Book review: ‘Faster – The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists’

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‘Faster’ is the third book by Michael Hutchinson, British time trial specialist, Commonwealth Games representative and winner of more than 50 British national TT titles, and focuses on the never-ending quest for speed and performance in competitive cycling. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef read the book and put together this review.

You only need read the first page of ‘Faster’ to work out that Michael Hutchinson is deeply obsessed with the little details when it comes to the sport of cycling. In the opening page he talks about the fact he’s slept in a high-altitude-simulation tent — inside his bedroom — for as long as he can remember, all in a quest to find small gains to his cycling performance.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the book — ‘Faster’ is a journey into the world of the minute, the ‘marginal gains’ and the things professional athletes do to eke even a small performance gain out of themselves.

The book is framed by two main questions that Hutchinson asks of himself: “What is it about me that makes me faster than the vast majority of bike riders?” and “Why are a lucky few faster than me?”

Hutchinson uses himself as a case study, discussing his career, his successes, his failures, and all of this in the context of performance and how to grab an extra couple of percent wherever possible. And while much of Hutchinson’s time is spent talking about himself, he doesn’t come across as self-indulgent or arrogant. He is happy to talk about when things went right, but he also doesn’t shirk away from the missteps, the fumbles and the embarrassments along the way.

Early in proceedings “Hutch” provides a great explanation of why a study of the minute details of the sport of cycling has never been more relevant. As Hutch writes, even 10 years ago professional cyclists and teams were investing considerably less time and energy in looking for small performance gains — there were easier (and significantly more questionable) ways to achieve significant gains. Now, more than ever, the focus is on the small things a rider can do to gain an advantage.

‘Faster’ is focused largely on time trialling and track endurance riding, partially because these are the two disciplines Hutch himself excelled in but also because, from a sports science perspective, time trialling is considerably more “controllable” than road racing. TTing doesn’t have the spikes and lulls in effort that road racing does; it’s all about going as hard as you can manage for as long as you need to.

As Hutch himself puts it:

“TTing is an event for the analytical. It rewards hard work, knowledge and research. It’s about control, in racing and training, about measuring efforts perfectly, and concentrating on what you’re doing.”

‘Faster’ is split into seven chapters (plus an intro and an afterword) that each focus on a different aspect of improving performance, from being a good athlete (as opposed to just having a big engine), to the psychology of extracting best-possible performances from an athlete; from the pursuit of “free speed” through new technology, to the simple (and sometimes not so simple) physiology of being an top cyclist.

The chapters on cycling physiology struck me as the most engaging, with Hutch explaining simply and accessibly what’s actually happening when we’re riding a bike, why VO2max is a good measure of fitness and what happens in our bodies as we ride harder.

The closing chapter, entitled “Talent and genetics”, is a highlight as well, with Hutchinson addressing the age-old question of whether the very best in the sport are just genetically gifted, whether it’s all down to hard work, or a combination thereof.

‘Faster’ has an unashamedly British focus (which doesn’t diminish the enjoyment for non-British readers) and the vast majority of people Hutchinson interviewed for the book are either from the Team GB track setup and/or from Team Sky. The interviews with Team Sky staffers (including Tim Kerrison) will be of particular interest to fans of road cycling as they include great detail about how the Team Sky Tenerife training camps are structured and some great insight into the team’s sometimes-derided pursuit of ‘marginal gains’.

At a shade over 200 pages ‘Faster’ flies by, thanks, in no small part, to Hutchinson’s accessible and entertaining writing style. The author’s sense of humour shines through and I had more than a few laugh-out-loud moments here.

If I had to make one small criticism I would say that the book feels a tiny bit scattered at times. There were some tangents Hutch took me on that, while interesting, left me wondering “wait, where were we again? What’s this chapter about?” But this is a very small gripe about an otherwise excellent book.

‘Faster’ isn’t a how-to guide on how to improve your cycling, rather it’s a detailed look at what separates those at the pinnacle of the sport from those just below them. But ‘Faster’ is likely to be an entertaining and compelling read for anyone with even a passing interest in what’s happening under the hood when a cyclist tries to become stronger, and the factors that separate us everyday cyclists from those at the very top of the sport.

‘Faster – The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists’ is published by Bloomsbury and retails for $29.99. It can be purchased online at the Bloomsbury website here. You can follow Michael Hutchinson on Twitter here.

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