Poetry In Motion
Ian Cleverly meets Bill Watkins, part of the USA team time trial squad of the 1980s, and mourns the decline of the former Olympic discipline.
There is something about a team time trial that I find endlessly fascinating, a match for any mountain stage in my book. Raw power; pure speed; precision; teamwork at its finest – lest we forget, cycling is a team sport, after all.
It’s the same deal on the track. The team pursuit is a beautiful thing, four kilometres of screaming pain for the participants, a few minutes of poetry in motion for the spectator. Of course sprinting is the purest form of one-against-one in a velodrome (now the individual pursuit is sadly deemed surplus to requirements) but nothing grips like the four-man version.
A Tour de France without a team time trial has something missing, akin to the Grand National minus Becher’s Brook. The weaker teams are found out, struggling to maintain any semblance of order, popping riders out the back until they are lucky to hold the minimum five together to the finish line. Some (Garmin for instance) make a point of training for the discipline with some success, while others (Team Sky) despite their obvious firepower, have still been known to blow apart badly. Getting it right is glorious. Screwing it up is utterly humiliating, but I guess that’s what I like about it…
Bill Watkins was a TTT specialist, which is kind of an odd thing to specialise in, if you think about. He is now CEO of Serotta in Saratoga, but back in the days when the four-man 100km time trial was very much a part of the Olympic line-up, Watkins and a group of big burly bruisers on bikes were whipped into shape by Polish defector Eddie Borysewicz for an event that rarely took place.
“In my time, it was the Russians, Poles, Czechs – they were the masters. Eddie defected after the Montreal Olympics and when I met him in Squaw Valley at the Olympic Training Centre in ’77 he hardly spoke English. We had a two-week training camp there with Davis [Phinney] and [Ron] Kiefel; Greg Lemond was there too, but he was only 16. He could still rip the legs off of us…
“When Eddie came over from the Polish team, who had already won two World Championships and a bunch of Olympic medals, we didn’t have the first idea how to train for it. We were just a bunch of guys doing our own thing. But then we started specific intervals, even weight training, to improve our stamina, so that we could all pull at 31 – 32mph and be ready to go again by the time we reached the front.”
The squad improved rapidly. These unlikely-looking cyclists, with physiques that would not look out of place powering a coxless four, got their act together with the aid of their new coach. “What Eddie B did was introduce a very scientific approach to selection: power, body fat, weight,” says Watkins. “So we were fed into this system and eventually came out with eight TTT riders.
“We needed real big engines and we were mostly real big guys, but it didn’t matter. Put us on a flat road and we went full throttle. You can’t have a guy who weighs 150lb in front of me – I get no rest. It had to be a complimentary selection: no surging, just steady but fast.
“There’s no rest. When you’re dropping back down the line, you are almost at your limit. You pull for maybe a minute, minute and a half, two minutes max, then swing over and you’re at your threshold. And you need to get back on the train immediately.
“Miss that wheel by a couple of inches and you’re gone, and you’re never coming back. No rest, for two hours…”
The ’84 Olympics saw the US team rise from nineteenth position in Montreal in ’76 (USA boycotted the ’80 games in Moscow) to bronze medal position. It should be pointed out that, as the Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the LA Games, the chances of those four Americans mounting the podium had the Russians, Poles and East Germans attended, are somewhere between slim and nil, but it was a great achievement nonetheless. And had the US not boycotted four years earlier, Watkins fancies the group of “world-calibre riders” under the tutelage of Eddie B would have been strong contenders for medals.
Watkins never got to travel to LA that summer, making the longlist but not the final selection. “I was sad. I was more than sad. But it was rocking good fun, to ride at 31mph for two hours.
“It was intensely competitive and we all had big egos. We probably should have been cheering each other on, but we were always at each other’s throats. Now we laugh about it and apologise to each other for what assholes we were back then!
“I loved it. It suited my personality.”
Bill Watkins is 6’2”, weighs 180lbs and rides a Serotta.
Many thanks to all at Serotta for showing us around and loaning me a rather swish Legend SG for the Tour of the Battenkill.