Cycling - Road Time Trial

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The victor, who foolishly finished so quickly that he was back before the pub had even opened.

It wasn't terribly in keeping with the shambolic nature of this quest thus far, but I went to bed early (and sober) last night. I wasn't worried about making it around the course today - 30 miles probably sounds like a fair distance if you don't do much cycling, but it's really not that far. This event for the real Olympians is the sprint event. The really hard road race is the other one; you're allowed to draft, your time is generally unimportant and long sections are run at a pedestrian pace. Oh yeah, and it's five times longer than today's effort.

No, I went to bed early because I fancied that with some decent weather (i.e., no wind and no rain) and a course that I'd been promised was "pretty flat" I had a good chance of going under two hours for the 50KM. I woke up refreshed and ready for anything - even more so when I looked outside and saw a clear blue sky and not a breath of wind disturbing anything.

It was all downhill from there - or perhaps in keeping with the topic in hand, I should say it was all uphill.

It wasn't ideal that I had to cycle 10KM to get to the start but at the time I tried to put a positive spin on it and treated it like a warm up, not letting myself push any high gears and just coasting along. I quite enjoyed that bit.

At the start of the race (which was a race for no one but me - for everyone else, it was a leisurely sponsored cycle through the Oxfordshire countryside on a Sunday morning) I set off with intent and (even better) with Gareth (above). I had been slightly worried that this might turn into another 50KM walk scenario where I set off in front and no one came with me, but half a mile in, I realised Gareth was on my back wheel and invited him past so that I could sit on his for a while and conserve some energy.

Or, as it turned out, so that I could fail to find a matching gear and instead watch him disappear into the distance. He very kindly looked back a few times and eased up, waiting for me to join him, but the first hill did for me and he was gone.

The opening was tough, with hill after relentless hill presenting itself. I was vaguely familiar with this bit of the course though and knew I just had to hang in there for a little while and I'd hit a big descent, at the bottom of which was a mile and a half that was relatively flat, or at worst only a little uphill. If I toughed it out, I thought, I might even be able to catch up with, or at least catch sight of, Gareth at the bottom of the drop.

And I did... sort of. I caught a fleeting glimpse of his arse disappearing around a corner about a mile and a half away. I pounded on anyway. Beyond that corner I had no idea what lay ahead, but I dared to hope that the worst of the climbing was over. Hope is a foolish thing and should never be entertained while sport is in progress by anyone other than fans and commentators.

Around that corner lay a quaint little church, followed by one of those tree-lined hills that is so steep you can't see the top of it. All you see in front of you is road, like a mocking grey wall. An entirely involuntary cry of "Bastard!" escaped my lips, rather loudly, and much to the tutting disapproval of a late-comer to the church service.

I soldiered on, but quickly had to drop a gear, and then another, and then another, and then there weren't any more gears left to drop, so I had to stand up out of the saddle, and then I stopped being able to make it go forward at all, so I had to get off and push. All I could think, the whole way to the top (which thankfully wasn't all that far), was that I was glad I was far enough ahead of the rest that they couldn't see me and far enough behind Gareth that he couldn't either. I felt much better about it all later when I found out that he had made it to the top without getting off his bike, but once there had had to stop for a quick tactical puke.

I knew that was going to be my lowest moment. I had seen it on the elevation chart of the course - it's the line that goes virtually vertical at the end of the seventh mile in the picture in the preview - so I knew there was nothing worse to come. What also encouraged me was something I'd overheard at the start.

There was a "Road Closed" coming up sometime soon, but we were to ignore it because we would be turning off before the closure onto something I'd heard described as "a really beautiful piece of road."

And it was - about two and a half miles of newly surfaced black licorice that was all descent. At one point, I was doing close to 40 miles an hour, the climbs forgotten, the wind howling in my ears, and my tyres almost noiseless. By the end of it, I'd nearly reached the halfway mark. I checked my time (as I had been doing every five kilometres) and discovered that the long drop had brought me back bang on two hour pace for 50KM. The course was a little shorter than that. Hope appeared again, and almost as soon as it did, so did another climb.

So it went for the rest of the ride. I would climb, swearing my way to the top of the rises through the freshening wind (which was maybe more demoralising than the gradient) and in doing so would lose all hope of making it home in under two hours. Then I would descend, smiling and (once) even yelping with childlike delight at the speed of it all, and in doing so would build hope again.

Each repetition of this cycle however saw me climbing more slowly, taking longer at the top to catch my breath, and less in control on the way down as my whole body - legs first - turned progressively to jelly. I began to accept that I wasn't going to make it.

In the end, I appeared back on a familiar road much closer to the end than I had anticipated and suddenly thought I might still have a chance to beat my target. I hammered at the pedals rather pathetically, but it was all in vain. As I arrived at the finish, my onboard clock clicked over to 12:07. It had taken me two hours and two minutes.

It was amazing how soon after getting off my bike I felt much better.

Gareth had finished in about one hour and fifty-six minutes - a fine effort for which I rewarded him with complex carbohydrate energy drink (you probably know it as Carlsberg).

In 1920, the result was decided late when it turned out that one of the competitors had been held up for four minutes at a level crossing. There were three of them on our course, and I approached each one praying for a four minute breather, but all to no avail.

I also thought at one point that I might have to take a diversion when I saw a sign that said no vehicles weighing in excess of 7.5 tonnes were permitted to pass. My legs felt at least twice as heavy as that by then.

I also got attacked by a dragonfly, which spent what I'm sure was a very unpleasant half a mile trying to get out from between my shirt and my jacket. It could have been worse. Marie got stung by a wasp that tried to annex her shoe.

All in all, I feel like I achieved something this morning - or at least more than I usually do on a Sunday morning - and on top of that, I now have less than a hundred events left to do. At my current rate of event completion, I should finish in time for the games in 2020. Unless I get injured.

The average speed of the winner of the time trial in Sydney in 2000 was 48.75KM per hour. My average speed was 23.6KM per hour. I make that 48% Olympian. Not bad for a warm up. The main road race is 150 miles long - or five laps of the circuit I did this morning. I may have to build my fitness a bit more before I take that on.

Result of Cycling - Road Time Trial - 48KM in 2 hrs 2 minutes - 48% Olympian

Cycling - Road Time Trial Preview

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The individual road time trial is contested at the Olympics over a course that can vary in length from 45 to 55 km. Riders start at 90 second intervals and the fastest time wins. Simple really.

Tomorrow, I’ll be cycling a little over 48km to raise money for Sobell House and to tick another event off the list.

The road time trial was first staged in the Olympics of 1912 in Stockholm over a slightly longer course (196 miles, no less) around a lake. The first riders had to be set off at two o’clock in the morning in order to get everyone round the course. There was no shortage of mishap in that first race. A few hundred yards from the start line, a Swedish rider was hit by a motor-wagon. Further round the course, a Russian rider fell into a ditch and lay there unconscious until he was discovered some time later by a passing farmer.

I’ve been known to fall of my bike from time to time, but as yet not into a ditch. I’m hoping I can keep that record going tomorrow.

In 1920, in Antwerp, the course was intersected by six railway crossings. Officials were placed at each one to record any enforced delay to the riders. Initially, it appeared that the South African Henry Kaltenburn had won, but it later turned out that Harry Stenqvist from Sweden had been held up for four minutes at a level crossing and when that delay had been accounted for, he was declared the winner.

There was a 60 year hiatus during which no road time trial was staged at an Olympic games, but it was reintroduced in Atlanta in 1996, where professionals were permitted to compete in cycling events for the first time.

Having won the Tour de France 5 times in a row between 1991 and 1995, Miguel Indurain was finally dethroned in 1996 and managed to finish only 11th. Exhausted, and no doubt slightly demoralised, he seriously thought about dropping out of the Olympics (which had already started on the other side of the Atlantic). It took a personal appeal from his close friend (and president of the IOC at the time) Juan Antonio Samaranch to persuade him to compete.

In the road race, held just ten days after the end of the Tour de France, Indurain finished a disappointing 26th. Three days later, he won the time trial – an event in which he was the defending world champion at the time – by twelve seconds from his fellow Spaniard Abraham Manzano, and by half a minute from Britain’s Chris Boardman.

Also in that race – finishing sixth, nearly two and a half minutes behind Indurain – was a relatively unknown American rider who was to discover just two months later that his body was riddled with cancer.

By the time he turned up in Sydney four years later, Lance Armstrong had undergone surgery and chemotherapy, and then started winning the Tour de France - by the time of the Olympics, he had just won his second of the seven consecutive Tour de France titles he would eventually pick up. A month before the Olympics, he crashed into a car in training, breaking a vertebrae in his neck. Despite that, he still lined up as co-favourite with Jan Ullrich, but in the end finished only third behind the German and Vyacheslav Ekimov, who snuck past them both to claim gold.

Having gained a taste for medals, Ekimov claimed a silver in the event in 2004 (Armstrong by then was focusing purely on winning the Tour de France every year) behind the American Tyler Hamilton.

As the course varies in length each time, there isn’t really a world record for this event, but my target is to break two hours. I’ve been cycling to and from work most days throughout the summer, but that’s a mere 10km a day with only one tiny hill to negotiate, so I might struggle with that.

Kev assures me that tomorrow’s route is quite flat, but I note from the map above that there is more than 1000 feet of elevation to climb over the course, and as anyone who has seen that terrible Hugh Grant film knows, a thousand feet makes a mountain.

[With thanks, as ever to David Wallechinsky's superb The Complete Book of the Olympics for all the historical factoids]