Our preview of this year’s Elite Men’s Individual Time Trial, on a long and gently undulating course leading into the heart of Richmond, VA, emphasised three names above all others: Tony Martin, Rohan Dennis, and Tom Dumoulin. Other names featured, but like all other cycling journalists, tipsters, bookies, pundits, and vocal abusers of Twitter, we anticipated a two-man race between Germany’s Tony Martin, who has featured on the podium in this event for the last five years, and Australia’s Rohan Dennis, who briefly held the one-hour world-record this year. We would have been unsurprised, too, by any ‘surprise’ attack from Dumoulin, whose potential was revealed to the world during this year’s Vuelta a España. How wrong we all were proven!
Let’s start with what went wrong, rather than who got it right on the day. Tony Martin has had mixed blessings this season, but by far the worst moment of his year was when he crashed out of the Tour de France, breaking his collarbone on stage six whilst he was yellow jersey wearer. Whilst he made no grumbling noises about that collarbone in question before or after the time trial, there can be no doubt that it was a major disruption to his training programme since Le Tour. A handful of wins since then were not enough to confirm a return to full strength and full power for Martin, and sure enough the man himself blamed a lack of rhythm in his post-race interview. But it can’t have helped that he had sandpaper rubbing against his skin throughout the event. A misguided attempt to keep the giant German in situ throughout the event ended up tearing through his skin suit and into his actual flesh. Martin would have loved to have gone one better than last year, when he placed second behind Bradley Wiggins, but, given the damage done to his body by the Tour de France and his team’s makeshift attempt at a grippier saddle, seventh place overall doesn’t seem so bad.
Going only one better than him to take sixth place was Rohan Dennis. Dennis’s time trial form has been consistent in its brilliance this year, and, somewhat regrettably, we don’t have to examine his season history or rhythm of riding on the day to locate the problem with his ride. Quite simply, Dennis suffered an unlucky puncture mid-way through the course. Despite a rapid turnaround of bikes from his team car, the effort required to re-accelerate after a total loss of momentum cost Dennis too much, and he would never quite restabilize his cadence nor regain lost ground. He finished only a minute and seven seconds behind the eventual winner, meaning he could well have been on the podium, perhaps even the top step, if he’d not had a mechanical issue. In the rhetoric of professional athleticism, this is known as “shit luck”.
Perhaps no explanation at all is needed for Dumoulin’s performance, but here’s a cursory effort anyway. The question was: will Dumoulin’s form carry over from an astonishing but exhausting display in La Vuelta this year? The answer came through: no, not completely. He rode powerfully, but not as powerfully as in Spain. He was rhythmic, but not as rhythmic as before. Simply, he was a tired rider at the end of his season who might have hit the top spot had he not left his legs on the Iberian peninsula. Cycling, though, is sometimes just such a compromise; if a rider finds excellent form a little earlier than expected, he is likely to push that form as far as it will go. For Dumoulin, a shot at the red jersey in La Vuelta required the sacrifice of his previous goal of wearing the rainbow stripes. Ultimately, he finished six seconds faster than Dennis, taking fifth on the day. That leaves four riders…
Positions four down to two were filled by Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo, France’s Jérome Coppel, and Italy’s Adriano Malori, respectively. Pleasingly, they are a triptych who represent the three major cycling countries in Europe, and the three grand tours. They all posted the rides of their lives, too. Coppel’s form was astounding, as he rode fluidly and smoothly for the length of the course and did his French national champion stripes proud. But Malori’s second place, some 17 seconds faster than Coppel, came thanks to good tactical play as well as a display of power. Malori had more in the tank than Coppel come the final climb, and it was there that he opened up his biggest effort and pulled into the lead. Second place for the young Italian is huge news for him and his team, as well as for Italy, and he’ll certainly be attracting more pre-race attention come the World Champs next year. But even with the strong showings from Italy, Spain, and France, only one man could win on the day, and that man would be wearing the colours of Belarus.
We tipped Vasil Kiryienka as an outsider for the podium in our preview of the time trial. But let us be honest and say that the podium is all we were tipping — the top step, we thought, already belonged to Martin or Dennis. But Kiryienka was undeniable on the day. With taut muscles and grimacing face, he fought hard over every inch of the course to maximise his advantage, and he needed to do so; the winning buffer was only 9 seconds over Malori in second place, which is not a lot on a 53km course. Kiryienka has only been getting better these past years, but few would have thought he could topple the best in the world, even with his best ride. The achievement is enormous, and the surprise showed everywhere, even in the delight that played across Kiryienka’s face as he crossed the line, knowing he’d posted a solid time. He also ensures that it’s two in a row for Team Sky, who had Wiggins on their list this time last year — further proof that Sky know how to pick them. He’ll need a nickname for next year (‘the Minsk Missile?’), as he’ll certainly be amongst the men that everyone’s watching. A terrific and surprising ride, we can thank Kiryienka for lighting up a time trial that we all thought we could call in advance.