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A compact guide to triathlon's trial by bike

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Matt Slater | 10:24 UK time, Monday, 11 July 2011

Running out of daylight during a birdie blitz on the back nine, being kicked off the five-a-side pitch before a comeback has been completed, rain stopping play a few runs short of a top score: these are the ones that get away for every amateur. Unfinished symphonies that sound better with every replaying.

But imagine you are chasing a world record, something you have dedicated five years of your life trying to achieve, and you are finally - after numerous public failures - on target to do it, even if it is just a practice session.

And then Punctual Pete turns up at the velodrome and tells you your time is up, it's his track now. Ten minutes away from breaking cycling's hour record but it might as well be a lifetime. You will never get that close again.

That happened to Michael Hutchinson, the most successful male time-trial rider in British cycling history, and the fact he can tell the story without any bitterness made my mind up that he is the right man to explain how to cycle set distances (an Olympic triathlon's 40km, for example) as quickly as possible to glorious amateurs like us.

So having asked open water star Keri-Anne Payne for swimming advice in the first instalment of this triathlon guide, we are now going to peel off our wetsuits, find our bikes and start riding.

This is the bit of a triathlon that makes you feel like a salamander that has evolved into an ostrich overnight. Well, that's how Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami described it in his book "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running".

But let's not worry about that for now (a "transitions" guide is coming), let's focus on slicing through the air like a sleek, powerful, pedalling machine - somebody like "Dr Hutch", then.

Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson in aerodynamic Commonwealth Games action for Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty

Since 2000, the 37-year-old academic turned cyclist has won national titles at every distance from 10 miles to 100 miles, as well as two victories in the 12-hour championships (he rode 290 miles both times) and another title for the relative sprint of a 4,000m individual pursuit on the track.

But it was Hutchinson's heroic and often hilarious attempt to break the world hour record that first brought him to my attention. I say hilarious with respect as he wrote about it in one of my favourite sports books of recent years, "The Hour". The subtitle of the book reveals the gist of the story - "Sporting Immortality the Hard Way" - and ultimately it is a very British tale of derring-do, making do and not quite doing the do.

It would be a huge mistake, however, to dismiss Hutchinson's ability just because he failed to join the likes of Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Chris Boardman in the pantheon of cycling greats who have held the hour record. His is a talent that almost went undetected but continues to deliver now it and the right sport have been introduced to each other.

On Saturday, in filthy weather in North Yorkshire, Hutchinson won his sixth National 100-Mile title, taking his career total at all distances and times to 51. He was eight minutes clear and only two minutes off the competition record. Not bad considering he missed a turn and had to scramble down a grass bank.

So how does he do it?

"Time-trialling is all about the balance between the power you generate and your aerodynamic drag - it's a battle between what makes you go forward and what stops you," Hutchinson explained.

The "battle" bit sounded familiar so I asked about these things that are stopping me.

"You've got to be compact on the bike. Keep your elbows in, head tucked low, back flat," he said.

"Most amateurs don't make the most of what they've got because they're not working efficiently. You can see them, sitting too high, head up, elbows out, and they just don't look balanced on the bike. It's a struggle."

Yep, that pretty much nails it. I'm an ostrich on the bike when I should be a swallow.

For Hutchinson, the remedy is simple: practise. There's nothing to stop you getting into an "aero" position on a safe section of your commute, for example. The key is to get comfortable being compact.

He also recommends investing in a set of "aero" or "tri" bars but strongly advises against simply bolting them on to your horizontal handlebars and assuming that will turn your steed into Boardman's famous Lotus "superbike".

This brings us immediately to the thorny subject of equipment: does kit maketh the cycling man?

Hutchinson says no...and yes.

Clearly, it is possible to spend ludicrous amounts on the constituent parts of your bike but the most sensible investment you can make is not something you can hang on a garage wall. If you have £50 or so to spare, forget the tri bars and have your bike fitted properly. Get the geometry right and you're halfway there.

And once you've found this state of harmony with the bike, relax.

"People can get obsessed about what gear they're pushing but my advice is to not listen to too much advice," Hutchinson said.

"Self-select a gear - something in the middle, it's not that important as long as it's comfortable - and stay tight, in terms of your aerodynamics, but loose in terms of your effort."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But you've got to practise being relaxed when you are not.

The Northern Irishman says the basic training ride should be one where you are slightly out of breath. From there, you could introduce bigger efforts of five and then 10 minutes to build endurance and speed.

You should also use the bike leg to rehydrate. Most amateur triathletes will be on the bike for somewhere between 60 to 90 minutes so this is the time to take on some liquid.

Don't go mad, though, a litre will do as you still have 10km to run. But that is a story for another blog, another expert. Now go do some training.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at


  • Comment number 1.

    Another article that could have been very interesting and informative, but spoiled by the fact that you journalists insist on sensationalising everything! Michael Hutchinson is a great athlete and cyclist, there is no denying it, but he is not, and never was, capable of breaking the hour record. I have read his book (indeed I own a copy - it is very good) and am famliar with the passage you refer to. He was not 10 minutes from breaking the record - do not exaggerate (I resist using the term lie!). When you make statements I know to be inaccurate (journalists in general) it only leads me to question the rest of your musings.

  • Comment number 2.

    Calm down, njblackadder, and please stop accusing me of exaggerating/lying. I know MH got nowhere near the hour record in the book, I've read it too. The story above refers to his second crack at the record, after the book. All he is saying - and I am repeating - is that on one practice session he managed to sustain record-breaking pace for about 50 minutes but was interrupted by the next person who had hired the track. Legitimately, as it happened, as he had overrun his time. I only mentioned the story as it was a different way in and might, hopefully, tempt a few non-cycling fans to read on. For MH's part, he was not claiming he was "robbed" of a world record at all. He correctly said that record-breakers put in those performances pretty regularly in practice...they know they have a world record in them.

  • Comment number 3.

    On a related subject - am i the only one who can't quite understand why Chrissie Wellington breaking the world record for Ironman doesn't even warrant a mention anywhere on the BBC Sport website.

    She is arguably Britain's greatest sportsperson of the moment and yet she gets no support from the BBC - what's the explanation ?

    Sorry Matt for hijacking your article but I couldn't find anywhere else to air my grievance.....

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Pixiedc, I just spotted this on our triathlon page

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks Matt - I'm sure the article was in preparation whilst I was having my rant.

    Although it would be nice to think that I have enough sway to command an instant response like that from BBC Sport

    Next time if we can have it make the Sport homepage that would be doing the lady justice....

  • Comment number 6.

    Great article Matt! As a triathlete coming from a swimming/running background it is difficult to find simple tips on cycling- everyone has their own opinion and it usually involves buying the most expensive gear. I hadn't heard of Hutchinson but will be reading his book- seems like he knows what he's talking about!
    I agree with pixiedc that there is a disappointing lack of coverage of chrissie wellington(even a. brownlee gets on radio 4 today show now and again) and no video footage. MAybe you could focus an article on her as motivation/ inspiration for triathlon after covering the three disciplines and transitions.... but that's for another time.
    Good work Matt, keep it up!

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Matt. I enjoyed the artice as I am really getting into cycling at the moment what with Team Sky growing in strength and the TdF actually being on at the moment.

    Now before I go any further I will admit openly that I am a complete novice so feel free to correct me if I get anything wrong.

    Although I have heard of MH, (with my limited knowledge that is pretty decent), I was surprised to see you mention him in terms such as "the most successful male time-trial rider in British cycling history".

    Now I know you link to his wiki page and it tells us that he has won what seems to be gazillions of UK TT titles, but that seems to be all he has won.

    There is no mention of Olympic or World titles.

    Just off the top of my head, Boardman has a gold and a bronze at the World Championships TT.

    David Millar has 2 bronzes I think.

    Isn't one World title better than a whole bag full of National ones?

    Boardman has won individual TT stages of the TdF on multiple occasions.

    I'm pretty sure he has at least one Olympic medal for Individual TT.

    I was under the impression that he still held numerous British and World records for Individual TT.

    I am not doubting that MH is an impressive bike rider, and your article stands up even if what I a suggesting is right but.....

    If all he has ever won is National Championships, (no matter how many of them he has won), then is he really "the most successful male time-trial rider in British cycling history"?

    Give me some World records, some National records, Some World Championship Medals, & some TdF TT stage wins over a hat-full of National championships any day.

    The other thing to ask, (and I am really not trying to be pedantic here), is who exactly was he competing against in these Championships? (I am looking now actually to see if I can find out).

    Well the first thing that I find is that all 3 Sky boys beat him this year, (or was it last year?)

    For some reason there seems to be no mention of MH competing at the Olympics, (but I know they are fond of chopping and changing the events so it's quite possible that the INdividual TT hasn't even existed recently). Ok found it now.

    Boardman Bronze behind Indurain in 96.

    Ekimov gold in 2000.

    Tyler Hamilton gold in 2004.

    Cancellara gold in 2008.

    Where was MH?

    He couldn't even break the Sky stranglegold on the podium this year so can't see him threatening in 2012.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the article so thanks, just get a bit of a bee in my bonnet when hearing someone described as "best" when in fact it seems to me that he just prefers swimming in a rather small pond to competing on the bigger stage.

    Any of the guys with just one single Olympic or World medal will rank above him when we look back at British cycling history in years to come.

    I think this passage sums up my thoughts rather succinctly.

    "When an individual, whose greatest achievement has been a fourth in the Commonwealth Games,"

    If he's "the most successful male time-trial rider in British cycling history" then....

    The most National championships certainly.

    The most successful I think not.

  • Comment number 8.

    Please stop questioning MH's credentials - man's a legend because of he is far more like the normal club cyclist - just at a different league. He is the top national TTer not a full pro an amatuer. Yes he made it to the olympics, no he is not the same as the full pros.
    And he writes a classic column - look in cycling weekly

    Off to get fitted on my bike - BTW if you are a triathlete you'll need to get fitted for your TT bike as well as the road bike you have got and make sure you use the same dimensions for TT bike and turbo as you use muscles slightly differently in teh different positions

  • Comment number 9.

    @ FatBoyW If the above was aimed at me then I apologise.

    Rather than me questioning the credentials of MH, what I suppose I was doing was questioning, (politely), the terms in which Matt was describing him.

    On his own blog that is linked to above in the article he states....

    "Before my writing career, I was a full-time racing cyclist, competing mainly in the British time-trialling scene – see my cycling page."

    With respect, although we can argue amatuer or pro, it certainly seems to me that he was giving it his best shot. Full-time is full-time isn't it? He certainly wasn;t a part-time club cyclist with a full-time 9-5 job who just trained mornings/evenings/weekends.

    His wiki page which can be linked to from the article, (yes I know that just because wiki says it does not make it so), suggests that he rode for the following teams.

    Professional team(s)
    Bio RT
    Team MDT-Giant
    In-Gear Quickvit RT

    So he is a full-time bike-rider who doesn't have a full-tme job and who races for professional cycling teams.

    Certainly seems pretty professional to me.

    In any case, I am in no way belittling his achievements, (because the more I read the more remarkable he seems if I am honest, despite his lack of success at the top level). I just thought that the description used by Matt in describing him was.... well a little misleading to the casual reader, (a novice cyclist enthusiast like myself I suppose), who might be given the impression that MH was the gold standard that other British cyclists set their sights on emulating.

    I would suggest that this is far from the case, (despite his many and consistant long-term achievements).

    I would even go so far as to say that if I asked people like Boardman, Millar, Brad and G about MH then they would speak in nothing but glowing terms.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think some comments are missing the point of the article.

    The Professional teams are not teams as in what are competing in the Tour or even the Tour Series/ Calendar Series. I think basically him just being sponsored and a one man team in some cases

    The way British Cycling works is, he probably is the most successful in terms of National Championships course records etc. Is he the best on the domestic scene over a variety of different distances/titles, i would say by a country mile. Is he better than Wiggins/ Millar/ Dowsett in a 25mile probably not. The Pros dont tend to ride 50's 100's 12 hour which is why he has probably been termed as the most successful.
    The Time Trialling scene is very different to the big money European road racing scene, even Obree never did, this except for a few weeks.
    Hutch is, in my opinion and purely from a British TT scene, the best and and i would love to be able to keep up with him, and he definitely knows his stuff

  • Comment number 11.

    Why do so many tri bikes have aero set ups when for instance, they are going up hill? It's surely a waste of gear money and effort. I can't image what a aero helmet and aero bars are going to bring you when you have to do the olympic triathlon on the col d'eze or the Ironman France over the mountains around Nice.

  • Comment number 12.

    Nice article Matt. Can I take the liberty of mentioning Stuart Dangerfield, who was another 'tester' that probably deserved more recognition?
    He was MH's rival for a fair while - in fact, Dangerfield usually got the better of him IIRC.

  • Comment number 13.

    I was interested by the title of the article as I time trial and like everyone else, I'm looking to improve. Unfortunately anyone who has a serious crack at a time trial knows you need to be in a tight position and pedal smoothly. At amateur level people avoid such a cramped position because the gain simply isn't worth the loss of comfort. The other night I lowered bars for less drag and set a PB but found it hindered my breathing, I won't be using it again.

    There was a real chance to make a great article here. It's a skeleton, nothing more.


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