As with all races against the clock, the favourites at the British National Road Championships time trials in Monmouthshire on Thursday will all leave the starting line towards the end of the event, to build drama and tension in a discipline that could otherwise lack dynamism as a spectacle.
In this year’s lineup, those final few names on the start list are particularly eye-catching. There is Geraint Thomas, twice an Olympic track gold medallist, with an ever-growing reputation on the road; Alex Dowsett, seeking to become national champion for the fourth year in succession and winner of the Giro d’Italia’s long time trial in 2013. Then, of course, there is Sir Bradley Wiggins – knight of the realm, Olympic gold medallist,Tour de France winner and national treasure.
And there, sandwiched between Thomas and Wiggins, setting off third from last, is Matthew Bottrill. He has earned his place. Bottrill is one of Britain’s finest time triallists. He is also a postman, who works a 40-hour week in Coalville, Leicestershire.
Last year, he finished only 21 seconds behind Dowsett to clinch the silver medal ahead of Team Sky’s Ben Swift. This year, the 36-year-old is aiming for the podium again.
There is no secret to his success. He is no reclusive, maverick inventor in the vein of Chris Boardman’s great rival, Graham Obree. He has a coach, uses a power meter and hones his aero position in a wind tunnel, as do elite-level professionals.
However, he does all of this without the well-drilled support network enjoyed by Team Sky’s riders, cramming in his intense training around his working week, and while raising three young children. He rides for a small team, Drag2Zero, who harbour no ambitions of Tour de France glory.
Britain’s time-trialling tradition goes back far further than the dramatic successes enjoyed by Boardman, David Millar and Wiggins. For generations of club cyclists railing against a nation that viewed their sport with intense suspicion, it was the only way to compete.
Racing on Britain’s open roads was banned by the sport’s first governing body, the National Cyclists’ Union, in 1890. A splinter group, the Road Time Trials Council, settled on time trials as a way around it – a lone rider attracts far less attention than a bunch and, if challenged, could simply claim not to be racing.
Unsurprisingly, these early races were covert affairs. Riders would convene in the early hours at a secret location, wearing dark, inconspicuous clothing and set up a rudimentary out and back route with a marshal marking the halfway point. Publicity for races was forbidden, as was prize money.
This climate of scepticism pervaded cycling until long after road racing was legalised in 1959 and continued to stunt the sport’s growth in Britain. Despite the successes of the Tour of Britain and city-centre criterium races such as the Tour Series, the staple for many a domestic rider remains the effort against the clock.
On today’s domestic scene, which still races under the banner of the RTTC and with races run over the traditional circuit lengths of 10, 25 and 50 miles, Bottrill is unrivalled.
Earlier this month, he won the national RTTC National 50-mile time trial by more than two minutes to continue an unbeaten season. In second place was Michael Hutchinson, a fellow veteran of the scene, and the last non-professional to take the national title, in 2008 – each edition since has been won by either Wiggins or Dowsett.
Bottrill is representative of the tradition of the domestic time trial scene, a time before Mark Cavendish was winning world championships on the road for Team GB and before Wiggins and Chris Froome dominated the Tour de France. He is proof that somebody who has not aggregated every last marginal gain can still ride a bike spectacularly fast.
Given the quality of this year’s field, it would be extraordinary if Bottrill repeats his podium finish of last year. However, there will be plenty of people willing him on.