Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Best Amateur Cyclist You've Never Heard of and the Books He Writes

If you haven't heard of Michael Hutchinson (no relation to Chuck Hutcheson), it's a shame, because Hutchinson is probably the best amateur cyclist in the world, Tim Rugg excluded of course.  Even better, he's a writer with a knack for describing what it means to compete with the fastest in the world as an amateur. 

How good is Hutchinson?  Well, according to the record books, Hutchinson is the best current TT specialist in a land of TT specialists (Boardman, Obree, and Wiggins).  In fifteen years of racing, Hutchinson has won more UK cycling titles than any other person:  56.

Let me explain what that means in concrete terms: he's shit-the-bed fast.

Here are some of the records he has set:
100 miles – 2003 – 3h 23m 33s (since broken)
50 miles – 2008 – 1h 35m 27s
30 miles – 2011 – 55m 39s
10 miles – 2012 – 17m 45s
25 miles – 2012 – 45m 46s
Take a moment to soak that in.  Think about the effort and power required to sustain over 30 mph for three and a half hours.

Hutchinson winning the second of his three Brompton World Championships
Hutchinson didn't set any of his UK TT records on a Brompton folding bike, but, in what might be a wonderful hypothetical from Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan, he could probably win the MABRA TT champ riding a folding bike at Church Creek. 
His physiology gives him a capacity for speed that is far great than one in a million--it's one in 100 million.  And yet he's an amateur.  Just like you and me. 

This is what's great about bike racing, both here and around the world:  the overlap between amateur and professionals.  For over a decade Hutchinson has squared off against riders like Bradley Wiggins on the UK time trial circuit. While Hutchinson has beaten Wiggins, the usual scenario he describes in a recent blog post:
He [Wiggins] brought the computer off his bike to the prize-giving for a bit of show-and-tell. I’d never seen a number that big on the ‘average’ display. I was hoping it was a sticker on the screen that would peel off. It wasn’t. It said 476w. Or maybe 478w. I couldn’t see properly because my eyes were filling with tears of jealous rage.
That's a bit of hyperbole, since Hutchinson's personal best 10-mile average power is only a handful of watts less (~470). But then, as you can see from the picture, he's a handful of pounds heavier than Wiggins.

Point is, speed is a great scale upon which the greats prove themselves.  The rest of us prove wanting.  Wiggins and Hutchinson and us lowly MABRA-ites face the same test.

I came to Hutchinson through his account of his attempt at the hour record in his book The Hour:  Sporting Immortality the Hard Way.  He failed, but the telling of his failure is a familiar one to me (and would be to most of us whose bodies fail to deliver).

Hutchinson earned his graduate degree in international relations and worked in a law firm for a brief spell before eventually and literally riding away from the job on his bicycle.  He carved out a career riding and writing a column for Britain's Cycling Weekly, and writing books.

As with many of us, he came to cycling late.  He was a mediocre swimmer and rower, but when he finally hopped on a bike, he immediately was among the fastest.  In his second-ever time trial, a 10-miler, he recorded a time of 19:44.  For those wondering, that's a 30.1mph average.

His most recent book is called Faster: The Obsession, Science, and Luck Behind the World's Fastest Cyclists.  Much of the book is an account of his own efforts to go faster, but it also involves interviews with Team Sky athletes and coaches, and the UK track program.  He interviews Shane Sutton and Chris Hoy and chapter titles run through the elements: diet, technology, psychology, training, and so on.    

The best parts of the bike are those in which he examines the question of whether an athlete is made or born.  The answer is depressing: he calculates that, in his own experience, training over 15 years has led to a 15% improvement in performance.

It's unclear what this 15% means, what it is measured against.  Hutchinson is now 40, and is still achieving some of his fastest times.  Is he comparing himself now against himself as a 20-something untrained novice?  Or is he comparing himself to a 40-year-old Hutchinson who never discovered cycling and instead continued rowing or became sedentary?

In any case, the answer to the question of what makes a great athlete is clear: the genetic lottery.  Hutchinson was born fast.  Physiological testing reveals a VO2max between 85 and 90--a value far better than that of most professional cyclists.  While he allows that some athletes are more or less responsive to training stimulus, his own experience points to the necessity of birth.  Being one in a million or even rarer is just a necessary starting point, in his experience.

Hutchinson notes that coaches, even those at Sky and on Team GB, continually emphasize training while athletes often emphasize birth.  Do coaches emphasize the importance of training because it is their business?  Do athletes emphasize birth because the thought of lack of training effort or focus is disturbing?

Hutchinson doesn't delve too deeply into the question.  After all, it is only a tangent from the real question, which is: how do we go faster (with what we've got)?
Hutchinson Riding for Ireland at the World Championships

The technology section is probably the most interesting, since it contains some surprises and inside scoops on the success of Sky and Team GB.  (Turns out a good skinsuit is more important than an aerodynamic frame).  The explanation of how air flows over the body is the clearest bit of writing on a complex topic: how the air can either form a boundary layer over the surface.

Reading it may make you a bit faster.  There are some vague training principles worth exploring, but there are also some concrete recommendations for aerodynamics that could also save you some seconds.

More importantly, reading the book made me appreciate and understand what I'm watching when I see Wiggins average 50kph in a 20-mile TT--how people with money and born with oxygen sherpas in their blood go faster than you or I ever will.  And that's interesting.

Good interview with Hutchinson.


Fatmarc Vanderbacon said...

been gobbling up books lately,thanks for putting me on to a couple more.


Kevin Cross said...

Hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think of his stuff.