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Fast and furious: Inside the world of time-trialling

Peter Stuart
24 Jul 2017

The curious world of time-trialling offers high speeds, flashy kit and obsessive number-crunching

There are two types of cyclist. There are those in it for the prospect of a pleasant coffee stop and some nice scenery.

Then there are those in it for speed, who get their kicks out of going as fast as possible, meticulously tracking their numbers and performance so they can try and go even quicker next time.

That’s a crude generalisation, of course, and most of us are a mixture of both. But if you do find yourself relating more to the latter category, chances are sooner or later you’ll find yourself entering a time-trial. 

A super-slippy aero machine rolling along on a silky carbon disc wheel, a streamlined TT helmet and a shrink-wrap skinsuit… all do a lot to make a cyclist look very fast.

But as much as flashy kit is its own reward, the task of improving your speed against the clock is a complex and ever-changing problem. The right kit, the right training, the right position and the right mindset on race day are all necessary ingredients in the cocktail that is a blisteringly fast solo cyclist.

The time-trial may be the truest and purest form of racing. It has always been a facet of the Grand Tours and is something of an institution – often seen as an improtant landmark on every rider’s journey toward being a fully fledged cyclist. 

A timely tradition

It all began here  in the UK at the end of the 19th century, as a response to the National Cyclists’ Union’s ban on road racing.

The ban was a reflection of the prevailing sentiment towards cycling at the time – in fact, a decade earlier a motion to ban cycling altogether had only narrowly been defeated in parliament.

In response to the ban, Frederick Thomas Bedlake set up a secret society of time-triallists that would meet at dawn at secret locations and race against the clock.

Like an underground rave, locations and entrants were only given at the last moment and in secret. This secrecy continued into the 1960s, and even today different courses are marked by special codes, and entry to national open events requires affiliation to the CTT (Cycling Time Trials association – cyclingtimetrials.org.uk). 

Time-trials (or TTs) are commonly raced over 10, 25, 50 and 100 miles. There are also longer endurance events spanning 12 and 24 hours, and an array of ‘sporting’ courses over more undulating terrain that can be any distance.

The objective is always the same – to get from start to finish as quickly as conceivably possible.

Former National Time-Trial Champion, and author of Faster, Michael Hutchinson, explains that the time-trial is a journey, but that you don’t need the best kit around at the start of it: ‘I think there’s a perception that you do because that’s what you see on TV and in the magazines,’ he says.

‘You see all these time-trial bikes and pointy things so people think that’s necessary, but it’s not.’ 

All sorts

TTs are also probably the most inclusive of all competitive cycling events. ‘There’s such a spread of people that turn up to time-trials,’ Hutchinson says.

‘At my local 10 mile time-trial there’s everything from 12-year-old girls to 80-year-old men and any and all things of all shapes in between.’

Whether it’s racing to beat the slowest veteran or shooting for the top of the result sheet, the kit will make a difference measurable in clear seconds.

But before that point, there are minutes to be gained elsewhere by the average roadie looking to make a foray into time-trials. It all begins with the least aerodynamic part of any TT set-up – the rider themselves.

Your position on the bike makes a huge difference to how aero you are. In fact, with the body accounting for the vast majority (some estimate 90%) of aerodynamic drag on a bike, you could say it makes nearly all the difference.

So there’s no point purchasing a shiny disc wheel if your head is poking precariously into the wind. For that reason, before investing in your dream TT bike, it’s worth experimenting with an aerodynamic position on a normal road bike first. 

‘About a third of all the speed improvement that aero can give you can be gained just by slapping aero bars on a normal bike,’ explains Mark Cote, head of Innovation at Specialized.

‘If you go from a road bike to aero bars in a good position without much drop change on the front you can end up saving about 30 watts – that’s pretty substantial.’

Fine-tuning

With the big gain in hand, next comes the fine-tuning of the aero position, and this is where the real work begins.

Team Drag2Zero owner and aerodynamics expert Simon Smart agrees with Cote, saying, ‘For someone relatively new to time-trialling, who might be producing say 200 watts, optimising their position in the wind-tunnel can give them an extra 30 watts. That’s a 10-15% improvement.’

Dr Barney Wainwright, research fellow at Leeds Beckett University and founder of Veloptima coaching, considers the initial improvements quite straightforward:

‘Broadly speaking, the lower you go the lower the drag and the faster you go.’

Wainwright takes cyclists into the velodrome to hone their positions as closely as possible to the optimum.

While getting low is a starting point, the next step is adopting the right shape for the shoulders and head.

‘Because we’re trying to make a very smooth shape, for some people the key thing is to reduce the gap between the head and the shoulders,’ says Wainwright.

‘Sometimes you’re looking at keeping the shoulders rounded and keeping the head down, but it very much depends on the body position.

‘So you can’t really say there’s a general rule for everyone.’

‘People always think there is some sort of best position,’ Smart adds. ‘But it depends on your physiology, how flexible you are, and what size your limbs are.’

Going to a velodrome or wind-tunnel is the best way to nail down cutting-edge aero gains, but there’s a lot of basic work you can do yourself first.

An easy way to improve is to compare power data against speed in different positions. Even if you don’t have a power meter, some rudimentary tests such as simply holding different positions whilst coasting down an incline and timing the descent will tell you a lot too.

Getting used to that position in training and racing is the bigger challenge, Wainwright explains. ‘Often it takes some time before you can hold the position we create for a whole race,’ he says. ‘At first you can view it as more of a boost or a chance to save some energy in a headwind.’

Then comes the challenge of not only holding that position, but generating power while holding it. ‘To go quickly we need to optimise power production while getting a good position for reducing drag,’ says Wainwright. 

Flexibility is the key here, and often a big component of training is simply getting used to riding in a desired position, as this is how you build that flexibility.

Having the necessary power in the first place, however, is a different matter altogether.

Training

‘Power readings are so useful for time-trialling,’ Wainwright says. ‘You need to build an awareness of training zones.

‘We have submaximal intensities and endurance zones for addressing aerobic fitness, and we then have higher intensity threshold training zone or VO2 max training zones for developing top-end power and speed.’

Training zones are far more effective than generic training plans, as simply doing a lot of mileage may not address the weaknesses in a particular rider.

‘If someone’s got a lot of endurance but very poor power at VO2 max, for example, that would be an area to focus on,’ Wainwright says. 

VO2 max training zones, which are the very highest intensities, will improve muscle development and top-end power, useful for those aiming to ride fast 10-mile TTs.

For those taking on 25-mile or 50-mile TTs, increasing threshold power will be the key to improving overall speed.

Long endurance zone rides mixed with shorter five-minute threshold pieces may make for the biggest gains, but mixing in more intense 30 or 60-second intervals will help when it comes to being able to withstand the build-up of lactic acid. 

Of course, whatever your training regime, the ultimately goal is the same – maintaining a desired power output for a given distance.

Part of training, then, needs to be working out what pace you’re aiming to maintain. ‘You need to work out what pace you’ll realistically be able to sustain for a race,’ says Wainwright. ‘This can be a matter of trial and error.’

This is where training begins to overlap with another crucial component of the TT pursuit – pacing and race tactics. 

Race tactics

In terms of pacing, a profile where the power sits consistently at the maximum threshold will theoretically always be the most efficient over a given distance.

An easy way to target this is to look at the previous power output, or speed, and aim to slightly improve it. But it’s not always that simple – sometimes the nature of the course demands tactical peaks and troughs in power.

One common argument in TT circles is how best to control pace when climbing a hill during a TT.

‘The verdict is a little bit out on that one,’ says Wainwright. ‘It depends on the exact profile but the hills should be a good opportunity to put more power in, but only slightly.’

The reasoning here is that because your speed drops when climbing, the penalty for sacrificing an aerodynamic riding position for a more powerful one is less than on the flat.


There’s also the notion that when you go over the top of the climb, the descent will offer a chance for recovery. But Wainwright cautions against leaning too heavily on your reserves.

‘You should never go too high above your threshold. You’ve only got a little scope for reducing the power a bit to recover on the descent. So you should be looking at no more than 5% really.’

The other bane of a speed-hungry time-triallist’s life is wind, which is an unavoidable reality on an out-and-back course.

‘In a headwind there may be a tendency to put more effort in, because it reduces the overall time spent with the wind against you,’ Wainwright says. ‘But you should still be careful not to go outside that 5% barrier.’

The logic here is similar: yes, you’ll be able to recover a little when the wind is behind you, but the effect of unwanted drag against the wind is so great that you want to stay as aero as you can.

Kit choice

Once you’ve mastered position, training, and race tactics, there remain no further barriers to upgrading to an arsenal of shiny kit.

But while a wind-tunnel can determine that one bike, helmet or skinsuit is faster than another, that’s not the whole story.

‘It’s about systems,’ explains Smart, who helped develop the Scott Plasma TT bike. ‘I find that people come in with a new frame and they’re sometimes going slower even if their position is similar.

‘It’s more to do with the interaction between the rider and different components.’

For kit selection at the very top of the sport, both Smart and Wainwright swap components in and out for a given rider and frame.

For true specialists, the arrangement of cables, the position of bar tape and the number of headset spacers will all be under tight scrutiny. But to start with there are some more general choices to make.

It’s important that a bike enables the least aero thing of all – the body – to be adjustable.

While one TT bike may be quicker than another on paper, if its bars and saddle can’t be moved into a position to suit the rider (as is sometimes the risk with highly integrated frames), then it’s a bit of an own-goal, as the overall system will be slower. 

Moving closer to the tarmac – while some wheels may boast fantastic aerodynamic efficiency, stability and handling can play an equally big part in overall speed. 

Though deep-section 80mm front wheels may be empirically faster, for example, few top time-triallists use them as they can create instability in strong winds.

‘It may throw off the handling and very likely make it harder to maintain a good position, particularly when passing a gateway or something like that,’ Smart says. A shallower profile on the front wheel, then, or a more blunted rim shape may be a better bet if you’re nervous riding in strong winds.

Aero helmets can also be counterproductive, with a helmet that’s faster in isolation sometimes proving the opposite as part of the overall system of rider and bike.

‘Sometimes we find that the better helmet is a slightly wider helmet, even though it increases frontal area,’ explains Wainwright. That’s because a narrow helmet that pushes air squarely onto the shoulders only works if the shoulders themselves are in an aerodynamically correct position. 

In a similar twist of logic, while a helmet with a long aerodynamic tail should be faster in theory, that’s only the case if you keep your head in the correct position.

Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, for example, both tend to ride head-down, so the stubby-tailed Kask Bambino proved to be the faster choice for their riding style. With that in mind, it’s worth trying a few different helmets, as the benefits could be significant. 

A skinsuit can have even greater impact. If it’s even slightly loose, it will affect drag, which is why Froome squeezes into an infant-sized one-use-only skinsuit when riding against the clock.

But even if you’re not willing to risk bursting a blood vessel just pulling on your kit, there are other fit considerations that may improve speed. ‘Reducing the folds in the skinsuit where the hip moves up and down is a common area where speed can be gained,’ Wainwright explains. ‘You ideally want a skinsuit that doesn’t crease anywhere while riding.’

When it comes to kit, then, the choice is unique to the rider, the distance and whichever theoretical yaw you plan to encounter (we’ll save that last point for another day).

That said, any of the bikes in the following pages will make for the quickest rig on earth if fitted correctly to the rider. For those becoming truly immersed in the addiction of TT, the data and detail involved in honing those last few seconds will be the ultimate fix. 

As Smart puts it, ‘For something as simple as cycling it’s actually bloody complicated.’

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