I was at the Cycling Time Trials prize dinner recently. It’s an opportunity for time triallists to have a glass of wine and discuss secret course codes, our favourite pointy hats and whether aerodynamic drag means that if you shaved only one leg you’d go round in circles.
Two of the prize winners were Michael Broadwith and Lynn Biddulph. Both outwardly normal human beings, who nonetheless were the men and women’s 24-hour time trial champions. The 24-hour time trial is exactly what it sounds like — ride for 24 hours, see how far you can go.
Every year when they award the prizes for the ‘24’ I find myself thinking, “I’d love to have a go at that sometime.” This spirit of adventure is not at all like me. Never, to pick a rough equivalent, do I hold in my hand a chisel, and think, “I’d love to put this just behind the first knuckle of my index finger and hit the other end of it as hard as I can with a mallet.”
Nor is not having three hands the only reason for this firm stance on chisels and fingers. It’s because I’m not usually a masochistic fool.
I know a little bit about longer races, because I’ve already done a few 12-hour time trials. They’re rather peculiar. The actual effort level is strangely low — if you’re used to racing at (say) 400 watts, it’s rather a delight to be able to noodle along at 250 watts and think, “I’m in a bike race, me.” No, the problems are rather different from the normal plain, straightforward gasping anguish we all know and love.
For instance, here’s something it takes most people a few goes to work out: the limiting physiological factor for a very long time trial is not aerobic capacity, it’s energy. A 12 or 24-hour time trial is, when you boil it down, no more than an inconveniently mobile eating competition.
Many of the difficulties are to do with the varieties of gastric unhappiness because most riders, especially novices, try to eat too much. On my first 12-hour, I scheduled my helpers to pass me food in quantities that would have been ambitious for an industrial waste-disposal unit.
The attempt to limit the damage meant I had to stop eating at all, and finished with 33 unused energy gels stuffed down the back of my skinsuit — I looked like a big red condom full of Lego. I began to worry that if a vehicle ran me down from behind the resulting explosion would leave me glued to the front of it, like a giant fly.
I won’t lie about it, sometimes a long TT is a bit boring. But that’s OK, because your body’s own defence mechanisms take care of this — when you get bored, something will begin to hurt in order to take your mind off how bored you are. What will hurt next becomes an exciting guessing game. You’ll never think of “the top of my head”, but that will be where you’ll be wrong. All sorts of strange things will hurt.
I could go on. But I won’t, because I might put you off. So here’s a suggestion. Try a long distance time trial. If you can manage to eat sensibly you might quite enjoy it.
Or, at any rate, half-enjoy some bits of it. Or maybe you’ll hate every damn minute of the whole bloody thing, but at least you will never have to do another one, and that will make every day of the rest of your life a little brighter.