The Olympic women’s time trial champion and the men’s national champion cycled way below their means – seventh and 25th – and neither of them knew what was the matter.
It was striking that they were both on the starting podium with an excellent feeling on Sunday. This could well be the day when I become world champion again, Van Vleuten thought, until halfway through the sledgehammer blow came: her interval turned out to be minutes too slow. After that mental blow, all that was left to do was suffer.
Mollema had trained well on the time trial bike for days and had pedaled the right, high wattages. “The first 10 minutes felt good too.” But when he looked at his bike computer, he was shocked. He pushed 20 watts less than usual. He felt that that is a lot from the gust of wind that Stefan Küng, who came in second, produced. Already after three quarters of the time trial, the Swiss passed Mollema, who started 1.5 minutes earlier.
Mollema and Van Vleuten were not the only ones groping in the dark. Also top favorite and reigning world champion, the Italian Filippo Ganna, did not understand his off-day: he only finished seventh. ‘In the past few days I drove hopeful wattages.’
Cycling is now so data-driven that if, for example, power figures are inexplicably bad, other data is sought for a conclusive explanation. The most heard after the World Cup time trials is called jet lag. But unfortunately, the data surrounding the attempts to beat the time difference shows little agreement for both losing and winning riders.
The rule of thumb is that it takes one day to get used to every hour of time difference. Europe-Australia is eight o’clock. Ganna had been in Australia for more than 10 days when he painfully visibly collapsed halfway through on Sunday. Mollema was also there early and announced exactly a week before the time trial that he had completed his first stage in Australia.
On the other hand: Ellen van Dijk arrived in Australia at the same time as Mollema and won her third world title in the time trial. Norwegian Tobias Foss was late in Australia, but is now world champion in the men’s time trial. Could it be because he took the western route through Canada? The biological clock tends to adjust faster to the west than to the east.
Jet lag protocol
Van Vleuten also sat on the bike later than the rule of thumb prescribes. During the Vuelta she won, she had already started the jet lag protocol in which riders followed Australia’s day and night times well in advance, step by step – dinner around lunchtime.
Riders also use light therapy glasses to bridge the time difference. According to former riders, that succeeds with the head rather than the body, partly due to the physically demanding, because long flight. Mathieu van der Poel barely got any sleep in the 25 hours of Brussels-Dubai-Sydney. He was, however, so tired on arrival that he slept like a log the first night in Australia.
Van der Poel rode well in the mixed team time trial two days later, which fell into the water for the Netherlands due to a falling chain at Mollema and a blowout for Van Vleuten. No theory about the effect of jet lag on top athletes will help against failing equipment.