Let’s begin with a poem, or a few lines of poetry at least:
“I was riding: a beautiful, slim,
dark rider swooshed past me.
A glimpse of curly hair on his forehead,
the smell that belongs to him,
chiselled, bronzed legs.”
Hans Warren wrote that ages ago, in 1978 to be precise.
1978 was a milestone year. Better put, it was a turning point in my life. That was the year I got my diploma at the teachers’ college in Helmond and became a certified educator, only to land in the employment agency’s overflowing Rolodex. Those were tough times for new teachers, but, for a dreamer like me, they were full of promise. Instead of giving children lessons, I continued my studies in a parallel universe. With a bit of luck and devotion, I would become a certified professional cyclist.
I came across Hans Warren’s ode long after my time as a professional racer had past. I found it in a charming chapbook of sports poetry. The poet was not a racer. He wasn’t even a fan of the sport. But the rider who swooshed past him made an impression. It’s a homoerotic poem.
When I first read Warren’s lines, a thought struck me — the rider who whooshed past was certainly a time triallist. I pictured Miguel Indurain, although he didn’t have curly hair. Strange, isn’t it? What’s homoerotic to a homosexual poet is cycloerotic to a heterosexual cycling aficionado.
The time triallist. See how his bronzed legs turn the pedals. See him, flat over his machine in his skin-tight suit, evading the wind. See his invisible pain. His spit is spread in a tight, geometric pattern over his chin and shoulders. Drops of his sweat splash down on his top tube. See how he pushes himself right to the limit, without breaking. I adore him, the time triallist. He is so alone, so glorious!
The great director Peter Post loved time triallists. On his ideal team, everyone would have been a specialist against the clock. When he spoke of true masters, he would sigh and get this dreamy look in his eyes. He lusted after time triallists. Time trials in races such as the Tour de France were Sundays for him. And when there was a team time trial on the calendar, it was a holy celebration. Post was never so excited as when his team won. And his team won one after the other. There were years when Team Raleigh went undefeated. Post’s riders would joke that he had to hide his erection under the steering wheel of the team car.
In the 1983 Tour, Raleigh finished third in the team time trial. Post considered it a personal failure. It was my first year with Raleigh and the final year for the team. There’d been a squabble between the director and a certain rider who had a far too strong personality. Over the course of the year, it became a rift. The team fell into two camps. Of the ten riders who began that 100-kilometre team time trial in France, five were not motivated. And when you’re not motivated, you aren’t able to hurt. Halfway through the race, we’d already lost four men. Number five soon fell overboard.
I do enjoy watching team time trials on television, especially towards the end, which is when it gets interesting. For everyone except the true thoroughbreds, it’s too fast. That’s the beauty of it — they’re going too fast and they can’t slow down. Sometimes, people say that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. It’s not true. A team is as strong as its strongest link. A time trial specialist, a rouleur par excellence, should be like a shepherd herding his sheep. If his ego is too big, he’ll run his flock into the ground. He can’t go too easy on them either though. He has to do longer turns on the front just below his max. The rest live or die by his crook. It’s up to him to make sure they don’t bite the dust.
The time triallist belongs to a special, revered class. During my career, I remember being amazed by them, and desperate and frustrated. A question bounced back and forth, like a locked-in fly, in my hollow ribcage. How do they do it?
How they did it — and how they still do it today — has since been explained. I could now cite plenty of scientific articles that lay it all out, but scientific findings don’t diminish the time triallist’s aura. They explain the facts of him, but not the mystique. His cruising speed is quite high. Science is frustrating because it’s so frank. The time triallist can maintain absurd speeds for such a long period of time thanks to his excellent aerobic system.
In my own professional years, I was a climber. Once in a while, a desperate colleague would ask, “How do you do that? How do you ride uphill so fast?” I was able to climb so fast, because I was a flyweight. But that’s as far as my analysis would go. Aerobic and anaerobic capacity, let alone watts per kilogram, were still unknown metrics at the time, at least in the conservative world of cycling. I climbed as well as my time trialling was terrible. Guess why that was. I won in the mountains because I had a low cruising speed.
Nowadays, I would never win a mountain stage in the Tour. The stages are much shorter, so the racing is much faster. I would be a fish out of water in today’s peloton. I came into my own when mountain stages exceeded 200 kilometres and the thermometer hovered over 30 degrees Celsius. The more cols, the better. My talent was bound to my time. If they collected physiological data then, and you compared my numbers to those of today’s riders, you would see that today’s climbers would not have made it in my generation either.
A time triallist’s talent, on the other hand, is timeless. They went faster than the others in the past and they go faster than the others today. A time triallist does not need to be explained by science. He just is. In the 80s, I wasn’t a time trial specialist, and I wouldn’t be a specialist nowadays either. I would be just as empty and frustrated after time trials as I was after every time trial back then — like a pallid patient after a bloodletting. That’s why I really enjoy watching individual time trials on television. I can identify with the half-specialists and non-specialists. It’s comic to see — their frustration is the same as mine was. The clock never lies. I think of the poor masseurs who later have to push and pull their kaput muscles to try to iron out the kinks.
As I type this, an awful memory barges into my mind. It was an 80-kilometre time trial during the Tour de France, sometime in the mid-80s. We were in the Alsace, and I was not riding one of my better Tours. After 50 kilometres, I was coughing up rusty, brown mucus. After 60 kilometres, a non-specialist passed me as if I were standing still. Later, for more than an hour back in the hotel, I felt as if I had left this world. The team’s soigneur picked me up for my massage. When he’d heard my story and placed his hands on my legs, he told me in a hushed voice, and even more through his body language, that ‘maybe’ I had better go home.
I still don’t understand why I didn’t go home then.
Speaking of surprises, halfway through this article, which I’ve been writing over the course of two days, I was getting ready for a crucial time trial in the middle of the night. The details of the dream are still foggy. I do remember someone who looked nearly the same as Peter Post, but turned out not to be him, criticising my preparedness. He went and told the press I was lazy, something the real Post would never have done. One painful detail is still stuck in my mind: all of a sudden, right before the start, I couldn’t find my shoes. I suffered the full wrath of the real Peter Post then, though I was already half-awake from my dream.
What’s the meaning of my dream? Am I still afraid of time trials, even though I will never again have to ride one? Am I afraid that the late Peter Post, that lover of chrono-specialists, will rise from the void and lay bare, once more, the fact that I’ll never be a time trial star? In any case, time trialling was clearly more of a burden than a passion for me.
But still. During my teenage years, I was a gifted time triallist. I could do everything then, even win bunch sprints. A nice memory — I was fourteen, and the club championships were to be decided by an individual time trial. My greatest competitor was a nearly full-grown boy. Around puberty, each kid’s physique is more or less mature than the others’. A strong wind was blowing that day. I demolished my competitor with a great show of strength. The boy’s father, a fat pig with high blood pressure, who was probably an alcoholic, was a member of the jury. He wanted to disqualify me, because he was convinced that I’d taken a short cut. I was crowned champion of the club nonetheless, since he had no evidence. Not that it mattered. If I’d turned off into a side street somewhere along the route, I would not have ridden fewer kilometres; I would have ridden more.
What’s the morale of this story? At fourteen, I already knew how to ride a time trial. I knew how to dance near my pain threshold for the entire distance of the race. It’s not that I enjoy the pain exactly, but it can be a valuable tool. It’s an elixir. The will to win becomes all that matters for a few kilometres.
Good, that happened a long time ago on the regional circuit. Over the years, I didn’t get worse at time trials, but, in the face of international competition, I no longer seemed as talented as I once did. Slowly, but surely, I became mediocre.
Every once in a while, people make lists that rank the best time triallists ever. Grand tour winners are often included. I’ll name just a few: Indurain, Merckx, LeMond, Armstrong, Hinault, Coppi, Anquetil. Let me focus for a moment on Bernard Hinault, the man I knew first hand.
I was 23 when I debuted in the 1981 Tour de France, which Hinault won. The race went better than expected for a young punk who knew nothing about the Tour. Hell, on Bastille Day on Alpe d’Huez, I stole the win from the savage Hinault. The Dutch sports press heralded me, the new white jersey wearer, as a future Tour winner. I soon dampened their enthusiasm. In that Tour’s time trials, Hinault showed me what cycling’s really about. He demolished me by minutes in each race against the clock — hard work is not always rewarded. How does that man do it? I asked myself desperately.
Naturally, Hinault did exactly the same thing that I did. He pushed himself to the very edge. He just went much faster. In my first Tour, I became a very humble sportsman.
Time trialling — it is a dizzying dance towards pain. It takes all of your willpower, and the result is calculated by a merciless clock. It is said that time trialling is the purest form of cycling. There’s just one rider, alone, and he can be explained scientifically. His maximal power is offset by the wind and rolling resistance. But his readiness to die is still not accounted for by scientific formulas.
I remember feeling as though I were turning into wood during time trials. It was as if I were breathing cotton balls in and out, instead of air. That reminds me of Gerrie Knetemann. Knetemann was not a specialist, but he still managed to win time trials. How he did it, no one knows, not even his personal soigneur, the legendary Ruud Bakker of Team Raleigh. Somewhere, deep in his psyche, Knetemann decided that he could — no — must, win time trials. And he won a countless number of them, despite the fact that he objectively did not have the physical capacity to do so. Somehow, Knetemann decided that time did not pertain to him. In the crazy fight with the air, he seemed to cross through his pain threshold and enter a very, very lonely place known only by a few.
Since wind resistance is the factor which influences solo riders most, today’s rider heads to the wind tunnel. There, he is set up in the most efficient and uncomfortable position possible on a supersonic time trial vehicle, which still looks most like a torture device from the Middle Ages. He wraps himself in an aerodynamic corset woven from exquisite, aerodynamic fibres. I can barely even look at most specialists. With those monstrous helmets on their heads, they look like insect-like caricatures of themselves.
But, in a cycloerotic way, I am in love with the time trialling wonder boy Tom Dumoulin. Even if science put him upside down on his TT bike, he would be a feast for the eye. Moreover, he, the slim cyclist with bronzed legs, is a streamlined champion of humility. In an interview, he once hinted that he actually hated time trials. He is only satisfied after a win. Nothing is more painful or lonely than being talented. His motto is, “To the limit, because there’s nothing beyond.”
There is something beyond the time trial though. Dumoulin wants to win a grand tour. If he can use science to lose a couple more kilos, even the highest and steepest cols won’t impede him. It remains to be seen whether losing weight will hinder his time trialling capacity. Dumoulin actually has it a lot harder than Bernard Hinault did during his best years. In those days, science was no burden.
Peter Winnen twice won stages of the Tour de France on Alpe d’Huez. After his career, he went on to study at the art academy and became a celebrated author of books, columns, and stories.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.