at either and think that doesn’t look like the norm, but it clearly works for both of them.
1: Is there such a thing as “perfect”?
DOWSETT: In our moment in time, there might be someone that we perceive as the perfect time triallist, which I guess would be Tony Martin, because he’s superb, he’s super powerful. But at some point, someone else is going to come along and be putting out more watts and be more aerodynamic. It’s always going to be like that, it’s just an evolutionary thing.
It’s difficult to put a gauge on what the perfect time triallist is, because I think ideas are always changing and everything is always being refined. It’s like a Formula One car: if you saw them a few years ago they were quite simple-looking things: a front wing, a rear wing, a diffuser and that was pretty much the long and short of it. Nowadays, there are so many little fairings, and if you look at the front of the car, it’s so complex. And in ten years’ time, it will look completely different. As we learn more, as we evolve, I think the sport will always progress. But at the moment, yeah, Tony Martin is the perfect time triallist.
CUMMINGS: I think you need a high threshold and a good engine. A lot of practice, pace judgement; to know what you can and can’t do. I guess Tony Martin or Bradley Wiggins are the closest. Before them it was Fabian Cancellara.

1: 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. That’s a lot of time. But it was something that he was doing, so he was always that bit ahead of me… and he retired before I was able to beat him, unfortunately!
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.
CUMMINGS: When I was younger, Chris Boardman. I always looked up to him. He was phenomenal, really. He always looked so good on the TT bike, and he was always good when the pressure was on.
I didn’t really try to emulate him. You do the best you can, you find your best position and just devote time each week to your time trial bike – training on it, preparing – so you’re ready.

1: How important are the tiny details in bike set-up? Do you micro-manage?
CUMMINGS: After I came to BMC, we went into the wind tunnel the second year I was here and we found the best position for me on that bike, or as best as we could get it, and I haven’t changed my position since, to be honest.
We moved my hands around a bit, and I actually felt a lot more comfortable in the position that was more aero, and I found I could breathe a lot better, so that was a big thing. There’s a line there, between what’s super-aerodynamic and what’s functional. You need to find that balance. You need to be able to make the power but you also need to be aero. After the wind tunnel, we went onto the track, which is a bit more real, because in a wind tunnel you can just sit there and hold any position, if you’re not under load, but when you start to move around you feel it.
It’s not something that, personally, I’m looking into every week or every month, but if there’s an opportunity to go into the wind tunnel and improve, or course I’d take it. But with the regulations, and being with the same team on the same bike, there’s only so many improvements you can make.
DOWSETT: The problem is, being on a pro team, I’ve had to become a bit less finicky. Maybe not… I am still finicky and I have a position and that’s that, and if it gets changed without me knowing, obviously I’m not going to be very happy at all, but what you have to do as a pro is be able to adapt to circumstances changing at the last minute.
Take the bike measurement. I know they’ve changed the rules now, but last year and the year before it was a joke. We did two time-trials at Tirreno-Adriatico: a team TT at the start and an individual at the finish. My bike was fine at the start and they said it was half a centimetre too long at the finish, so the mechanics were frantically cutting my handlebars to let it go through. Nothing had changed in those seven days, but they thought my bike had grown.
Same thing at the World Championships, when I finished seventh. My bike had passed every UCI check all year, then I got to the Worlds, and it’s half a centimetre too long. So I was warming up on my spare bike while my race bike was having its bars shortened – without me knowing. I actually didn’t know that all of this was going on – they hid it from me so I didn’t have any worries or concerns going into the race. I didn’t feel any difference and it wasn’t until after that they told me what had gone on. But unfortunately, that’s cycling. And not just cycling. I think there’s a lots of sports where it all looks like a really slick operation from the outside, but on the inside there’s a few niggly details that are frustrating.
You have to be adaptable. I’m as finicky as I can be, but I find, as well, if I think about it too much I can almost talk myself – maybe not out of a race, but I can get really pissed off before one, so I just do everything I can, and then I take a “what will be, will be” attitude into it, because it’s as good as it can be under the circumstances.

This feature first appeaed in issue 49 of 1

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