Out Of Time

Miguel Indurain time trial

What would Miguel Indurain have done? The Spaniard won the Tour de France five times in a row as well the Giro twice and more. He built his wins in the time trials and now that foundation has crumbled, no more so than next summer’s Tour de France with its meager 13km opening stage.

Picking a race an random the 1992 Tour de France had three solo time trials: an 8km prologue, Stage 9 was 65km, Stage 19 was 64km. 10 times more than 2015, unthinkable today? It’s more than all three grand tours of 2015 combined. Back in 1992 Indurain won them all, in fact he put three minutes into second placed Armand de la Cuevas, a team mate, on Stage 9. Claudio Chiapucci sometimes got the better of Indurain in the mountains but not always so. Without wanting to run too far with counter-factual speculation an Indurain-Chiapucci race on the 2015 route could still have gone to the Spaniard. He crushed his rivalmin the time trials that year but he was superior on the one Pyrenean stage and an equal in all but one Alpine stage.

Claudio Chiapucci

The same story for Jan Ulrich and Richard Virenque in 1998. Virenque might be famed as le grimpeur Ulrich was better in the mountains that year too. You could say it makes Christian Prudhomme’s point, a close contest would have been more fun to watch. There is a counter-counter argument that more time trials today would change the format with time trial specialists and climbers fighting for the yellow jersey, arguably a wider cast of contenders. This isn’t necessarily a throwback to the 1990s or before, see the last Tour de Suisse where Tony Martin led until the final stage when Rui Costa overhauled him on the last climb.

The charts linked in the tweets linked above show the decline in TT kilometres. For the second graphic from @PlataformaRC the yellow and green bars denote rolling or flat solo TTs and you can see the distances have decreased.

Why? It’s not been said out loud but time trials never get great TV audiences. There are ways to improve the TV spectacle but we’re not there yet. Instead with lone riders amd low-fi production techniques it’s hard to display the relative battle between riders.

It’s not just the grand tours pruning back the number of TT stages and their distance. Several prestigious time trials have vanished and remaining specialist races like the Chrono des Nations are worthy events but a shadow of their former glory. The GP des Nations isn’t the big prize it once was.

Tony Martin

The 2015 Tour is probably an exception with so few kilometres of time trialling, the following year should see the number go up. Yet there’s been an inexorable trend to reduce the amount of time trialling in the big stage races. The discipline survives under the wing of stage races, ther are no prestigious one day time trials except for the World Championships.

52 thoughts on “Out Of Time”

  1. It’s a little weird that the downfall of TT as a major part of the Tour (and the reduction in importance of big standalone TTs) overlaps so much with the rise of the UK as a major force- though (as the chart shows) Wiggins Tour win had a comparatively high level of TT. There’s also only been a rainbow jersey for the discipline for the last 20 years- though this may be what has hit the Chrono des Nations so hard.

    • What’s hit the Chrono des Nations so hard is the UCI forcing events off the WT calendar. Look at the UCI’s roadmap. Just as lots of great races have been forced off their highest rank, so too have TT events. Again, this gets back to the UCI’s strange fascination with “One Race To Rule Them All” on any given weekend.

      One wonders how long the road TT will suffer until, just like the hour, someone high enough at the UCI takes a fancy to the discipline.

  2. I think there is a balance to be had here. Too little time trial and you have modern mountain stages repeatedly being settled in the last couple of kilometres. Until then the climbers are all watching each other not daring to go too far into the red. On the other hand, TTs are great from a spectator point of view. Just one example: a couple of years ago I travelled to St Malo to watch the sprint stage and following TT at Mont St Michel. For the sprint we had to claim our spot about 5 hours before the race arrived and witnessed about 10 seconds worth of sprint action. At Mont St Michel we had all day to watch the racers from various viewing points, even lunching at a cafe along the route. We got a clear view of all the big names and our lesser starred favourite riders. In short, it was a memorable day out. But, I’ll concede that watching a TT on the telly is one for the purists. As I said, there is a balance to be struck and I’m not sure that next year they have it right.

    • Couldn’t agree more, we had a family holiday for Annecy for the ITT at the 2009 Tour and my two (largely cycling agnostic) kids really got into it. Really would not be able to persuade them to do similar for a sprint stage (and they’d never get up early enough for a mountain stage). While my wife and I had a nice day out at the Tour Alsace this year, catching two bites of a mountain stage, there was no way the kids were coming. Had it been an ITT, they might have been more receptive

  3. It’s all relative though isn’t it? I mean sprint stages are often deathly dull to watch too, with all of the action happening in the last few km. Sadly, many climbing stages are going a similar way, with a spring for a few seconds a km or two from the finish.

    I would have thought one of the points of a TT is that it forces/encourages the pure climbers to do their attacking from further out, thus making the rest of the race more of a spectacle.

    • “I would have thought one of the points of a TT is that it forces/encourages the pure climbers to do their attacking from further out, thus making the rest of the race more of a spectacle.”

      Maybe in theory, but I think many other factors in contemporary cycling have contributed to the death of long-range attacks: power meters, race radios, the overall fitness level of the peloton, It’s just not possible to “crack” a rider like you used to with so much information at your disposal.

  4. That TT in the 2009 Giro was great. Get rid of the TT bikes.

    60km+, climbs, descents turns. Anything but 40km of pan flat dead straight roads on TT bikes. No one can relate to that. But you only need 1.

    Also, I’d be in for a TT over the cobbles.

      • That chrono route inspired one of our itineraries called Vineyards to the Sea and I think about it every time we ride out there and see the race fan’s graffiti that still remains. I think chrono stages were more interesting before aero bars were allowed. To me those made everyone pretty much the same aerodynamically and reduced the contest to simply who had the biggest motor. Add in the modern setups with riders looking like a dog dragging his a__ over the carpet every 10 crank revolutions and AGHHHH! But the coulda, woulda, shoulda’s are just that – the course was known in advance and the riders knew what they were up against. No point in going on about how BigMig might have been beaten. He wasn’t…end of story.

        • There are still large aero differences between riders on road bikes, it’s not levelling the aero field at all, it’s just the difference between riders will vary as some gain more advantage when moving from road to TT bike than others. Some riders are naturally more aerodynamically gifted than others.

          If you ban TT bikes with aero extensions for TTs, then all that happens is aero tech moves its strong focus into road bike set ups. You’ll see special road TT bikes with aero shapeed tubes and bars, changed geometry to permit an more aero body shape, narrowed thin bars, special aero gearing, cabling and braking set ups, wheels, helmets and clothing tech, with all the requisite time and expense of testing with power meters, velodromes and wind tunnels – all of which will end up being just as specialised, exclusive and expensive as a specialised TT rig and rider set up is today.

          Riders will then have their mass start road bike and their TT race road bike, instead of a mass start road race bike and TT rig.

          As noted though, the way to make TT’s interesting is to have a variety of ITT types – flat courses, rolling terrain and MTT, and to overlay video transmissions with better tech with many more timing points, GPS trackers etc.

          • You are correct on the bike details, though I think frontal area/drag is almost the same among guys using aero bars than without. If I was the king of cycling I’d make some sort of rule that required chronos be contested on the same bike used for the road stages. Adding fancy tech stuff, whether it’s the bikes or TV coverage is the last thing I want to see. I want to see a contest among men (using bicycles) rather than bicycles (piloted by men).

        • I’m sorry Larry but what you are suggesting is wouldn’t work. Heres why:

          o As pointed out by others, the body shape of the riders would still lead to significant differences in performance (aerodynamically and, as a consequence, against the clock).

          o Not all road bike are the same aerodynamically, so some riders would get an advantage compared to others.

          o Skin suits also make a huge difference- consider the total area of a rider compared to the bike- would these be band too?

          o Tyres, wheels and other finishing kit can all offer significant speed again through aero and rolling resistance efficiency. Some tyres are up to 5% quicker than others (!)

          If you really just want to see the biggest engines win, I think you’d have to replace the ITT with a wattbike test. And that sounds pretty dull to me.

          Finally, the improvements in aero kit actually gives the smaller climber type riders a chance in the discipline IF they choose to work on it…and to my mind that can provide a closer race on all levels.

  5. I’m not strongly biased one way or another. Except that I hate too long ITTs. Indurain years were a disappointment because good fights were few and far between. But G.T. cycling is different these days in many ways. Let’s see how it goes and what effect (if any!) it will have on team tactics.

    • In 1992, precisely, the stage to Sestrières was more exciting, more endearing, and more absolutely memorable than the whole 21st century. Just my opinion, of course. Everlasting. It was actually quite a vintage Tour, the whole of it.

  6. Was it just me or did anyone else think this was going to be a different story purely from reading the headline & seeing the picture on the menu page?

    • Ditto. I’m also a little perplexed at the example. Wasn’t Indurain another example of ‘that’ era when the flat thoroughbreds could suddenly climb (or not lose too much time) with the mountain goats?

      • Indurain naturally had a supernatural physiology, including parameters which can’t be easily changed by doping.
        He was probably on doping (he worked with Conconi and Padilla wasn’t crystal clear, either ^___^), even if logic would suggest that he wasn’t doping “as much as…”, since when less talented but undoubtedly doped riders appeared on the scene, his decline was quite abrupt and apparently not related to age.
        His impressive superiority and his ability to be competitive even climbing were not a consequence of doping.

  7. The ITT’s are missing one thing and one thing only, technology. Displaying a rider’s wattage on screen, cadence, speed ..etc.. Would quantify the efforts for even the most armchair of cyclists. Taking it a step further, a ‘ghost rider’ of the fastest competitors ride could also be displayed on-screen simultaneously.. The ‘gamification’ of the ITT, if you will. It would change the specticle overnight and, dare I say it, bring it upto the 21st century!

  8. Besides the TV spectacle (or not) argument, there are still two days of TTs in le Tour, so why not not make them longer and hillier? If there were say 35 – 40 km of TTing each, Froome would be more or less satisfied, Nibali would gain the difference on the cobbles, Contador and Quintana would fight more severly in the mountains. Last not least Prudhomme could get his “fight for yellow till the end”, which was not the case for several years in a row.

  9. >> with low-fi production techniques it’s hard to display the relative battle between riders.

    This is a big problem with TT’s on tv that should be easy to solve. How about:

    -reporting splits much more frequently than 1-2x per course, even if the splits are unofficial (a tv production assistant keeping track of when a rider passes a certain street sign would do). Show not just just elapsed total time at each split, but also elapsed time per segment so we know what part of the course each rider gained/lost time.
    -split screens or “simultaneous replay” (not sure what they call it) like in skiing where they show 2 racers going through the same part of the course at the same time so you can see where one gained/lost time versus the other
    -show a map of the course in real time with an overlay of where riders are on the course tracked by gps
    -show current speed of each rider at all times, tracked by gps

    TT’s would still not be as exciting as road races, but could be much better presented and much more informative to viewers.

    • absolutley agree – stick a gps transmiter onto each rider and create amp or a digital recreation with each of the main contenders riders all together. – it shouldn’t be difficult to get footage of each of them and splice it – I know the angles would be tricky but even if you had virtual footage they all look pretty much the same in the time trial position

      • Scalextric track only allowed if they have the fake ‘chicane’ bits that squeeze the cars (or riders in this case) right into the same piece of track. And make them dodge a forty-foot high cat trying to swat them away on each lap…

        Actually, I’m fairly sure I’ve argued in the past for a figure-8 course so that riders can be set off in pairs and the difference seen – it would be a fairly cheap way to enliven things, I think, and make it much more interesting for spectators.

  10. To enhance the spectacle you could start the top riders on a real-time handicap basis, so that the leader on the road is the GC leader on time.

  11. I think there are two conflicting elements at play here. Finding the best all around cyclist vs Finding the biggest TV audience.

    My idea of finding the best all around cyclist is to include a variety of challenges say 1 rolling/technical TT of 35 -40 km, 1 uphill TT of 10-15 km, 4-5 MTF stages of a variety of distances and severity of climbing, 2-3 stages with the possibility of crosswinds, 3-4 stages suited to breakaways, 2-3 stages where a reduced field sprint is a possibility with the remainder likely to end in a large field sprint.

    What is apparent is that the biggest TV audience is reserved for MTFs and therefore from an economics viewpoint these will become prioritised by race organisers. But as mentioned previously the broadcasting of TTs is so poor that no wonder only purists enjoy them. We need regular relevant information on screen to compare riders performance not only on the stage but also on GC, this is possible currently without extra investment in technology.

    But will a succession of similar outcomes become a turnoff? Of course it will. The reason we watch sport is that the outcome is uncertain. To my mind the battle of a climbing rouleur vs the pure climber is the principle beauty of the GC of a GT. It provides a variety of tactics and team strategies that races decided exclusively by MTFs cannot.

  12. Maybe a TT on a 15km circuit with 15 riders starting at the same time each 1km apart. It could spice it up for tv and with timing chips and a few laptops it could work. Would be better for TV.

  13. – TT is tremendously more attractive to audiences than your average Kittel victory, for one simple reason: it completely shakes the overall standings, and is therefore packed with drama.
    – TT decompresses the standings, and therefore obliges losers to take risks they wouldn’t take otherwise. That’s a fact.
    – Enough people are making the point of how technologies and real-time data available to riders and directors change races, TT or no TT, for the worse and more predictable, for one to be surprised at how little traction the debate on possible bans on technological devices is having.
    – It cannot be said enough: TT is ideally a highly psychological contest, where a rider fights his own anxiety and tries to make the most of his sensations. Away with the computers.

  14. I would’ve made a day of it on the Tourmalet. Uphill TT in the morning from Campan St. M followed by a Downhill TT too Luz after dinner. That would sort the whiners out from the decent bike handlers.

  15. tour TTs need more variety of terrain – the one from i think it was 2013 with tactics like some riders swapping bikes was great.

    combine that (not always so hilly, just not always dead flat and straight) with good consistent TV graphics showing speed, power, relative positions to current leader, GC contenders etc and you’d have a great spectacle as well as a good counter-point to the mountains.

    i just hope that the various powers that be can get their act together to sort out tv production like this soon so that the sport keeps growing rather than general and TT in particular downturns

  16. I enjoy watching the Euro races but if there is a TT, I do not watch. I agree that having a TT is good for the GC battle as it forces teams to adjust tactics based on whether their team leader is expected to gain or lose time over a long TT course. I also think TTs are visually striking with many great pics taken of wispy thin athletes atop wispy thin TT machines. But I find them boring to watch in a different way than a flat/sprint stage. On a flat stage, I know how it will end (a sprint) but I don’t know how the race will play out to reach that climatic end point. With a TT, the only drama is the anticipation of what the GC leader board will look like at the end of the day. While graphics could be added to show me that one rider is riding harder than another at any given time or over any one stretch of pavement, the efforts of each rider look exactly the same to me…man pedaling bike, and I do not find that interesting. My preference would be that they keep the long TTs as part of GT racing but not bother to try and gussy them up. They are what they are, a race of truth. It sounds like some people really like watching them from the side of the road…so make it for them. I am happy to not watch one day because the overall race benefits from it being part of the overall equation for winning.

    That being said, I am a fan and I will watch a GT with or without a long TT, so I doubt my eyeballs are the ones being considered by those making such decisions.

      • Agree with you about TTing being boring to watch on TV Daniel, but i have found watching roadside, you get drawn into the whole spectacle.For one you know the rider whose coming toward you, with it being plastered all over the front of the following car! It does sound pretty sweet hearing bike and rider coming past, especially in a TTT,the sound disc wheels cutting through the turbulence. But its a long day spectating. Rather be on the Mur de Bretagne and then the 1st Pyreenean stage at next years Tour than the Vannes/Plumelec TTT stage though, every time. Dudes drowning……..!

  17. In a grand tour the winner should be an all-rounder, so being good in the mountains, ITTs and flat stages should lead to the overall winner.
    Balancing a race to suit one discipline as was done in the early 90s does nothing to show who is the best rider.
    Personally I love mountain racing as we can slowly see who is falling off and who is strong, but I understand that to have a true grand tour champ the racing should be constructed to allow specialists in any discipline such as climbing, ITTing, Rolling, and Sprinting to have their stages while allowing the overall winner to be the person who can combine all these talents but not be the best at any of them.
    I think we can all agree grand tours that are won by small margins (87/89) are much more exciting than those where the winner is known after a the first ITT or mountain top finish.

    • Not exactly. A GT can be won by a small margin, say, 20 seconds gained on the last kilometer of the last hilltop finish, and have been a depressing bore, after 20 stages where all the favourites are together all the friggin’ time.
      1987 and 89 were (especially 87) very good because there were ups and downs, alternatives, and surprises, and both included big flat TTs (longer tan 87 and 73 kms) as well as big uphill TTs. They were very good because riders were on the red very often, and there was always a favourite cracking.

  18. A long TT may be bad for TV rating but surely they make the mountain-top finishes more exciting. It makes the mountain goats work harder to drop the TT specialists. Recall Carlos Sastre’s attack at the base of Alpe d’Huez in 2008 and Andy Schleck’s 60km solo attack to the top of the Galibier in 2011 – they knew they had to put big time into the TT specialist Cadel Evans. A long TT makes a grand tour more tactically intriguing.

  19. As a (very) amateur time triallist, I personally enjoy watching these, but the coverage at the Tour of California was really an example of how not to do it.

  20. I think they’re just changing it up to keep it interesting. There are other sports, like motor racing, where the rules change, the teams adapt, and when they begin to beat the rule, the rules are changed again. It’s going to be a good Tour, just different. Vive la difference.

  21. TTing is great when you are watching at the side of the road, because you get to see the whole race.
    On TV its boring, unless riders slips are close.
    However road racing is good on TV but terrible at the side of the road (hills excepted)

  22. Alpine downhill time trials.

    Irresponsible and dangerous but would make for good TV.

    Have they been done in recent years? I can’t recall ever seeing one.

    • Not for a long time, maybe the 1987 Giro for a downhill only TT. The 2013 Tour had a very technical course, up and downhill for something more recent. I think the first descent TT was in Paris-Nice in the 1960s, the prize – true story – that day was a set of ski equipment.

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