What are cycling time trials?
Cycling time trials are solo events that push riders to achieve the best result they can, racing only themselves and the ever ticking hands of the clock. Intrepid racers are set off at intervals – usually every minute – and drafting is off limits.
Most events are based on distance – the end goal being for the individual to get from start to finish in the shortest time possible.There are some events based on time – 12 or 24 hours – in which the rider’s goal is to cover the largest distance possible (ideally without being classified mentally unstable).
Any rider can gain fitness and motivation from racing the clock on a road bike with a standard set-up. At sporting events (hilly, often on less than perfect roads) road bikes can even be equal or superior to time trial bikes.
A road bike can be set up like a time trial bike, with clip on bars, but installing a proper time trial base bar and adjusting the position – moving the saddle forwards and dropping the front end – is preferable. One note of caution – TTs require riding ‘on the rivet’ for an extended period and it’s not uncommon to find that your normal saddle is no longer ideal, but there are plenty of time trial specific saddles on the market. If you decide to invest in a specific rig, you can save a lot of time over a road bike on a flat course.
On a flat stretch, 80 per cent of drag is created by the rider. Therefore, when it comes to greatest time saving for the smallest cost, an aero helmet, skinsuit and overshoes (possibly the most cost effective time saving) are very savvy investments and can be comparable to buying a TT bike and failing to purchase the ad-ons.
How can you improve at cycling time trials?
Well, pacing, practice, and position…
The key when it comes to time trials is in pacing.
Hour Record holder Chris Boardman once described the art thus: “You have three questions going through your mind: How far to go? How hard am I trying? Is the pace sustainable for that distance? If the answer is “yes”, that means you’re not trying hard enough. If it’s no, it’s too late to do anything about it. You’re looking for the answer “maybe”.
During the first couple of miles, you might feel like you just want to stop. Don’t. Keep going and learn how to find that sweet spot – the ‘maybe’ intensity.
The scientific way to find this intensity would be to perform an FTP test and use this to base your effort for an event that you expect to take an hour. In time, you’ll learn what heart rate or power you can hold for specific distances – of course adjusting it as you improve, or based on the course.
The more time trials you do, the better you’ll get at pacing.
But practice here also refers to training. Ideal training sessions for time triallists will prepare rides for long efforts at threshold (for 40km distance), a bit above (about 15km) and a bit below (anything over 80km).
The bread and butter time trial training session is the two 20 minute efforts at 95-105% of FTP with 5-10 minutes’ recovery. Including this session once a week in your training plan is a good idea – ideally assessing your progress with a best-effort 20-minute test once a month.
To cut down drag, you need to reduce the surface area of… yourself. This usually means bringing your elbows in and getting low. But not at the detriment of power output – or at least, to the extend that it cancels out the benefits of being more slippery.
The are many factors involved in finding the perfect position – your own flexibility and core strength will affect how much power you can put out in an optimised position. A bike fit is a very good place to start, otherwise, trial, error – and maybe a few turbo sessions in front of a mirror.