Michael Hutchinson's latest book examines his own personal obsession: the pursuit of speed. Top coaches, sports scientists and aerodynamics experts tell all in this typically humorous take on going faster.
Rouleur: The book has a killer opening. Most of us have experience of sneaking yet another new bike or piece of kit past our partners, but setting up an altitude tent over your bed is something else.
MH: It’s crossing a line, isn’t it? “Darling, I bought a tent…” My only saving grace there is that Louisa was running marathons at that point. She minded a bit, but there was the compensation of there possibly being some sort of training effect from it for us both.
And the naked laps of the velodrome?
Well, Rob Hayles has done it as well – not at the same time, I hasten to add. It’s one of those things you end up doing because you start looking at all these various skinsuit options, and the fundamental thing we didn’t know the answer to was whether a skinsuit is faster than bare skin. If lycra is faster than skin then you want to cover as much as possible; if it’s not, you want to cover as little as possible. Looking back on it, we were still getting things wrong, but there is no such thing as useless information.
There is a great anecdote from Chris Boardman, where his wife Sally asks, in that brilliantly feminine, off-the-cuff way, “You have tested the skinsuits wet, haven’t you?” Sweat will obviously play a part in aerodynamics, but nobody else had thought of it.
I loved it. I went around for the next couple of weeks telling people that. I do picture Chris sat up in bed, with his half-moon specs on the end of his nose like Homer Simpson, reading these reports, and Sally glancing up from her magazine and saying “Did you test them wet?”
You speak to a lot of high-level movers and shakers from British cycling in the book and they are very open with you. There must have a fair bit that was off the record that you were unable to publish.
There wasn’t actually a lot, no. There was some stuff that Boardman clearly wasn’t going to tell me. From my point of view, because I have got a reasonable understanding of a lot of this information, I can assemble a lot of stuff from what’s already out there – physiology, psychology, technology: a lot of it is out there on the web if you know where to look and can recognise it when you see it. If you put together a very specific question about it, they can’t really avoid answering.
Even at the 2008 Olympics, we had a pretty good idea how those skinsuits worked, because the riders were saying they made a lot more noise. That tells you things about the flow: that it’s a suit with very low porosity, which is… “fascinating…”
With Dave Brailsford at Sky, I think he has got a policy of being quite open, simply because cycling has been so secretive historically. Tim Kerrison showed me the pre-Tour training schedule in Tenerife. But knowing this stuff doesn’t actually help – you’ve got to be able to support the riders to go out and do it.
It actually helps the public image of cycling teams to be open because the previous generation was secretive with good reason…
If they were secretive about it, people would naturally assume the worst. The thing that I think is most interesting about the book is the level of detail the people in those teams look at the nut they are trying to crack, look at the riders they have at the minute, and work out how they are going to get those two to meet in the middle.
Cav at the Olympics was fascinating. You have a got a sprinter that they were de-tuning to get his sustainable max up so that he could get up Box Hill, but they were also aware that they could overshoot. They were aiming to get him up the hill at a very precise target. Okay, it didn’t work, but that was the only way he was going to win it. If you go back ten or 15 years, nobody would have thought of doing that. You would just try to make your rider as fit as you could and hope for the best.
And Dan Hunt, pointing out that the team pursuit squad moved to changing less frequently, as they lost a fraction of time for every changeover.
It seems so obvious. You think: “How did I miss that?” Losing a tenth of a second every time. Come Rio they will be doing it differently again, because they are adapting to the riders they have got. If you are running a pro team, you can buy whatever you need: if it’s a super-domestique for the mountains, you can buy one. If you are running a team pursuit squad and you only have three naturally gifted pursuit riders, you have got to build a fourth one somehow, depending on what’s available to you with the relevant passport.
After six chapters of fascinating anecdotes and dissection of marginal gains theories, the closing chapter leads to the rather depressing conclusion, to us also-rans, that genetics is key: you’ve either got it, or you ain’t.
You can take it both ways. There are certainly people winning big bike races who have less genetic talent than others in the bunch. Several people I spoke to mentioned the same veteran British pro and said that if he had ever taken it seriously and done the training, he would have won everything from the Tour de France downwards.
But ultimately – and I think most coaches can see it clearly – if you want to get to the top, you need at least a decent shake [genetically]. I am painfully aware that it’s not a very nice conclusion, but it is very hard to avoid.
Genetically modified vegetables seem to be gaining acceptance now. Can you see a time when GM athletes will be acceptable?
David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, mentions that one of the NBA’s stars is a man who is the offspring of the tallest man and woman the Chinese authorities could find who were brought together to breed a basketball player.
There are clearly ethical issues there. It is unlikely to cause any problems other than moral ones, but the point when they start gene splicing – and there will come a time when that is possible – I don’t think anybody knows quite what is going to happen at that stage. It will happen eventually.
Faster by Michael Hutchinson is published by Bloomsbury on March 27.