February 7, 2011 by Irish Peloton
Where’s all the team time trials gone?
The Tour of Qatar got underway this past weekend, but instead of the team time trial which has been part of the race since 2007, the opening day was a 2.5km individual prologue time trial. Getting rid of the team time trial seems like an odd decision by the race organisers. Quite apart from the fact that the discipline makes up part of the Tour de France this year, it is also one of the most beautiful sights in the sport of cycling. As Matt Rendell writes in A Significant Other:
The team time trial was a product of [Tour Organiser] Desgrange’s sadism: he wanted to force every rider to ride flat out for the entire stage. It remains one of the great set pieces of the modern Tour de France.
Victor Hugo Pena, the subject of Rendell’s book, talks about the concentration necessary to be part of a team participating in the time trial:
The team time trial is a recipe for danger, locking small climbers and powerful rouleurs into a straitjacket formation at high speed with nothing more than a breath between us. If you have an itchy nose, you put up with it: the slightest random move can mean disaster.
As with most every portion of the Tour apart from the summit finishes, so the saying goes, the race is not won via the team time trial, but it can be lost there. Also, as with every aspect of the Tour, preparation is key. Sean Yates, a strong rider to have pulling for you in a team time trial, said this in the February 2000 issue of Cycle Sport about his time on the Motorola team in the 1990s:
I always loved team time trials. I think they are great to watch – there is so much you can tell about the teams and their riders. But there are always teams which take a pasting because they haven’t thought about it enough. You have to take it seriously. We had [Andy] Hampsten and he’s hardly a man mountain. On paper we were hardly the strongest but we did a lot of practice”.
Race organisers seem to warm to the idea of having a team time trial in their race as it becomes more commonplace in the Tour de France. In 1999, four years since the last team time trial had appeared at the Tour, there was only one elite race on the cycling calendar which bothered to have one in their race, the Tour of the Mediterranean. When it was announced that the team time trial would be making a return at the 2000 Tour de France, three more pre-July races included one as part of the route, the Étoile de Besseges, Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Suisse. By 2009, the last time the team time trial appeared in the Tour, there were six opportunities for teams to practice the art before July.
There have been odd variations of the team time trial which have been attempted over the years. In the 1990 Vuelta a Espana, each nine man team was divided into groups of three. So instead of one nine-man group riding the stage together, teams went out in three groups of three around the 11km circuit with the clock stopping on the third rider of each respective group. In the 2004 Tour of the Mediterranean, the nine man teams all started together on a route which finished atop the climb of Mont Faron. But rather than the clock being stopped on the fifth rider across the line, as is usually the case, every rider was timed individually. So, if there was one rider in with a chance of winning overall, the team sheltered them as long as possible, pacing them to the upper slopes of the climb, where the designated G.C. rider would take off alone for the last portion of the stage unleashing his store of saved energy.
These are strange variations of the discipline, but they still provide good practice for team time trialling and the tactics required to produce a good performance when riding together. The Tour de France itself altered the norm in 2004, when instead of calculating actual time gaps, teams were penalised with pre-determined time penalties distributed on a sliding scale according to a team’s finishing position.
A team time trial will once again make up part of the Tour de France route this year as early as stage 2. At 23km it is the shortest team time trial to be included in the Tour since a 9km stage in 1974, but it still should not be underestimated. As Bbox Bouyges Telecom showed in 2009, the team time trial has the potential to go horribly wrong:
There is also a team time trial in the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana this year, the first year since 1988 where one will appear in each of the three Grand Tours. Additionally, the same organisation, ASO, is responsible for both the Tour de France and the Tour of Qatar. This makes it all the more baffling that the Tour of Qatar has dropped the team time trial from the race route. But the ASO are not alone. Two other races which had a team time trial last year, the Tour de Mediterranean and the Tour de Romandie have also dropped it from the route this year. Although the Qatar team time trial has always been less than ten kilometres and been ridden on road bikes rather than time trial bikes, it provided teams with good practice and preparation at conducting themselves for what may be a vital part of the Tour de France. It could prove to be sorely missed come July.