A recent Cycling Weekly editorial caused a stir when it was suggested the British Best All-Rounder series, for many years the pinnacle of time trialling achievement in this country, was a devalued competition, as the best men against the clock were not competing at the BBAR?s qualifying distances.
The winner, Nik Bowdler, was understandably miffed at the lack of recognition for his achievement. After all, his average speed of 27.329mph over the ?50?, ?100? and 12-hour distances was well clear of second-placed Ian Cammish, and a perfectly respectable average winning speed. He has been knocking on the door for a few years now and finally cracked it. You have to be ?in it to win it?, and Bowdler should be congratulated on his achievement.
?I think Cycling Weekly have done a bit of an injustice to the BBAR winner by saying the top guys have not done it this year,? said 11-times BBAR winner Kevin Dawson. ?That guy [Bowdler] has been trying to do it for years and has done some brilliant rides.?
Dawson took a change of direction this season and focused on winning the Rudy Project Series. ?I have done the BBAR for the last 20 years and I just fancied a change,? said Dawson. ?I was really tempted to ride a ?12? but then my wife reminded me and I didn?t enter!?
Michael Hutchinson last rode a 12-hour years ago on the way to winning his second BBAR, and confesses to having ?never entered into a 12-hour with any great enthusiasm?.
Ian Cammish won the National 12-hour, his first national title since 1989, at the age of 51, and finished second in this year?s BBAR, a title he first took way back in 1980 ? amazing stuff from the Planet-X veteran.
Bowdler won the competition fair and square, and the old guard are finally surpassed ? a healthy state of affairs, surely? But is the BBAR relevant these days, or has it had its day?
Local courses for locals
It was a very different world when this magazine came up with the BBAR concept in 1932. Riding to an event on traffic-free roads with your best wheels strapped to a carrier was the usual mode of transport, with riders unlikely to travel huge distances looking for fast times, as Hutchinson points out: ?I strongly suspect there were more courses and less difference between them. These days I think the differentials between courses are greater. Someone who is planning a BBAR campaign has to trek up and down the country looking for the fast courses on the fast days.?
Poring over a road atlas and the CTT handbook to ensure you don?t miss out on the possibility of a fast ride is part-and-parcel of any serious BBAR contender?s season. ?You are chasing times, and every week could be a good week,? said Dawson, whose family commitments made the BBAR less appealing. ?That?s why I chose to do the Rudy Project.?
Few top riders are now prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to compete in the three-distance competition. Time trialling has its appeal, especially for the over-40s who make up the bulk of ?testers?. So long as you don?t mind an early start to the day, you can get out, do your race, and still be home for brunch and time with the family. Limited training time is no bar to racing ? after all, over set distances it is your own best time you are trying to beat: finishing ahead of your peers is a bonus.
But when it becomes a lengthy weekly drive in search of a ?float? day on a fast course ? which can be rendered pointless by the wrong weather conditions ? then competing in the BBAR is a case of who is prepared to spend most of their weekend in the car, rather than riding their bike. All credit to those who are prepared to do it, especially Nik Bowdler, but there has to be a better way of determining the country?s top time triallist.
The Rudy Project Series hit the UK?s roads in 1995, moving time trials away from dual carriageway dragstrips and onto challenging courses on quieter roads. Initially a big hit with riders, numbers have faded in recent years ? the recent final round in Northamptonshire attracted the grand total of 15 senior entries, with only nine facing the timekeeper, plus four women and three juniors. There were, as usual, a reasonable number of veterans, but where were the rest?
?It was a terrific series 10 years ago,? recalls Hutchinson. ?I think I finished 15th in the first Rudy Project I did, and in front of me were Paul Manning, Richard Prebble, Gethin Butler ? all of these big names, but now those sort of guys are in the [GB] squad. Nobody prepares for an Olympics by riding the Rudy Project series.
?The prize money went down [over the years], which made a difference. On a good day, you could win £250 ? and that?s 10 years ago. It went from where you could make a thousand pounds in a year from the Rudy Project if you won it, to a point where it was nearly costing you money to do it, and that is part of the equation for attracting the top guys.?
Series winner Dawson is a big fan of the format. ?I have enjoyed every Rudy Project I rode this year. They are really well run ? it?s like a national championship every week. The organisers really go to town with it. The numbers are quite small for the seniors, but you get a lot of veterans going for their target times. Maybe it needs a handicap system for the seniors as well. The appeal for a lot of people is improving their times, so they tend to do a ?10?, ?25? or ?50?; that is their challenge.?
Track can do it
So if the BBAR is not the force it once was and the Rudy Project Series is not pulling in strong fields, where does time trialling source the next generation of riders capable of competing for wins? After all, the nation?s tracks were inundated post-Olympics with enquiries from cyclists of all ages keen to experience the thrill of the velodrome. Team GB?s medal haul included Emma Pooley?s silver in the time trial ? a fantastic inspiration for any young woman ? so time trialling should be in a position to exploit that enthusiasm, yet gives the impression of being unprepared and outdated. Its seemingly impenetrable world of course codes, handbooks and insistence on club membership make it possibly the hardest branch of the sport to get involved in.
?I think older people coming into cycling are heading towards other events like sportives,? said Hutchinson. ?There is no shortage of guys out there ? there are so many triathletes around, which should be an obvious target for time trials.?
Cycling Time Trials has made an effort this year with its ?Come And Try It? events, but the whole process of riding a TT still needs to be simplified. And the issue of attracting demographics other than men over 40 needs addressing. Young or inexperienced cyclists should not be expected to race on open roads without some prior training, which is where closed-road circuits come in.
Former BAR and 10-time national time trial championship medal winner Ruth Eyles finished second in the women?s event at Blenheim Palace [see ?Palace appeal?] and was full of praise for the ?closed roads and beautiful scenery, and the opportunity to race without paying any regard to traffic. There was a high proportion of novices, young people and women ? who are not well represented in your average time trial,? she said.
Various airfields, motor racing circuits and purpose-built cycling tracks throughout the UK host time trials during the summer, providing a safe environment for all ages to learn riding at speed. Eyles recently raced at Weston on the Green airfield, near Oxford. ?I loved the one I did earlier in the year, for the same reason I loved Blenheim. But I don?t think they are going to attract the average tester who wants to get a good time by ploughing up and down dual-carriageways with heavy traffic,? she said.
Low key tea
?Time trialling is very low-key,? said Eyles. It is about cups of tea and village halls, and [new] people are not attracted to that. I don?t know what the answers are, but that is why I explicitly expressed just how good Blenheim Palace was, because I think it is very important that things like that take place.?
Eyles claims to not know what the answers are, yet is doing her bit to find solutions. ?I have promoted a series of time trials for women this year,? she explained, ?and we have had over 50 women take part in the Midlands district. We did something that was organised for women ? to make them feel it was for them ? and see if they turn out. And the answer is yes, they do.
?My club promote a 39-mile hilly time trial, which usually would attract 20 to 30 riders,? Eyles continued. ?We had 30 complete novices ride last year, with 15 women, and the event was oversubscribed ? we had to turn people away.
?The reason the event was so successful was because we did an awful lot of work promoting it on our website and we gave imaginative prizes.?
So it can be done. If dyed-in-the-wool testers want to continue chasing fast times on dual-carriageways, fair enough.
But if alternative events are not promoted which pull in newcomers, then time trialling in this country will surely fade away.
This feature originally appeared in Cycling Weekly October 30 2008 issue
Bowdler makes his mark on the BBAR
Photo gallery: British time trial championship 2008
Photo gallery: National ’25’ time trial championship 2008
Photo gallery: National ’10’ time trial championship 2008