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]