Stephen Cummings' return to racing went better than he could have imagined, with his first ever national time trial title. The Briton beat defending champion Alex Dowsett by just nine seconds on a challenging Isle of Man course on Thursday evening.
The victory is the first hurdle in the two-jump race for Cummings as he aims to make Dimension Data's Tour de France squad. The second will be Sunday's road race, and the usually calm and collected Cummings is feeling the pressure.
"I feel like I've got two more hurdles to jump over to get into the Tour," Cummings told Cyclingnews ahead of the time trial. "It's quite a lot of pressure, and it's quite hard to do it when you're not 100 per cent, and you have no choice really because you just feel at this stage a week makes a whole lot of difference. After 10 days in the Tour, it would be a different thing, but we are where we are, and we just have to do what we have to do.
"It's definitely not a certainty. It's still in the balance at the moment. I have to prove myself these two days."
Cummings' season got turned on its head when he crashed heavily at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in April. The incident on stage 4 of the Spanish race resulted in fractures to his left collarbone, scapula and his sternum. It was a setback, but nothing too major and, after surgery, he was back on his bike again. He was on the path to recovery when another crash put him back to square one, and he rode for almost three weeks before further examination showed that his scapula had moved and he would require yet more surgery.
The second setback was much tougher than the first, and it wasn't just his ability to ride his bike that it impacted. "I couldn't really do anything. I couldn't get off the couch, I was all twisted up, and then slowly I got better," he explained. "At times you don't think that you're going anywhere, but then you think ‘a week ago I couldn't do this or that'.
"It's tough, not just cycling, but life. You want to pick your daughter up but you can't, it's horrible."
He continued: "I just try to brush it off and carry on with it. I'm lucky that my wife is so supportive. You can either just sit there and cry about it or think 'what do I have to do now?' That's sort of the mentality I've had. This is where I am; I just need to try and do the best things. We did a lot of stuff with diet. I've tried to take care of my weight and tried to keep up with recovery. As soon as I could get on the bike I was on the bike. Of course, I did a lot of physio and stupid exercises. All the things that I hate doing I had to do."
Not yet 100 per cent
The national championships were a last-minute addition to Cummings' schedule. He had originally planned to ride the Critérium du Dauphiné, but the second crash pushed his potential return date back. Cummings likes to spend the final weeks leading up to the Tour with his family in Italy, which means that he has not ridden the nationals since 2011 when the time trial and road race were run as separate events. In the end, the decision was made to take part just a few days beforehand.
Prior to the time trial, Cummings explained to Cyclingnews that he is still missing about five per cent movement in his arm, while he is still looking to gain strength.
"It all feels new to me. I don't really know the riders or the roads around here. I'm normally used to going to races 100 per cent prepared, and I'm not," he said. "The strength is about 60 or 70 per cent. I feel fine on my road bike. I must admit, if I was a bunch sprinter I wouldn't feel 100 per cent confident, but I'm not, I've never done a sprint in my life.
"On the TT bike it's a bit harder because the elbows are a little bit closer together and it puts a bit more demand on the muscle area where I had the operation, so it's a little bit weaker."
Cummings also mentioned confidence as a big factor for him, particularly when it comes to bunch racing. The 36-year-old is well known for winning on the attack, and he says that confidence is the key to making them work. His victory in the time trial will certainly have given him a big boost, but the road race remains.
It's another tricky course, one that Cummings has yet to see having not visited the island in around 17 years. While the time trial will have pencilled him into the Dimension Data Tour de France team, a solid ride on Sunday would almost certainly jot it down in big black ink.
"I could probably tell you that if I'm dropped on the first climb, then I probably won't go," Cummings joked. "If I'm in the final and racing for the win, then I might be there, but I don't know.
"I'll do my best. I might get dropped on the climb first time up, but at least I'll know come July that I did everything I could to get into the Tour and I'll be happy."
Dimension Data is due to name their Tour de France squad on Monday, June 26.
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