Interview: Michael Hutchinson

In 2003, Michael Hutchinson, a star of the British time trial scene, took a tilt at the Hour record. In The Hour, he tells about that first attempt at the record, as well as drawing out the history of the Hour itself, from Henri Desgrange's first officially recognised ride through to the present era.

We caught up with Hutchinson recently and put a few questions to him, about his own ride, the likelihood of Spartacus one day beating the current record, a reported head-to-head between Hutch and Wiggo and a few other things besides.

* * * * *

Hello Sailor, by Michael HutchinsonPodium Café: As a kid growing up in Northern Ireland, sailing and rowing were your sports, yes? You had a bike as a child but only took up cycling seriously when you were a student, studying law. From there your rise through the ranks of the British time trial scene was pretty meteoric.

Michael Hutchinson: That's right - I only took up cycling after I'd quit rowing because I didn't have the time to spend hours hanging around the boathouse waiting for people to turn up.

Even then, it was only to stay generally fit, and only after I'd tried marathon running and decided that was a bit too much like hard work.

I hadn't planned to race a bike until I was talked into it by my girlfriend's father, who was a racing man.

I won my first UK title in my fourth season of racing - so not absurdly quickly. I had to lose the deeply unaerodynamic rowing shoulders.

PdC: What's your current tally of British titles? Forty or so at this stage? Which ones do you currently hold?

MH: Forty-seven, forty-eight? I'm not quite sure.

Given the way we race over different distances, if you have good form it's often not very difficult to rack them up, because the nature of TTing is that if you can win a 10 mile champs, you can probably win the 25, 50 and 100 mile events as well.

At the moment I hold those, plus the UK records for 10 miles (17'57") and 50 miles (1.35'27"). My best 25 mile (40km) is 46'01".

PdC: Your attraction to the Hour was the Chris Boardman / Graeme Obree years. Two men with very different approaches to cycling, one the appliance of science, the other an intuitive approach. How much influence did they have on your career as a cyclist?

MH: Well, I'm from an academic background, and I liked the idea of a scientific approach.

The problem is that you need a lot of help to be a properly scientific rider, and more money than I ever had available.

If you're on your own, on a budget, you end up feeling a lot of kinship with Graeme - you have to do what you can, and make the best of what you have available.

Sadly I didn't have his intuitive cycling genuis.

The Hour, by Michael HutchinsonPdC: Where would you place the Hour record in cycling's pecking order? Would you go so far as to call it cycling's Blue Riband event?

MH: I think so.

The history of the hour is just astonishing - all the great riders did it, from 1893 onwards. It was a timeline of who the stars were and what they could do.

The changes to the rules since 2000 have altered the nature of it more than people thought at the time - it's no longer about the ultimate question of how fast it's possible for a great athlete to ride a great bike, it's about how fast it's possible for him to ride a standardised, old-fashioned and rather slow bike.

Trying to factor the hardware out of it like that so far hasn't really sparked the imagination of the fans, the riders, or the sponsors in the same way.

But it'll come back for sure - it's such a beautiful concept. One man, one hour. So simple.

If one of the stars had a go at it then it would be right back on again.

PdC: Ondřej Sosenka holds the Hour record today, has done since July 2005. A couple of years ago, Fabian Cancellara said he was interested in giving the record a go - do you reckon he could do it? With or without his magic ball bearings?

MH: Yes, I think he'd have a good chance, even without his magic balls.

I don't know how much track he's done - if anything the drop bar bike on the track is more of a problem than the faster pursuit bikes over a sustained effort.

But I'm pretty confident he'd get the hang of it if he was serious about it.

PdC: How difficult has it been to be a fulltime cyclist in the UK, to rely on the bike to pay the bills? Has there been much money in the sport in the UK over the last decade? Has Team Sky added to or taken away from the interest in the domestic racing scene?

MH: I was a full-time pro from 2000 until 2006, and I've been a pretty serious amateur since.

For the first half of the decade it was a pretty reasonable living, because the TT scene here meant that a sponsor could get a good return on supporting a single rider who could be relied upon to bang out the wins week after week.

If they wanted to make an impact on the road side, they needed to support at least four or five.

I ‘retired' because I wanted to cut down the racing I was doing, not because the money had dried up.

But I don't think it would be possible to make a living at it now - the success of the British riders on the road internationally has taken the spotlight right off the dometic scene, and it would be very hard to secure the media coverage you need to get to keep a sponsor on board.

Sky are putting money into British riders, but not really into the British races.

PdC: Even with the backing of a sponsor behind you, you were taken by surprise a bit by the logistics of taking a tilt at the Hour. There's a lot more to it than just pedalling fast for sixty minutes.

MH: Yep. It was a nightmare.

There is so much stuff - bespoke frames, bespoke wheels, bespoke tyres, bespoke skinsuits, all have to be specced and made, quality assessed, sent back, argued about ... Aerodynamics had to be done on the track, run after run, day after day. Training had to be fitted in wherever it could.

That's before you even get to the paperwork for the attempt - the officials, sponsor hospitality, even the ticket prices, everything that has anything to do with it ends up as your problem if you're doing it without a big team.

I had a lot of help from Andrea Ingram, one of the coaches at Manchester track, but there were days when it felt like the two of us against the world.

I know Graeme, in one of his later hour attempts, ended up training at 11pm because it was the only time he had left.

PdC: Most of your story in The Hour is the story of your first attempt at the record, and the mishaps along the way. You did take a second tilt at the record. Can you tell us a bit about the preparation for that second ride? Presumably all the frame mishaps and the like were out of the way, and the build-up was a lot less stressful?

MH: The second one was a cakewalk! All the equipment and position issues had been sorted, all we did was hire the track and turn up.

PdC: That ride itself - obviously you didn't beat the record, but how did you actually do on the night? You were on form in training, success actually seemed a distinct possibility.

MH: The second ride was a bit odd - I'd all but ridden 49.5km in training a couple of weeks earlier, we had to stop a few minutes early because we ran out of track time.

The thing was that everything came out just right for that training ride.

On the night itself, we didn't manage to get the velodrome hot enough, and a big high pressure system was parked over it. I don't think I was quite as pinging as I had been, and with the margins as tight as they are, enough was scrubbed off the speed to make it undoable.

I packed at 25 minutes, about a lap down, because I knew I wasn't going to get it back.

It was much closer though.

PdC: On the night of your first attempt, in 2003, you seemed to find the UCI commissaire a little but less than helpful. Now that the Murphia is ruling the UCI you wouldn't feel like giving it one more go? Pat McQuaid could probably supply some friendlier commissaires.

MH: The comm on the night was in a difficult position.

The UCI really didn't seem to like it when Obree got the record. He wasn't a big star, and maybe there was a feeling that small riders breaking the record dimished its status.

I imagine the comm was a bit concerned about my breaking the record and him having let something go that people would subsequently ask questions about.

I don't think the rules were as clear as they might have been, and he was erring on the side of caution.

It drove me nuts at the time, though.

PdC: How did the opportunity to write The Hour come about?

MH: After I'd done the whole thing, I felt there was a story there. I'd been doing some work for Cycling Weekly, so I had a little bit of background.

I sent an outline for the book to a literary agent, who sold it to Random House within a week. Unpublished authors tend to hit me when I tell them that.

PdC: Graeme Obree's book was obviously out there - the two books are very different, though you both try to touch on how all encompassing cycling at that level becomes. Your book is much closer to Time Moore's French Revolutions, you have quite a wry sense of humour and are quite willing to make jokes at your own expense. Were in any way writing against Obree's book, deliberately trying not to cover ground he's already covered, to find a different way to tell the tale?

MH: I just told the story how it seemed to me, and it came out as it did.

The books are both personal, and I think written for different reasons - Graeme's is an autobiography, so by its nature it's more introspective, whereas mine focuses on the Hour, and covers a lot of the history and the tradition of the event as well as just my own attempt.

A lot of it is pretty funny, I think, but that's because in a lot of ways the idea of someone like me trying to do what I did was pretty funny anyway.

I still love it when someone tells me about a bit of the book they liked, or a bit that made them laugh, because above all I wanted it be entertaining, for the absurdity to come through.

PdC: One of the interesting things about your book is that we don't hear so much about failed attempts on the Hour. There's stuff like Jörgen Leth's film about Ole Ritter, but generally speaking, failed attempts on the Hour get swept under the carpet. Few people will remember that Jean Nuttli and Dominique Bozzi both also failed to set a new record in 2004. Does The Hour now overshadow your successes, are you now known as much for what you didn't achieve as for what you did?

MH: In a lot of ways, yes.

I get asked about it more than I'd have imagined, but often it's as much because I'm a writer who's written about as because I'm a rider who attempted it.

It got me a certain amount of attention, but if I hadn't done the book, no one would remember it.

PdC: When The Comic splashed on your attempt on the record in 2003 they said this: "A shot at the record - whether it succeeds or not - is sure to propel Hutchinson from his relatively humble status as a UK 'tester' into the limelight of the world cycling stage." How bright was the limelight?

MH: I didn't need dark glasses.

PdC: Did you ever try for British Cycling's Olympic programme? Chris Hoy, in his autobiography, makes some criticisms of the early years of the programme, that it took too narrow a focus, that he succeeded in spite of and not because of the programme. Did that narrow focus stop you getting a shot at the Olympics?

MH: I was involved with the GB squad in 2001-2002.

I just didn't seem to be able to generate the short distance speed that they needed.

In retrospect, my ‘day-job' as a time trial rider probably was an issue - I got so used to feeling the aerobic limits that as soon as I tried to find the extra 100w for a pursuit effort, all the alarms bells went off.

The focus on the numbers meant that you only got to hang about for so long unless you hit them reliably.

If I'd had longer to get on top of it, I think I'd have been a decent IP rider, maybe a bit less so for TP.

But I wasn't ever getting Wiggins's IP slot off him, so it didn't really matter.

PdC: There's an argument that the Team GB tag excludes Northern Ireland. Do you have any take on that?

MH: I don't think it's ever really been an issue.

PdC: You've been part of the Northern Ireland squad at the Commonwealth Games three times now, most recently in Delhi. Wendy Houvenaghel is probably one of the team's star riders, given her Olympic status, but how do you rate some of the younger riders coming out of Northern Ireland, like Philip Lavery?

MH: There are some good riders coming up - the NI team got a bronze in the TP in Delhi with a group who'd done no training together before they got on the track for the qualifiers, and that demands some basic talent.

Martyn Irvine did some cracking riding on the track at the Games, and was as fast as anyone, he just sometimes wasn't in the right place to use it.

Philip is a talent, and has the potential to really get places.

It's the same with all the younger riders, it's where they go, what days they have the legs, and getting the breaks.

PdC: I think it's fair to say you're not a fan of the way the UCI is currently regulating bicycle technology. Jonathan Vaughters and others in the AIGCP are currently calling for greater technological innovation to be allowed, for cycling to become more like Formula 1, with more emphasis on equipment. Would you agree with them on that? How far would you allow technological innovation to go?

MH: I think there are some issues. There is the confusion in the technical regulations that comes from regularly patching more bits on to them in response to anything new.

There are problems with the current way they're enforced, particularly the idea that you have to have bikes and "innovations" approved by the UCI in advance.

For me, they're looking for too much control.

I certainly wouldn't be a fan of a complete free for all, but I think you have to publish a set of rules that accept that sometimes there is more than one way to engineer things, and let people work within them.

Above all you have to accept that cycling has some technical elements. People who ride bikes like bikes. Trying to factor the bike out of the equation is a mistake.

Either that or you go the other way and have totally standardised bikes designed by the UCI and made by approved builders. But they can't do that, because the sport will instantly look like an anachronism, and the money that comes into racing from manufacturers will dry up.

PdC: There was talk a few months ago of you and Bradley Wiggins going head to head - how serious was that? Is it something you'd like to see happening? Is it something we're likely to see happening?

MH: Well, I can find space in my diary for it.

It was an intersting idea - to race on 1980s TT bikes.

As to whether it'll happen, you'd really need to talk to Bradley.

* * * * *

Michael Hutchinson is the author is The Hour, Hello Sailor and Missing the Boat.

You'll find him online at michaelhutchinson.co.uk and on Twitter @Doctor_Hutch.

You'll find a review of The Hour on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Michael Hutchinson for taking the time to participate in this interview.

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