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Cycling time-trials: the complete how-to guide

Cycling time-trials: New to riding against the clock? We count you down to your first event...

Pinning on a number means it’s serious. It’s why a name scribbled last on an official timesheet beats being first over the line at an overpriced sportive. Without competition, cycling is a hobby and not a sport. Which is not only fine but also probably more healthy.

Still, everyone likes to imagine themselves a contender. Happily, there’s a discipline that side-steps the expense, danger and high-fitness requirements that can make mass-start racing intimidating.

Time-trialling involves individual riders setting off at prescribed intervals. With no drafting allowed, riders push themselves as hard as they can to achieve the best time. A pure test of ability, it’s the best individual performance that wins the day.

Competing on courses covering set distances, often 10, 25 or 50 miles, makes racing against the clock a fantastically accessible way to indulge your competitive side. Without the fear of getting dropped, and free to dictate your own pace, it's all about personal achievement. At the same time, seeing your name way up the spreadsheet is still a thrill.

Maybe watching a time trial stage at the Tour de France has piqued your interest? Or perhaps the renewed competition for the Hour Record has done the same? Either way, if you fancy testing yourself, you’ll be following a long tradition of riders measuring themselves against the clock.

You can find all Cyclist's time-trial content here

Winding back the years

The time-trial scene in the UK has historically produced some of our best riders, from Beryl Burton to Graeme Obree and Bradley Wiggins.

However, the roots of the discipline go back to the earliest days of cycling. While the rest of continental Europe was mostly tied up with bunch racing, in 1890 our National Cyclist’s Union (forerunner of today’s British Cycling) banned all racing on the UK’s public roads.

With cars starting to emerge and political interference doing its thing, the NCU was keen to protect its members from fights with early motorised traffic and an unsympathetic police force.

Yet rather than give up on racing on the open roads, rebel riders soon came up with their own solution – undercover time-trials where each rider could conceivably argue that they were just out for a solo spin.

With the legal situation unclear, riders often met at dawn, at clandestine locations known only by code, and dressed entirely in black. The first of these elicit time-trials probably took place in North London in 1895.

The scene has long since gone above ground. And with it, some of the more cloak and dagger aspects of the discipline have faded. However, a coded system of identifying courses still exists, along with a number of other unusual rules and conventions.

Three, two, one, go!

Happily, today the camaraderie and DIY spirit are as strong as ever. Amateur time-trials still take place away from the auspices of British Cycling. Entry fees are often just a few quid for local events and everyone from international champions like Alex Dowsett to kids on hand-me-down bikes line up on the same spot and do their thing.

Other than as something to talk about, no one cares about how much your kit cost. And if someone asks you how you're going, it's likely only with reference to your own personal progression, and not how many podiums you've accumulated.

Next week you can come back and see if you’ve improved on your time. With records kept for most courses, you can compare yourself to legends like Beryl Burton or Sir Bradley Wiggins – or your even own younger self.

Of course, it’s possible to spend loads of money on a dedicated time-trial bike, but a conventional machine will do just fine for your first few events. After this, a set of aero bars will cost less than £100, and provide more of a reduction in your times than the next £10,000 of kit combined.

For some racers, time-trialling is a great first taste of competitive cycling. Others stick with the discipline and make it their main focus. Either way, we think it’s something every rider should try at least once.

If you’re ready to give it a go, Cycling Time Trials, the national governing body for cycling time-trials, has a comprehensive list of events.

To make sure you do as well as you can, read on for our top tips for riding your first time-trial. Plus an examination of the science behind generating a top performance...

Easy wins for time-trial success

While splashing out on specialist equipment can improve your personal best, these cost-efficient strategies will also work wonders…

Position

Aerodynamics play a pivotal role in time-trialling. With the rider’s own body accountable for the majority of the drag produced, adopting a more aero position will allow you to go faster for no more effort.

So minimise your frontal area, get low over the bars and tuck your head into your shoulders, flatten your back, and tuck your arms and elbows in. Just make sure you don’t go so low that the position becomes unsustainable.

Buying a set of bar extensions is a good early investment when you really start getting into time-trialling, as they’ll help get you into the low, narrow position required. If you can’t afford them or find they aren’t for you, try at least to ride on the drops or hoods, for greater aero efficiency. 

Pacing

You may think time-trialling is simply about going hell for leather from start to finish, but even the fittest rider would blow up using that strategy.

Instead, pacing is critical to performing at your best. Once you've set off, get out of the saddle and sprint for the first 10 seconds. This will get you up to a reasonably high speed.

Once there, sit back in your saddle and tuck down into your time-trial position. On race day, it’s easy to get pumped with adrenaline so avoid the temptation to start too quickly.

One tried and trusted technique is called the 'negative split'. This involves you riding more conservatively for the first half of the race, cranking up your efforts for the second half.

You can do this by the numbers using a power meter or heart rate monitor to work to your functional threshold. Alternatively, you can choose to pace a time-trial purely by feel. To get this right, start at a moderate pace and gradually build your efforts so that by the time you reach the last quarter of the race you should be at the limit of your physical capabilities.

Part of you will feel like stopping, and you’ll need to rely on mental fortitude to carry you over the finish line.

Fuelling

Many cyclists prepare for big events by guzzling mountains of pasta in the days before an event. While carb-loading in this way can ensure your glycogen stores are sufficiently stocked, when it comes to time-trials moderation is the best policy.

For shorter events like a 10 or 25 mile TT, a meal rich in carbs, such as pasta or rice, the night before the race is going to be enough.

On the morning of the race, focus on carbs again. A bowl of oats topped with a banana is ideal. En route to the time-trial, treat yourself to a coffee about 45 minutes beforehand for added pep and be sure to be properly hydrated before you start your ride as time lost sipping from your bidon will outweigh the benefits of taking on mid-race fluid during shorter races.

Training

Time-trialling is all about power versus drag. While becoming more aero can help with the latter, you’ll still need to raise your functional threshold to perform at your best and that means training that ability. Doing a small block of work at threshold pace with a rest in between can work well.

Here, the classic 2x 20 session where you ride close to race pace for 20 minutes, spend 10 minutes spinning in the middle, then endure another 20 minutes at threshold, can work well.

When you train, use the bike and position you would use for the time-trial itself. Also, work on keeping your upper body as still as possible as this will help make you more aerodynamic and conserve energy.

Having a strong core will make this easier, so make sure that your off-the-bike exercises include plenty of lunges, planks and crunches and don’t forget to stretch regularly too. Stretching out your glutes, hamstrings and lower back will make you more flexible and therefore better able to sustain that demanding but vital low position.

The science of time-trial speed

Many see a time-trial as a battle against themselves. But it is also a battle against the invisible forces that minimise your speed. Here’s how to beat them…

Air Resistance

There are three main culprits to consider when working out what stops you going faster on a bicycle. But the biggest and baddest is air resistance.

In fact, by the time you reach the modest speed of 18mph (29kmh), it accounts for 85% of what’s holding you back. And the faster you ride, the more of it you have to shove aside. It’s not easy to shift either, clinging to every bit of your body and bike.

It’s why everyone from kit makers to bike designers is obsessed with whittling away anything that might give air resistance a smidgen of traction.

Yet no matter how slippery your bike and kit, the biggest problem is always going to be you – the rider. With a cyclist’s body responsible for around 75% of all the air resistance created, adjusting your position on the bike is the most efficient way of combatting it.

It’s also the cheapest. After buying a set of aero-bars, you’re better off spending money on the rider and not the bike. A time-trial skinsuit can save a minute or two over 25 miles (40km).

A pair of simple shoe covers that provide a smoother surface for airflow than your dials or laces can help shave off a further 30 seconds, while a TT-specific helmet could be worth as much as 60 seconds.

Just how much time can aero kit save? Click the link to find out.

Rolling Resistance

Your bike is, of course, in contact with the road and this in itself creates another form of friction known as rolling resistance. As a bike’s tyres move over a road surface, they flatten and spread out continuously as they roll.

The rubber also deforms with every bump and dip they encounter, burning up the energy you’re providing to get the wheels spinning as they do so.

How much? For a bike and rider weighing 70kg, a poor quality tyre can absorb up to 40 watts, while a better quality one will only eat around half of that. And there are further savings to made too.

Wider tyres are often both more aerodynamic and have reduced rolling resistance. So contrary to previous received wisdom, swapping your 23mm to something wider could also save a useful couple of watts.

If you’re wondering how tyre pressure fits into all this, remember that lower pressure increases rolling resistance, however inflating your tyres too much may reduce their ability to flex leaving you to get bounced around and fatigued.

As always, there’s a happy medium depending on your weight and the state of the course. For more information on finding your perfect tyre pressure, click the link.

Friction

The final bad guy in our trio of speed robbers is good-old-fashioned friction, by which we specifically mean friction in your bike’s moving parts – in particular, the chain.

A badly maintained drivetrain can steal away as much as 10% of your energy. Fortunately, it’s the easiest part of the bike to improve.

If you can only be bothered to do one thing before a ride, make sure you give your chain a squirt. Spending just a little time cleaning and lubricating your chain can cut friction losses significantly.

It’ll also make your cassette last a lot longer, too, meaning you’ll save money as well as energy. Find out how to clean your drivetrain in under five minutes here

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