The column: The secret to great bike racing

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Looking back at the two most exciting bike races of last year, that happened to fall on the same day, and which were decided by the same thing, in quite different ways

Photographs: Amstel Gold Race
Mathieu Van Der Poel
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One of my favourite jokes is a simple two-hander, understood to have first been performed by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, that goes something like this:

Person one: What’s the secret of comedy?

Person two: I don’t know what…

Person one: [interrupting] Timing

So yeah, it obviously doesn’t work as well in writing, but you hopefully get the idea. And while I hate to be that person who explains a joke, the point is that, despite the first person deliberately rushing the punchline, it still ends up coming at exactly the right moment to make the joke funny. 

So many levels.

And so too of bike races. Sometimes perfect timing looks exactly what you think it should. Often it’s about having the tactical nouse to know exactly the right point at which to make a move – or not make a move. Any sooner will have been too soon; any later, too late. But it’s not always that simple.

Take the 2019 Amstel Gold Races. The women’s was won as a product of the most impeccable precision. Had Canyon-Sram’s leader launched her attack a few seconds before, her legs may not have carried her to the line; the same margin later and Annemiek Van Vleuten might have been on terms before the top of the Cauberg.

It made for the most thrilling finish to a race. The two riders dug in, one hare, one hound. You were either urging one on or the other, until the Polish woman crossed the line.

In the moment you cannot know what will happen, and only afterwards are we really able to recognise what a masterclass of racing we were witness to. We’ve since decided to ditch the atomic clock and are upgrading to a more accurate way of telling the time, the Niewiadoma. Minutes are now divided into Kasias.

In contrast, a few hours later, their male counterparts seemed to be using a sundial. For in terms of timing the men’s Amstel was a shambles. Jacob Fuglsang and Julian Alaphilippe should have had it sewn up with several kilometres to go. Instead they dillyed and dallyed, eyeing each other up as the kilometres ticked down, rather than taking a positive decision that could have seen either win. They allowed first Michal Kwiatkowski to get back on terms, and then an eight-car train dragged along by the Mathieu van der Poel locomotive.

Mathieu Van Der Poel

Van der Poel himself had left it far too late. He ought to have been leading the charge for the third podium step, as his dad, Adri, leaning out of the team car window with 20-odd kilometres to go, told him was still just about possible.

Brutal, brutish power was what won it. And it was glorious.

Read: We need to talk about Mathieu

It shouldn’t be possible to win bike races like that. When commentator Rob Hatch cries “I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life,” that is what he means.

Two perfect, impossible to predict performances that are as vivid in the memory today as they were a year ago. And they couldn’t have been more different.

So what’s the secret to a great bike race? Timing. But that doesn’t always mean what you think.


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