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, Rouleur 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.