Pic by www.fotolia.com
Six painfully thin men stand huddled against a wall shivering against a cold rain, clapping their thighs and bobbing on the spot to ward off the chill. They are eyed suspiciously all the while by a fat man wearing a helmet.
Auschwitz? Soup kitchen?
Nope. My first time trial.
The location is a wet and miserable lay-by between Cheltenham and Evesham. A flower seller is just packing up for the day and makes no effort to hide his bewildered glances at the burgeoning group of men adorned with Lycra and space age carbon products.
As more riders arrive, an unofficial hierarchy begins to develop. It starts with one guy, who I take to be the ‘Big Dog’, making his way across the road to the petrol station after signing on and staying there. He seems to have done this on the pretext of getting out of the rain but I suspect he doesn’t want to hang out with the fatties. He’s soon joined by a couple more guys with bikes which look like they came out of a skip at CERN.
My suspicions are confirmed when one of my group (membership defined by being in possession of neither overshoes and aerobars nor any two pieces of kit that match) nods in their direction and says, “I see he’s got the dinner plate on”, a reference to the Big Dog’s chainring (more of which later). This is met with solemn nods and a muttered, reverential, “He’s a sub-20 man now, I believe”.
None of this really helps my nerves and I scamper off to the bushes for my third pee.
I’d always heard that time triallists were a weird breed, dour loners who get up at 4am on a Sunday to do an ‘out and back’ on some abandoned B road or half-finished motorway, so I’m pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere. People are a bit cagey of course but no more so than any other group of strangers and there’s a reassuring amount of self depreciating humour. I managed to get a couple of smiles when someone asks who I ride for and I say I’m with Team Melton Mowbray. Things don’t look so convivial over the road in the Big Dog’s yard, where there are now four serious looking riders padding around like caged tigers.
Time trialling, it seems, is the cycling equivalent of five-a-side; accessible enough that anyone can take part yet still attracting people right up to an elite level. This impression deepens as I’m advised to hide my rucksack in a patch of nettles with the rest because there’s nowhere to lock them up while we’re riding. Jumpers for goalposts?
Having never time trialled before, I have no clue about anything. I had the foresight to warm up – it was a 20 minute ride over here – but other than this I’m taking my cues from the others and getting occasional pointers from my mate Nick. The first challenge is to arrive at the start on time and this proves to be trickier than expected.
I’m number 8, which, apparently, means I go at 19:08. There’s a little 10 to 12 minute loop round a nearby village which brings you out right by the start. I’m given some vague directions and told to “jet off down there and turn your legs over at about ‘10 to’ “. I duly complete this loop and emerge back at the main road but for the life of me I can’t remember which way I was told to turn. It’s one minute past and I have a creeping feeling that number 8 might be on the verge of appearing on the results sheet as MIA.
Fortunately someone shoots past the junction and off down the road, I peer after him and he’s wearing a number. I assume he’s on the way to the start so I gallop after him.
It takes me precisely one minute of balls out effort to gain his wheel and I ask how far to the start. He’s a fairly old boy but he’s fully loaded with an ‘Alien’ helmet and a futuristic bike and, for some reason, is very crabby. Bad news – he’s already started. This means I’ve taken a wrong turn and ridden a full minute in the wrong direction. The reason for his crabbiness is, of course, that in his mind he was belting along at Mach 4 when some berk without so much as a pair of goggles on slides up next to him to ask where the start is. I’m reminded of the old Harry Enfield sketch with the jockeys; “I say, you chaps are going awfully fast”.
I immediately put this thought aside though, I’m now at least one minute from the start and it’s two minutes past.
I make a sharp U turn and churn up the road. Within a minute I’m back at the junction, but talking to the old boy and turning around has cost me a further thirty seconds. It’s three and a half minutes past and no start in sight. Head down and hauling the pedals round I rifle past the junction. Rider number 2 comes past in the other direction. I try not to look like I’m panicking.
I ride for what seems an eternity until, like a vision from above, a Hi-Viz jacket materialises in the distance. I finally roll up to the start, albeit on the opposite side of the road, with two minutes to spare. Just enough time to get across both lanes and calm down a bit.
Time trials start from an upright position. Someone holds your bike up and helps you into both pedals. It’s a bit unnerving for a newbie. A strange silence falls as the timekeeper gives me my 20 second nod and the other official grasps my seatpost. I miss my pedal at the first attempt, which is a dead giveaway that I’m clueless. The tension becomes almost palpable.
The previous guy’s countdown was, as you might expect;
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO.
Mine was a slight variation on this theme;
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GOWATCHOUTFORTHATCARBEHINDYOU…
With a hearty shove and a disconcerting wobble as though my stabilisers had just come off, I was underway. My theory was that anything under 35 minutes would be ok and anything under 30 would be great. Therefore I needed to keep an eye on my speed and aim to maintain 20 mph, a measurement made more difficult since my computer measures in kilometres. Having Googled the conversion earlier on I knew that 33kph would be good enough. 32kph might be enough to sneak in but 33 was safe.
Spent before the end
Another crucial thing was not to ‘blow up’ – the term applied to beating the hell out of yourself early on the course only to discover that you’re completely spent before the end.
So the game is one of balance. Find a rhythm, keep the cadence up, and pay out your energy in measured doses to get the optimum result.
Of course I went out like a man possessed, out of the saddle to get up to cadence then hammering on the pedals to go flat out. Adrenalin is a natural painkiller and made my legs feel very strong. Over the first 3km I averaged 35kph and touched 41kph in places.
Shortly, though, reason took over. I knew full well that I couldn’t maintain a pace like that and I also had no clue about the profile of the course so I tried to settle into a rhythm just above 33kph.
I had been told that, although the course was an out-and-back, the start and finish lines were in different places to allow riders to start from the relative safety of a lay-by. This meant that rather than the turn for home being on halfway it was about half a mile shy, making the return leg a mile longer than the outward one. This could really hurt you if you’d given it the beans on the way out.
On the other hand I didn’t want to be coming into the return needing to boost my average speed with nothing left in my legs. My strategy was to try to make the turn sitting at about 34kph, tap out the next couple of miles and then put everything into the final third. I also wanted to hold off the guy behind until at least the turn, even though it was a foregone conclusion that he’d catch me at some point.
Burning legs, burning lungs
All this looked set to fall apart though as the final mile before the turn approached. My legs and lungs began to burn, speed dropped below 30kph all with no discernable change in the conditions. It seemed to go on for ages and, to make matters worse, riders who had gone off before me and made the turn began to hove into view coming the other way. A tiny part of my brain started trying to calibrate my performance based on the time when these riders crossed over with me compared to the time I’d been riding.
In this way I thought it might be possible to work out how far to the roundabout or some other statistic. Sadly that part of my brain was soon flooded with lactic acid and the little chap in there with the calculator got all his notes smudged.
After what seemed like at like three quarters of an hour I made it to the turn and, mercifully, got a clear run at the roundabout. Cornering at speed is a bit of an art form and I’m certain I made an utter hash of the roundabout as I applied my usual policy of keeping the skin attached to my lower body.
As I began the journey back it dawned on me that not only had I held off my chaser until the roundabout but there was actually quite a considerable decline on the road. Nothing so significant that you’d notice it in a car but certainly enough to bite your calves if you tried to ride it at pace in a big gear as I had just done. To my unmitigated delight my speed ticked up to 45kph with almost no effort and I was belting along like a new man.
There’s a psychological dimension to pursuit situations – out of sight, out of mind – which here came into play in the second half of the time trial. Simultaneously, the rider in front of and the rider behind me began to pop into view on occasional bends. [Why were you looking back? – ed.] The thought of actually catching someone, going a full minute faster than another rider, had never entered my head. I was also strongly aware of the fact that the rider out before me, my ‘one minute man’, looked to be useful and here I was, seemingly snapping at his heels. Time to unleash my killer instinct. I abandoned all strategy and just gave it one.
Minute man ahead
As we entered a long straight, I realised just how difficult it is to estimate time in terms of distance. The rider in front of me seemed to be no more than 300 yards distant and if he’d been an average rider on a hill I’d have reeled him in quicksmart. On the flat however the chase took on an almost dreamlike quality, no matter how hard I pushed he just stayed away and all the while the rider behind me was getting larger and larger. Then, just as I thought I couldn’t keep the pressure on for any longer, things abruptly changed. I don’t know if the guy in front cracked or if it was just my mind playing tricks but I seemed to slide up towards his wheel in an unexpected rush. Thanks to my extensive YouTube research I knew that I wasn’t allowed to draft on his wheel so I gritted my teeth and scampered past absolutely over the moon.
It only registered when I got past that he hadn’t been number 7 as would have been logical, he had in fact been number 6. This meant that, rather than putting one full minute into the guy ahead of me, I’d put TWO full minutes into the guy ahead of HIM. On the downside it also meant that I hadn’t caught my handy-looking ‘one minute man’, I’d caught a slightly pop-eyed chap on a steel framed racer, but this didn’t bother me for long.
Breathing down my neck
The rider behind me was now breathing heavily down my neck and I felt that my days were numbered on that front. Even worse, he had been joined by another rider while I was engaged battle of wills with number 6. Both pursuers promptly ghosted past me and, to my very great disappointment, the guy behind was transparently drafting the one in front. If I’d know such things were tolerated I would have slingshotted off the slipstream of number 6 and stayed away a bit longer. Possibly not.
All this had completely distracted me from obsessing about average speeds and conserving effort and I was paying the price. My legs were tired and sore and, with no marker to aim for, I was a little bit in no-man’s land, unsure how far to the finish or how much I had left to give.
I finally took a peek at my average speed. 34kph. Enough for a sub-30 minute finish but close enough to the wire to dip below 32 minutes if I had a crisis.
The last couple of miles are a bit of a blur; I know that I put my head down and, as they say, “left everything on the road”, but I still expected a time of about 29 minutes. Eventually, with a sense of deja vu, the hi-viz gang at the finish appeared round a bend and I mustered a little gallop.
Off course again
I went straight through to the roundabout as I saw others doing, all the way around and back up to the finish. Except not. The finish had mysteriously disappeared. Half a dozen blokes with bikes and a Volkswagen Passat, gone. I rode up the course a mile or so and began to notice that several landmarks were also absent. Most peculiar. Retracing the route it was obvious that I’d taken the wrong exit at the roundabout and gone off up the A46. Unfortunately I had also not looked at my stopwatch at any point and I now had no idea what my time might have been.
I rolled back to the actual start and just sort of hung around, taking care not to stand in the road while I watched the finishers coming in. Some of these guys were absolutely belting along at genuinely incredible speeds and being stood right beside the road made it seem even faster. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. My mate Nick seemed to have finished and gone while I was off exploring so I was in a bit of limbo.
One thing I did notice was that the riders all shouted their numbers as they came through the finish. I hadn’t done this and mentally kicked myself as it could have cost me a couple of seconds. The other thing I noticed was the Big Dog. He was hanging around at the finished making idle chat with one of the marshals.
Big ring envy
I found myself standing right next to him and when I took a look at his bike I spotted the ‘dinner plate’. In fact that term doesn’t really do it justice; it was about the size of a BMX wheel. The Big Dog caught me looking so I felt obliged to ask, “How many teeth on that thing?”. Ready for this?
If you don’t know about cycling that’ll mean nothing. However, if you understand gear ratios, you’ll know that it’s a preposterous monster, a gargantuan, snarling, beast of a chainring. All I could think of to say was, “What do you do when you want to pedal?”
Anyway, I digress and there’s an elephant in the room. My time…
I did a 26:23
Nothing special by any means but not bad considering I just rocked up on my normal bike with a normal helmet and normal clothes on. Hopefully with a bit of training and maybe some proper aero kit I can shave this down to 24 something. Stay tuned.