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Time-trials: Socially distanced racing in the time of social distancing

Myles Warwood
5 Aug 2020

With racing in the UK mostly cancelled, the return of time-trialling gives some riders a welcome hint of normality

Covid-19 has a lot to answer for, and while the loss of the sporting summer may be one of the less serious items on the charge sheet, it's one of the more noticeable ones.

Football fans have seen the end of the football season with no fans in the stadiums while in cycling there is supposed to be a Tour de France at some point this year, along with a Giro d’Italia, World Championships and a Vuelta a Espana. It’s all a very cramped schedule and could fail to materialise at all should infections start to surge again across Europe, but we live in hope.

However, racing on British roads is back and it’s back to where it all began, with time-trials. This purist pastime, where your only enemies are your power meter and the clock, represents the light at the end of a dark tunnel for competitive cycling in the UK after four months of lockdown.

Time-trials, socially distant riding

So why has it been deemed safe to start racing time-trials in the UK? Well, part of the answer is simply that because riders set out a minute apart, you're naturally socially distanced already (unless you catch the rider ahead, of course, or are caught yourself). There’s no mass peloton and no riding in groups so it all seems to be pointing in the direction of safe.

To see whether it is indeed as simple as that, I decided to sign up to a local TT with Harrogate Nova CC. This was the club's second time-trial back after lockdown and ran on the V212, which is a fairly flat and untechnical course.

Head five miles in one direction, turn around at a roundabout and head back again to where you started. The course is referred to as the Red Wall as running alongside the road is – you guessed it – a red wall. It's on your side on the way back, a fact that begins to grate as you grind towards the finish.

Being my first ever TT, I didn’t know what to expect. I was told to bring my own pen to sign on with, which is a new rule within the context of coronavirus and makes sense. Turbos for warming up were not allowed and while signing on everyone had to respect social distancing rules.

All of this I expected, but what I did not expect was for the participation record to be broken for a Harrogate Nova TT event.

A total of 54 riders turned out for the TT, 10 more than the previous week's total. It seems that people are desperate to get back to riding on the roads and competing again.

When I turned up the atmosphere was full of anticipation, excitement and enthusiasm to get back racing. Riders were ready and waiting when sign-on opened and I'm glad I was among them as it meant I got an early start – I didn’t fancy having to wait about for almost an hour to get my time on the board.

Nova ran a very good event, though it should be said having warmed up on the course I arrived at the start to find another Covid-derived quirk: there was no one to hold your bike, you had to start on your own. Not that Nova was to blame for that, obviously. 

Chatting around the car park before and after the TT was rewarding. People spoke of how they had missed seeing their clubmates and how it finally seemed as if there was a return to something like normal.

Clubmates compared Strava runs and spoke about lockdown miles, discussed the time-trial ahead and many said they were looking to really test themselves, keen to see whether the training put in during lockdown would pay dividends on the road.

One things that was sorely missed was the ever-quaint village hall or car park set up with a tea urn and some homemade cake. On completing your effort, it was all a bit strange: back to the car, pack your bike away and drive home and wait for the results to go up online the day after.

Chris Boardman said when measuring your effort on a time-trial, you shouldn’t be thinking ‘I can hold this power’ or ‘I can’t hold this power, but I’ll try’. Instead, you should be thinking, ‘Maybe. Maybe I can hold this power.’ That’s when you know you’re on the right tempo and power.

Looking at the way the world is right now, there are a huge number of maybes out there. One of them is that maybe we'll see British racing returning to our roads and TV screens soon, or maybe not. For now, though, this is the best form of racing we have, so we should embrace it.

I know that I for one will be returning to the V212 soon to try and beat my previous time, and I'd recommend it to anyone. So go and get yourself signed up to your local TT – now more than ever they need your support.