Touchpaper: death of the end-of-season time-trial

On his debut outing in rainbow stripes, world champion Vasil Kiryienka won the Chrono des Nations, the last remaining historic time-trial in cycling. But how many people noticed or cared?
The event was formed in 2006 by the merger of the Chrono des Herbiers time-trial with the GP des Nations. The latter was one of the most prestigious races in the season for 60 years, won by the likes of Anquetil (below, winning in 1956), Merckx, Hinault and Boardman. It served as an unofficial world championships against the clock, long before the UCI conceived one in 1994.
That move wounded the event’s attraction, turning it into a warm-up act for the rainbow jersey race. The advent of the ProTour was a final nail in the coffin and the grand old GP des Nations was discontinued in 2004.
Two years later, it amalgamated with another time-trial, the Chrono des Herbiers in France’s Vendée region, to provide its current guise. However, the event was held in mid-October, four weeks later than its former date, giving it an after the Lord Mayor’s show feel.
At least it still survives. Fourteen years ago, there were several more end-of-season time-trials in decent nick across Europe alongside the GP des Nations, such as the GP Eddy Merckx, Firenze-Pistoia, LuK Challenge Chrono, attracting big name winners like Erik Dekker and Lance Armstrong.
All those events have since disappeared, some due to lack of funds, and all that remains for top-level professionals is the Chrono des Nations. The Duo Normand two-up continues but seeing as it falls on the same day as the World Championship road race, it cannot attract big names.
This is a huge shame because the time-trial is a fascinating discipline. There is a purity attached to its challenge of man against time and there are so many variables that affect a rider’s performance – terrain, distance, weight, warm-up, mood, temperature, aerodynamics, cornering, gear selection, altitude.
Part of the problem is that you wouldn’t know that from watching on TV, so I can understand why some might switch off. The very best make the art look like a controlled science. Only afterwards, when they flop off their bikes onto the ground, gasping for air, do you see the exacting toll it takes.
An underappreciated advantage of the Chrono des Nations – and the format as a whole – is its inclusivity. In the hours before the elite men set off, there is a succession of elite women, U23, junior and youth racers competing. It provides a pathway; the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins and Alberto Contador competed in the U23 GP des Nations as espoirs before going on to greater things. Moreover, it keeps interest high for fans: surely a stream of riders passing for five hours is better than a bunch gone in 15 seconds.
Big names help to draw fans and attention too. This year’s Chrono des Nations had four of the top 10 finishers in the World Championships in attendance. It’s not a bad number but the likes of Kiryienka, Castroviejo and Bialoblocki do not have the same draw as talismanic testers like Cancellara and Martin. After a long season, few riders race for sentiment or weight of history anymore.
To bemoan this demise is predominantly a case of locking the stable door years after the horse bolted; the real downturn happened in the early Noughties. Now the Chrono des Nations is practically all that stands in the way of the extinction of the end-of-season time-trial. Not part of the WorldTour, and with its position at the end of the calendar in deepest Brittany, surely it is only a matter of time until it fades away too.

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