What it’s like being in the time-trial hot seat

Posted on

Tour de France 2018 – 21 stages, 21 stories. We talk to time-trial hot seat regulars Alex Dowsett, Ryan Mullen and Jos Van Emden about the peculiar custom of sitting in sweaty plastic chairs for hours on end – and still losing…

Photographs: Chris Auld
Michael Matthews (Chris Auld)

We watch the rider as he watches another rider. One a picture of determination, in sleek aerodynamic tuck, turning the pedals through 360 degrees, over and over; the other the embodiment of self-consciousness while doing his utmost to appear otherwise. On screen the seconds tick up as the metres count down, the fate of both hanging in the balance, inextricably connected.

 

As exposed, awkward, discomfiting and vulnerable a position as any cyclist is ever likely to find themselves in. Not a gutsy Alpine attack or a doomed solo breakaway through the Vosges. Your average racer is seldom more at home than on their bike, where they know (more or less) what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and what’s still to do. The most isolated place in cycling is the hot seat.

 

With its etymological origins in the act of interrogation, it’s not supposed to be relaxing. The heat refers to electric lamps which were turned on the suspect to enhance the discomfort. (Though there is also a more literal, and somewhat fanciful, theory that it refers to an electrified heating element placed under a suspect’s chair in order to expedite a confession.)

 

Read: What Thomas Voeckler did next

 

Although cycling’s altogether more figurative hot seat is one in which any self-identifying time triallist should want to find him or herself, the highest profile one Ryan Mullen has so far found himself in, at the 2016 World Championships in Doha, nevertheless proved unpleasant.

 

It was certainly warm, and the enormous effort he’d exerted under the brutal desert sun meant it was a while before he even realised where he was. “I had a throbbing headache and was just there in abject discomfort for about an hour,” he remembers.

 

The majority of riders who do make it to the hot seat, including the winners, aren’t sat there for long. World and national championships aside, TTs tend to take place in the context of a stage race ensuring that, due to seeding or general classification position, riders of similar strength start together, the better riders among the last to go.

 

Until the big guns are brought out, the hot seat tends to enjoy a rapid rider turnover. Some don’t even make it from the line to the seat itself before a faster finisher displaces them from atop the leaderboard.

 

Once in a while, however, a rider rolls off the ramp early and performs out of his skinsuit, producing a time beyond anything anyone around him is capable of. He finds himself in the hot seat for half an hour, an hour, two, or longer. Alex Dowsett experienced just that situation in his debut Grand Tour time-trial, at the 2013 Giro d’Italia.

 

He railed every corner, paced it perfectly, no watt wasted. One hour, 16 minutes, 27 seconds.

 

It’s easy to imagine the hot seat as an intimidating experience, especially on such a big stage, but for Dowsett “nerves weren’t really there”. Having started the stage 162nd overall, he had, he says, “zero expectations”. In fact, he hadn’t even recced the course: “I was just trying to get through the Grand Tour.”

 

As successive riders came, went and fell short, Dowsett’s expectations adjusted from a solid mid-table finish to “‘I might make the top ten’, then ‘I could be in the top five, that’d be cool.’” Fellow Briton Bradley Wiggins, looking to add the Giro to the previous year’s Tour de France, was the one rider Dowsett had his eye on.

 

Read: Are you being served? A domestique’s guide to the Tour de France

 

Wiggins, who had seemed confident the night before in the hotel, picked up a puncture early on in the stage. “When he came in behind, it was like ‘oh wow!’ That’s the moment you realise you could actually win it.”

 

No worries ‘mate’ for Rohan Dennis, either, though in his case it’s his experience that puts him at ease. Dennis has 12 professional ITT victories to his name, one of which came with the Tour de France’s maillot jaune and “without sounding too big-headed,” he says, “it’s becoming normal.”

 

As he kicked back with a burrito in the hot seat at this year’s Abu Dhabi Tour, the BMC rider had the air of a man who knew he’d done enough. “It’s nice, you get to sit here, there’s a big screen and you can watch the other guys race. You don’t have to stress too much because you’ve already done everything you possibly can.”

 

Ryan Mullen has other things on his mind: “Normally I’m just sitting looking at my mop on TV thinking ‘God, I should have had a haircut before I came here.’”

 

Ryan Mullen (Chris Auld) hot seat
Ryan Mullen considers his hair cut

Unlike Dowsett, as only the twelfth rider on to the 40km Doha course, Mullen had “expected to be in the hot seat because there weren’t a lot of big names before me, but I didn’t expect to stay there as long as I did.”

 

Eighty minutes, in total, “next to guys that have won Grand Tour stages and pro TTs, guys coming in one minute, one minute thirty behind me.”

 

So surreal was it for him that, “I honestly thought I’d missed five hundred metres of the course.”

 

Not all riders are able to remain as relaxed as Dowsett, Mullen and Dennis in the hot seat. Occasional visitors find themselves more jittery than the TT specialists.

 

Geraint Thomas, speaking after his yellow jersey-claiming victory in the 2017 Tour de France, called it “the most nervous I’ve been in a long time”.

 

Known for having the capability to produce a decent prologue, he was nevertheless not one of the favourites in a strong field that included Tony Martin: “I just didn’t believe it. I thought someone’s gonna beat me.”

 

LottoNL-Jumbo’s Jos Van Emden is another who admits “it gives me nerves” and his longest hot seat stint also took place at the Giro d’Italia: last year’s final stage in Milan.

 

Read: Tour de France –  final day time-trials and the legacy of Greg LeMond

 

In 121st place in the general classification going into the final stage time-trial, Van Emden was the 42nd rider to roll down the ramp, with two hours and twenty-one anxious minutes to wait before finding out for certain that he’d won.

 

“Hopefully in a few years I’ll be able to say I’m not nervous in the hot seat.”

 

If hanging on is tough, being unceremoniously booted out late on must be tougher. In Doha, Ryan Mullen had begun to believe he might have a shot at the podium when his hopes were dashed in four fell swoops: “It was the last four guys who came through in succession that beat me. I was like, ‘you fuckwits.’”

 

Van Emden too has had his share of hot seat heartbreak. “The hardest part was the ones who beat me were in the last two or three riders. I was there the whole day and then…”

Michael Matthews hot seat
Michael Matthews can’t even look…

On the flipside is the feeling of usurping a rider who believed the win was in the bag. At the pointy end of proceedings in the 2014 Commonwealth Games TT in Glasgow, Rohan Dennis was in the chair. Alex Dowsett, in the colours of England, was the penultimate rider on to the course and despite starting strongly, faded in the middle sectors and fell behind: “From what I heard Rohan had got quite settled, or resigned to the fact that he’d won. I finished incredibly well and pulled it back.”

 

Dennis, remembers Dowsett, “was not best pleased. Geraint and I had to tread a little bit carefully around him in the podium ceremony afterwards. But I wasn’t going to let it ruin my day.”

 

Then there’s the chairs themselves. While with nine time-trials out of ten, they take the form of a piece of plastic garden furniture beneath a PVC awning, some races like to show imagination. Or not. Every organiser it seems has, at some point, decided a deckchair was a good idea, an ignominious experience of which both Ryan Mullen and Alex Dowsett have had the displeasure.

 

Read: ‘I am a machine, an escaped robot. I attack’ – Anquetil Alone

 

For Dowsett, it was at the Bayern-Rundfahrt: “It was just me, in a deckchair on a stage, which you could have a band playing on.” Mullen, meanwhile, in his first professional hot seat at the Tour of Britain in 2014, also got presented to the crowd: “I remember it being really horribly unstable and I couldn’t lean back. I was just sitting there like a zoo animal with people looking at me and it was really awkward.”

 

Somewhat ironically, given the team Dowsett currently rides for is sponsored by the shampoo brand, the strangest of all “was a big inflatable Alpecin bottle”.

 

At the Olympics in 2012 organisers went for the throne (which Brad Wiggins looked right at home occupying), while others have a touch more taste. At the aforementioned Commonwealth Games, they plumped for chairs designed in the signature style of one of Glasgow’s favourite sons, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. To our knowledge none has tried a hammock but it can only be a matter of time.