The time trial
Give everything. Then, when you feel you have nothing left, give a bit more. Unless you cross the finish line in a state of total exhaustion—utterly spent, completely empty, totally drained—you will have failed. The stopwatch will be the first to confirm the bad news. There can be no hiding in the race of truth: welcome to the time trial.
Now contrast the demand to extract every last scintilla of energy with an equal and concomitant need for smoothness. Every watt must be expended, but in the most controlled manner imaginable. Not so much as a pedal stroke can afford to be wasted.
Drive too hard too soon and you will blow up long before the finish line looms. Economise, hold back, and manage your effort too conservatively, and you will be off the pace. A braking point missed; a corner overshot; an apex shaved by anything more than a millimeter, all spell defeat. Your rivals will be more precise.
Stay locked in position. Hours of core exercises will pay dividends. As will hours in the wind tunnel. Whatever can be done to reduce frontal area must be done, but be aware of the requirement to hold the position, and the necessity to crank out maximum wattage while doing so.
Be prepared. Go equipped. Do not bring a knife to a gun fight, or even a skinsuit that has not been optimised to within an inch of its life. Never ever underestimate the power of aero, for this is free speed, or as close as you will get. And while your bike might not disgrace a Formula One constructor, remember that to tinker with machinery is to tinker at the margins. The greatest bang for buck is to be found in your skinsuit: the slippery, close-fitting garment that sheaths the greatest percentage of the aerodynamic equation (you) from the wind.
Consider your rivals. Marvel at the smoothness of a Phinney or a Dumoulin. Blanch at the power of a Mullen or a Martin. Gaze in awe at the culmination of all of the above in an Indurain or a Wiggins. These are men who have spent a career in honing a bullet-like velocity. These are the masters of speed.
For it is speed we are discussing, but not that so easily attained as a graceful, gravity-assisted plummet from mountain peak to valley floor. The master descender – an artist working freehand – has gradient on his side; the time-trialist must rely on his own power.
Keep low. Stay smooth. Seek every aerodynamic advantage. Give everything, but do so with immeasurable precision. The clock will not wait, for this is the time trial.
Consider the concept, and then the concept made real in the form of a seething pack of riders passing more quickly than the human eye can process. Blurred lines. Noise and color. Oaths and insults.
Thrilling, intoxicating, unnerving demonstrations of two-wheeled velocity are, ultimately, the essence of any bike race, and, of course, of the Tour de France. Granted, there is nobility in the suffering of torturous Alpine and Pyrenean ascents; slog is a spectacle too. But speed—the adrenal exhibition of pace, power and acceleration—wins hands down.
Consider Abdoujaparov airborne on the Champs-Élysées in 1991. Or Cavendish sprinting past the remains of the day’s breakaway into Brive-la-Gaillarde in 2012. Or Van Poppel in 1988, fulfilling his dream of green with a fourth victory in Paris. These are moments that remain etched in the memory; indelibly so.
The bunch sprint is professional cycling’s rawest demonstration of speed. The sight of nearly 200 riders closing in on a finish line at full gas leaves a lasting impression. It is gladiatorial combat, where the weapons are pure pace, pin-sharp handling, and unflinching courage. Brake and your chance is finished; go for the gap and you might be too.
The sound of bone shattering on tarmac and carbon fiber splintering under impact never fails to arouse a visceral response. Spectators step back from the fence, and draw breath. The ghoulish step forward again just as quickly to examine the wreckage. There is road rash visible through shredded lycra; faces contorted with pain, and sometimes bodies, too.
A bunch kick is no place for the faint-hearted. It is the arena of the fast-twitch: the pocket rockets and the powerhouses. The street fighters and the glory hunters. The high-stakes merchants—prepared to win at almost any cost—and the clinicians. The champion seeking the win that will add another zero to his contract, and the desperado, seeking a result that will save his career. All life is here, so long as it is fast.
Mesmerizing. Beguiling. Exhilarating. The sprint is professional cycling’s knockout blow, but it is not impact that packs the punch. It is speed in its purest, most natural form. Life in the Tour’s fast lane beckons again this summer for the peloton’s quick men.