Most pro racers say it’s their favorite event. Team directors and coaches say it takes more technical preparation than any other competition. While journalists and fans alike say it’s one of cycling’s most beautiful disciplines. That’s why the return of the team time trial to the UCI world championships this Sunday in the Netherlands—after an 18-year absence—has been so greatly anticipated.
Why is the team time trial so great? There are many answers to that question, but the basic one is related to the very nature of the event: a small number of athletes working together in a continuous paceline, maintaining the highest possible speed, but not so fast that the weakest riders on the team have trouble making their pulls at the front or hanging on to the back of the line. This delicate balance can be upset by a tired rider’s poor bike-handling ability on a sharp turn and leaving a gap, by a strong rider going too hard on a climb, or by riders getting too close to each other in a crosswind, touching wheels and crashing.
The team time trial grew out of track racing’s team pursuit, which originated at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris as a race over 1.5 kilometers before attaining its present four-man, 4-kilometer format in 1920. The first team races on the road happened at the Tour de France in 1935 because race director Henri Desgrange was upset with the riders coasting on the longer, flatter stages and wanted to make them race hard every day. So he divided those longer days into two or three sectors, one of which would be a team race. They weren’t strictly team time trials because though each team started separately there was no requirement for those riders to finish as a team, so the stage would be won by a single rider with the fastest time.
The first true team time trial in a major competition was stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia in 1953, when the Bianchi squad won a 30-kilometer TTT on the motor-racing circuit at Modena. That experiment was continued in the following three editions of the Giro over decreasing distances of 36, 18.4 and 12 kilometers before being abandoned by the Italian organizers for a quarter-century.
It wasn’t until 1960 that the true era of TTT racing began, when the Rome Olympics featured a four-man, 100-kilometer event won by Italy team in 2 hours 14 minutes 33 seconds on a baking hot day. That race is remembered more notoriously because a rider from Denmark, Knud Jensen, collapsed during his team’s ride, cracked his skull and was pronounced dead in the hospital. An autopsy revealed that amphetamines were among three drugs found in his body—triggering the sport’s first anti-doping tests.
Two years after the Rome Olympics, the UCI introduced a four-man TTT for amateur men at the world championships. The goal was to make it 100 kilometers long, although the 26 editions held from 1962 to 1994 varied in distance between 112.6 kilometers (in 1962) and 96 kilometers (in 1973). A women’s TTT, usually over 50 kilometers, was held eight times from 1987 to 1994.
The TTT was dropped from the worlds because 1) the event needed so much preparation that few nations were competitive, 2) there was a move to introduce an individual time trial when the Olympics became open to pros in 1996, and 3) an experimental individual TT at the 1994 worlds was a great success (and replaced the TTT from 1995). Now it’s being re-introduced in a different format—for trade teams, not nations, and over shorter distances for both men and women.
TTTs for pro teams is not a new concept (except at the worlds, of course). In the modern era, besides being held on a regular basis at the Tour de France since 1961 and the Giro since 1981, there have been three major stand-alone TTTs. The first was in Italy, the so-called Cronostaffetta, which was held from 1966 through 1992; it didn’t gain a huge international following, and the only non-Italian team to win the event was French-based Toshiba in 1991.
A more official TTT was included in the UCI World Cup competition in 1988. Known as the Grand Prix de la Libération, it was held in the Netherlands, but that too didn’t gain real traction. The four editions were all won by Dutch teams on their home roads. Another attempt to create a truly competitive event was made in 2005 when the Dutch city of Eindhoven put on a TTT as part of the UCI ProTour. Many of the major teams embraced the event because it was raced over a distance of less than 50 kilometers and was held immediately after the weeklong Eneco Tour in the same region.
Three editions of the Eindhoven TTT were held—the first won by Germany’s Gerolsteiner, the other two by Denmark’s Team CSC—before the city dropped its support for the event. There was enthusiasm from the UCI ProTeams for the format, and that led to the UCI introducing the TTT to the worlds—starting this Sunday in the Limburg region of the Netherlands. Both the men’s and women’s championships are being raced over relatively short distances (53.2 kilometers for the men and 34.2 kilometers for the women) on rolling point-to-point courses that feature the steep Cauberg hill 2 kilometers from the finish.
It’s unlikely that these difficult courses will produce any speed records, even though the fastest editions of the various TTT competitions were all set six or more years ago. In chronological order, the record for the world 100-kilometer championship was set by a Soviet quartet in 1985 (five years before aerobars were produced) at 53.729 kph. The fastest TTT in a Grand Tour was raced by Lance Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates at the 2005 Tour de France, when they averaged 57.329 kph over a 67.5-kilometer point-to-point course with generally favorable winds. (That compares with the 55.545 kph set by Garmin at last year’s Tour on a much shorter, 23.8-kilometer circuit.)
The fastest speed recorded in any of the event-specific TTTs was 55.576 kph by Team CSC at the 48.6-kilometer Eindhoven event in 2006. That team was powered by the Americans Bobby Julich and Dave Zabriskie, German Jens Voigt and Australian Stuart O’Grady. Of those riders, only Voigt will be racing this Sunday. The German brings his lengthy TTT experience to the RadioShack-Nissan team alongside three other veterans, Andreas Klöden, Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia, and their much younger colleagues Tony Gallopin of France and Jesse Sergent of New Zealand.
Unlike the 100-kilometer TTTs of the past, which were contested by four-man teams, with their final time being that of the third rider across the line, the new worlds format has six-man teams with the final time being that of the fourth finisher. This certainly gives a team more flexibility, and don’t be surprised if some of them work one or two riders much harder than the others before and up the Cauberg climb to leave just four men for the remaining 2 kilometers.
In the first iteration of the world TTT championships in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the most successful nations were Italy with seven titles and Russia (or the former Soviet Union) with five, followed by Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden with three each. As for the nine Olympic TTTs, Russia was top with three golds, followed by Germany, Italy and the Netherlands with two each. On the women’s side, there were only eight world TTTs, with Russia again top with four, followed by France, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.S. with one each.
Judging by the strong entries for the latest iteration of the TTT worlds (33 men’s trade teams and 12 women’s), the new championship event is already a success. Come Sunday morning, the women’s TTT is likely to be dominated by three formations: Dutch-based AA Drink-Leontien (led by Brits Lizzy Armistead and Emma Pooley), Australia-based GreenEdge-AIS (led by German Judith Arndt and Kiwi Linda Villumsen) and German-based Specialized-Lululemon (led by Americans Amber Neben and Eve Stevens).
Later in the day, we can expect to see a closely fought contest between the very best ProTeams, notably:
• BMC Racing (led by Philippe Gilbert, Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen)
• Garmin-Sharp (with David Millar, Ramunas Navardauskas and Andrew Talansky)
• Katusha Team (with a mainly Russian roster led by Denis Menchov)
• Omega Parma-Quick Step (with Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Tony Martin)
• Rabobank (the home team with Lars Boom, Robert Gesink and Luis Leon Sanchez)
• RadioShack (with Andreas Klöden, Jesse Sergent and Jens Voigt)
• Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank (led by Alberto Contador and Nicki Sørensen)
• Team Sky (with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Geraint Thomas)
• Vacansoleil (led by Thomas De Gendt, Gustav Larsson and Lieuwe Westra)
With such star power on display in one of cycling’s most spectacular disciplines, this inaugural world championship for trade teams is the culmination of all those team time trials that preceded it over the past six decades. Don’t miss it!
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