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Reflections on the 2023 World Championship Time Trials
Where a road race’s script can be at least partially indicated by the positioning of riders on the road, a Time Trial is considerably less useful. Only a vague sense of relative strength or weakness can be immediately ascertained. The progressive measurement of each rider only gains a well-rounded objective opinion when the race is ultimately complete, scientifically ground into disinterest – the anti-cyclismo if such a word carries meaning.
For Tuesday’s Mixed Team Time Trial Relay, to be out on the course was in one regard meaningless, the four-minute intervals between teams negating any determinable advantages between all but the backmarkers. By the time the favoured teams began, France and the United States appeared in control. With the final wave of teams all out on course, I edged over to the finish line. It was a place of atmosphere, of emotions rising curiously, and of a big screen with crucial information.
The relay is a bizarre event, a manifestation of a format that now breathes gender equality and national federation bias into a previously commercial event. It is the most persuasive federation bosses that appear destined for success – not even a crash for Marlen Reusser disrupting her Swiss team’s second consecutive victory, a team backed by European Champions, classics specialists, and rider stability. On the line, Swiss fans shouted in joy, before rushing to watch the podium ceremony, content to bask in the moment for what it was.
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Where such a moment was appreciable in Glasgow, the finish line at Stirling Castle instead lay closed. It was dead to the noise that sat beneath it, adrift of the atmosphere that makes a World Championships the celebration of cycling that event organisers proclaim. It was a satirist’s dream that only the buried and the press were allowed by the finish – the churchyard’s proximity to the finish line doubling as a walkway to a subdued media zone – the intensity of the championships possibly stretching the journalistic resources and willpower of major publications.
It sits within British Time Trial tradition that the course be a glorified ‘out-and-back’, anchored on the single carriageways that were a staple of British cycling when road racing was banned. This year, it was eight kilometres until the first corner, enabling the more powerful riders to set tempos on the roads damp from the humidity, coarsened by potholes. Perhaps aware of the tedium of such a route, course organisers eventually diverted the riders from the main road in favour of winding country lanes and hills, keeping the professionals mildly engaged from the monotony, keeping village residents mildly trapped for three days, bearing strange witness to the entire circus. For both the men and the women, the final deviation came straight through the town centre of Stirling, up the cobbled streets to the Castle where most fans gathered for lack of a clear alternative, the finish line out of bounds, the quaint villages out of reach.
The first finisher in the women’s race was Lotte Henttala of Finland, her attempts to avoid the cobbles successful until clipping the barriers and falling in the gutter, 250 metres from the finish line on the steepest gradients. Few riders would subsequently be so brave, their grip ragged to the handlebars that bounced unnaturally over the smoothed pavé.
All around, attention concentrated down the slope, in desperate sight of any approaching rider, at times there would be three. The small intervals with which riders departed, coupled with the gulf in equipment and resources, made for frequent, treacherous overtaking between vehicles. Perhaps most relevantly, they also presented easy targets for the stronger riders setting off early. Eugenia Bujak was one of the beneficiaries, as were Anna Henderson and Christina Schweinberger. No one benefited quite as much though as Chloe Dygert.
Without similar points of reference, Dygert’s time stood alone for speculation, rife for hours of judgement as to when, then eventually if, it could be beaten. In the interim, the riders became curios, names flying into the wind. Their nationality – and variable equipment – attracted greater interest than their athletic performance - all constituent parts of the sporting spectacle, all but neglected as individuals. They would likely not be shown on television cameras, only spotted in passing, their impact on the race almost forgettable but for our recollections of an already distant day.
Only when Grace Brown and Marlen Reusser went slower than Dygert through the first time check did her victory appear possible. Reusser’s subsequent withdrawal was sudden, a burning out of a long, successful season that lacked the required respite needed to reflect, appreciate, and to breathe. The very culture of winning that had brought Reusser such results had, in turn, diminished the individual merit of victory in the eyes of its winner. The plug was understandably pulled. For Brown, her comeback on the final castle climb was ferocious but short, denied by seconds of a title that stood over a minute ahead of the rest. But it was not to be. Like Reusser, the wait for the elusive medal upgrade continues.
In the men’s race, Stefan Küng did not have to privately contemplate the fine margins that had deprived him of victory unlike last year, for the margin was not remotely close. The second from last rider out of the start ramp, like defending champion Foss he was not incentivised to catch a weaker rival, instead left only to suffer a private battle for the top 10 placings – far behind the race for the overall lead.
Ryan Mullen was the first to occupy the hot seat with purpose, leading over a field of largely Continental and wildcard riders, before being overtaken in quick succession. Derek Gee dared to flutter among the favourites before being usurped by Lawson Craddock and then Nelson Oliveira. At least, for Gee, it would not be another second place.
On the final climb to Stirling Castle, the rain threatened on multiple occasions, mercifully only unleashing with any inch of sentiment long after the race had finished. The old grumbler with his bagpipes was not as generous in his considerations towards the masses. Flandrians gathered excitedly, their supermarket bags of ice crashing into lager cans with crescendo, content to make a day of their unsober state under the veil of a bike race. Fortunately, they had Remco Evenepoel to spare them any sorrows to drown in.
There is a peculiar irritant of youth that is hitting me as people my junior dare to excel at sport. It’s a reminder that the moment to succeed has maybe passed, that whatever elite sporting potential that there was, has been gradually overtaken by life accelerating away with its own more ‘conventional’ plans and sugared foods. Josh Tarling is the latest irritant who this afternoon accelerated away from me by the churchyard, later beaming himself onto Stirling High Street’s big screen with bronze. His pacing was ferocious without a power meter, blistering the highly competent times of champions gone by. At 19, Tarling chose to skip the under-23 division entirely like Evenepoel. He is now a World Championship medallist like Evenepoel. The scope of his talent remains unknown, yet the knowledge of his engine is enough to send agents quivering, enough to give his Ineos team comfort when others all around are departing. In Remco Evenepoel, he may soon have a worthy training partner to join himself and Filippo Ganna.
We can’t apply eras to the present day, they are only retrospective lenses to help us understand the world that was. Yet it feels so recent that Ganna was the future of time trialling, the imperial favourite of Italy who ploughed through all terrain in his wake. Yet today, he was the elder statesman on the podium, barely better than his teammate, unable to match the champion, in spite of what he subsequently described as one of his best performances ever. Even his catching of the sport’s wonderkid Pogačar reflected the Slovenian’s poor form more than his own strength. Ganna’s time will surely come again, even if today’s fell short of his desired outcome. For now, he is demoted by Evenepoel – a man no longer a prodigy and instead a combustible explosion on two wheels, his form difficult to read, but devastatingly effective. He bridged and surpassed a highly commendable performance by Geraint Thomas long before the final climb, having earlier in the year beaten him when ill with Covid-19. He sits above our ordinary.
The peril of watching a Time Trial on the ground is to be deprived of key information, to understand the movements and performances of the racers not through perceptible positioning, but by the vagaries of numbers on a screen, and the anecdote of the word on the ground. At its heart, it is abstract, drawing on the conclusions we, as spectators, can make from these fleeting passings. Only on this flimsy basis do we provide the emotion, the passion, the energy to the television viewer. Nowhere else is it so difficult to stay in the loop. The knowledge deficit, the absence of understanding, the reliance on our own emotional heartstrings. Perhaps, if it appeases the internet, it is cyclismo in its entirety – a devotion to passion and instinct over fully-formed stories and deep-diving analysis. Confused, wearying, perfection. The race is complete.