No wonder Esteban Chaves was smiling on Sunday. He’d won a Monument and a World Tour race and the hilly course was perfect for a rider who styles himself as a colibri, a hummingbird because he’s so light. The World Tour is over now and along the way there are chances for many with with races for the sprinters, stage race specialists and more. There’s almost something for everyone in the World Tour… except the time trial specialists. In fact there’s not a single dedicated time trial which means they lack the opportunity to win the precious ranking points associated with their specialism. A stage win here or there only offers a fraction of what’s available to other specialists during the season.
The Chrono des Nations takes place later this month on Sunday 23 October. Held in Les Herbiers in western France and enjoying a 1.1 UCI label you could be forgiven for ignoring its presence on the calendar as it’s not the most high profile event. It will clash with the glitzy big budget promotion for the as yet unloved Abu Dhabi Tour and the curious Japan Cup where legions of passionate fans turn part of the Japanese countryside into scenes resembling the Paterberg or Tourmalet. Les Nations has neither the budget nor the fans.
It hasn’t always been this way: A lucky find in a flea market of the 1989 Miroir du Cyclisme annual review looks back at the GP des Nations and Laurent Fignon’s win as he “pulverises” Bernard Hinault’s record over the 89km course (eighty nine kilometres, no typo) in part thanks to the “miracle handlebar” better known as tri-bars. That was the year Fignon had famously finished second in the Tour de France by eight seconds but he’d also won the Giro d’Italia and Milan-Sanremo and ended the year atop the world rankings.
The GP des Nations can trace its history back to 1932 when it created by sports journalist Albert Baker d’Isy who had been impressed by the previous year’s world championships in Copenhagen where the title was decided in a sadistic 140km solo time trial. Baker d’Isy thought this one-off format was something worth keeping and so created the Grand Prix des Nations, a time trial world championships in all but name but even the label sailed close with its suggestion of nations competing. Over time this race grew into a very prestigious event that attracted the world’s best riders with a list of winners that includes Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Luis Ocaña and Bernard Hinault.
Decline: The event began to slide in the 1990s and became a smaller race for specialists like Uwe Peschel, Michael Rich or Serghiy Honchar as the grand tour contenders skipped it. One reason was the establishment of the official UCI Time Trial World Championships in 1994 meaning the GP des Nations lost some of its lustre and in 2005 the creation of the Pro Tour, today’s World Tour, was the final nail in the coffin as this new pro calendar scheduled the Worlds within four days of the Nations and the clash made the Worlds an inevitable choice. The small Chrono des Herbiers time trial later incorporated the “nations” label in 2006 to become the event on the calendar today but the glory days of the event and the prestige of a standalone time trial race seem long gone and the result is a World Tour calendar lacking specialist time trial races.
The upshot is that the Worlds is the only event left standing and the discipline is unloved during the rest of the year. On average they’re declining in importance for stage races with 2015 as the nadir with just 14km against the clock in the Tour de France. This year’s Tour had more again but the prologue seems to be on the wane too.
A trial to watch: One reason is the TV ratings flop for time trials, the lack of a mano a mano contest between riders means that the story of the stage is harder to tell. You can see people pedalling but it’s hard to tell much more; even the connoisseur who might look at a rider’s pedal stroke or tuck can only infer things about their progress rather than see who is winning until the rider reaches a time check along the way. For the millions who make up the bulk of the audience 95% of the video output features a rider tucked into an aero position, face masked by a visor. Rather than witnessing a virtuoso performance it’s the TV equivalent of watching a metronome set to 93 bpm. Glance at the results of a time trial and, accidents aside, you can tell what happened.
Should there be a World Tour time trial? Why not but it’d be a hard sell as a standalone event given the TV ratings issues. It’d have to be something special, a scenic course with a stellar startlist that includes the specialists like Tony Martin, Tom Dumoulin and Rohan Dennis up against the stage racers who can win a TT on their day like Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Thibaut Pinot and all with just the right amount of climbing to ensure an even contest. Easier typed than done.
New TT bike rules: One factor to help a time trial recovery is a push from manufacturers following the proposed relaxation of UCI rules for time trial bikes. Currently the UCI regulations restrict frame design meaning many triathletes have faster frames and so their sport has become the shop window for time trial bikes; it’s also become the larger market too. But an easing of the bike design regulations – not a free for all – could see manufacturers keen to promote their bikes and therefore send riders from their sponsored teams to time trials.
The Worlds is practically the only specialist time trial race left on the calendar, for the rest of the year it is a specialism contained inside a stage race. It wasn’t like this in the past, the GP des Nations was a prestigious event contested by the top riders but its fall is a story of substitution by the Worlds. Given TV is consumed these days mainly by television it seems hard to imagine a revival as it’s unlikely to be a ratings hit. Still the specialists must regret the lack of standalone World Tour race with the consequent points scale available rather than the meagre haul on offer for a stage during a race.