Not many people who take up a new sport at the age of 22 go on to be National Champions at it. But that’s exactly what happened to Michael Hutchinson (AKA Dr Hutch) who went on to win National Time Trial Championships for 13 consecutive years and he still retains one unbroken record. A fascinating character, who has had a column for Cycling Weekly for 10 years and written four books, we had the pleasure of an hour or so in his company when we covered topics as diverse as penny farthing racing in the nineteenth century to Team Sky’s TUE crisis. But how did he go from Cambridge Law graduate to National Time Trial Champion to an award-winning author? (Damn him!)
Dr Hutch’s first experience of riding a road bike was when his girlfriend’s father took him out for a spin on his spare winter bike in Richmond Park one weekend. It was a huge moment that would transform his life for the next 20 years. “I really fell for it, it was one of those things that just clicked. I loved doing it – the wind in your hair and face and the feeling of going so fast with so little effort. I just thought this is amazing and that was where it all began.” It also became apparent, pretty quickly, that not only did he love cycling, he was also extremely good at it. “I’d just go round Richmond Park in a running vest and some old rugby shorts I’d found at the bottom of the drawer and I realized after three or four days of doing this that no one had overtaken me. I was clearly the fastest bike rider in Richmond Park!”
Luckily for Dr Hutch it seems that he has a very large aerobic system which he had previously put to good use as a “not at all bad” junior swimmer, Cambridge rower and three hour London Marathon runner. Within seven or eight weeks of riding a road bike he’d replaced the rugby shorts for lycra and was entering time trials at which he was getting great results. “I started off doing it just on instinct and then as time went by I became a lot more deliberate about it. But, to start, I didn’t think much about what I was doing – I just had an instinct for pacing and I don’t really know where that comes from.” On reflection he puts part of it down to his academic agility, comparing dashing off four Law essays in the space of three hours to pacing out a time trial course.
And it was the academic career that looked the most likely route he’d go down in his early twenties. At 24 he was a Junior lecturer at Sussex University having had an “arrow straight CV going all the way back to doing well in my 11+, getting good A levels…Cambridge...” when, what he describes as a squiggle on that perfect trajectory occurred. “I was sitting in an interminable Wednesday afternoon faculty meeting which I resented, as all the crap filtered down the department and would invariably end up on me. I thought, stuff this, said, ‘Excuse me, I’m just going to the loo, I’ll be back in a moment,’ and caught the train back to London and never went back.”
He got some research work back at Cambridge as a stop-gap when, to his surprise, he was approached to race professionally over the summer. That was extended for a year and, before he knew it, and only two years after his first experience of riding a road bike, he found himself a full time professional road cyclist. “It was like running away to join the circus.” What followed was a massively successful time trial career of 13 years of National Championships as well as competing four times in the Commonwealth Games and an attempt (twice) at beating the Hour record, cycling’s blue riband event. Meanwhile he started a successful writing career, boosted by a regular column in Cycling Weekly where he became known as ‘Dr Hutch’. He is of course a Doctor (the academic sort) but the byline was invented by his sub editors who called him that after an old email address of his.
Not content with being the best time trialist in the country, Dr Hutch’s attempt at the Hour record, “something I was almost totally unqualified to do,” spawned a brilliant book, “The Hour.” In it he recounts his decision to go for cycling’s most prestigious title and the chaos that ensued as he worked his way towards the big day. It also tells of some of the former holders of the record like Graeme Obree and Jacques Anquetil. He won an award as the Best New Writer at the British Sports Book Awards and garnered some rave reviews. In his modest way, Dr Hutch remembers that “the man who gave out the award remarked how weak the category had been that year…I thought ‘What the Sports Books Awards giveth with one hand, they take away with the other!’”
But since then he’s published a book about his attempt to become a competitive sailor, “Missing the Boat”, and more recently, “Faster”, a popular sports science book. He’s just delivered the manuscript of his latest opus to his publishers which is about the history of cyclists. He’s been immersing himself into the lives of some extraordinary characters like the six foot three inch Honourable Ion Keith-Falconer, a Scottish aristocrat and Cambridge don who beat the best penny farthing rider of the time in a specially arranged match in 1878. Apparently his training consisted of giving up smoking for a week beforehand! He went on to be one of the first to cycle from Lands End to Jon O’Groats, on a penny farthing of course. All this led to Dr Hutch having a go at riding one himself, something you can catch on video.
While Dr Hutch is fascinated by the history of cycling he’s also a keen commentator on the modern world of pro cycling and he’s been watching the latest TUE scandal that Team Sky have found themselves embroiled in. What he sees is a massive gap between what is legally required by the likes of WADA and the UCI and what people expect. “The rules have become divorced from the ethics.” And in terms of Sky and the tent that they set out of being the cleanest team on the planet, “it doesn’t look very good.” He draws an analogy of someone you wouldn’t expect being involved in tax avoidance schemes which, while being perfectly legal, doesn’t follow the ethical standpoint that many of us would take. As for the mystery package delivered to Wiggins at the end of that Dauphine, well, who knows until we find out what was in it?
And what about Team Sky’s dominance in the Tour – what can the other teams do to challenge them? Admittedly, he says, the others seem to be concentrating on the other two Grand Tours as a result, but this isn’t the first time one team has been able to exert such control over races. “It eventually runs out and turns around. Sky will crack one day and it’ll be amazing!”
It’s interesting that, in all his years of domestic time trialing he says that it was very much a “clean corner” of the cycling world at the time. But people he knew who tried to break into the international world in those days either doped or lost. “I just don’t have what it takes to get my head kicked in by people who are doping,” he says, and one just wonders if he had been competing in a cleaner era whether he would have achieved greater international success. Well, yes he would have.
But Dr Hutch sounds like he has a pretty good life in his tumbledown house that he bought in a village outside of Cambridge, writing his books and columns (“I get to read loads of interesting stuff and call it work”) and choosing which of his many bikes to take out for a spin. He had to move out of London when they imposed a 20 mph speed limit in Richmond Park. His go-to bike is a 2002 Giant TCR, “a really nice bike, never sold in the quantities it should have”, which he’ll take on the country roads of Cambridgeshire or back to his childhood home of Northern Ireland where he enjoys the rolling roads of County Down which is “lovely, peaceful and has good views.”
It’s been a fascinating chat, one to be continued at another time. Dr Hutch has so much to say on say many issues from the backlog of movies he’s trying to catch up on that he somehow missed out on, to who’s the best cycling commentator on TV. As he picks up his Brompton, I later remember that he’s, not only a multiple national time trial champion, but a former holder of the ‘Brompton World Championships’ too. Damn him!