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TIME TRIALING, Chad Connor posted 2/1/01
Chad is a former team member, full time medical student, commercially sponsored triathlete, undergraduate at the US Air Force Academy, where he raced triathlons and ran NCAA I Cross-Country and Track. Best bike splits: 24 mph over 58 mile course in Spokane, 25 mph over 38 mile course in Bay State...both with good run splits right after.

So if you're ever sitting in a pace line, barely turning the cranks as you hum along at 25 miles an hour, you can be sure that Chad is at the front, putting in one of the patented sustained efforts he describes below. Just sit back and enjoy the ride and then try to come around him at the end to win the town-line sprint! Remember though that when you both finish a ride, you lie down and take a nap and Chad goes out for a run...

The topic discussed here is the purest form of bike racing ever--time trialing, often referred to as the "Race of Truth." What is TT? Time trials are races of variable length (from a few miles to 50+) which are done on individual effort (ie, no peloton = no drafting). Collegiate time trials will usually be 10-20 miles in length a sustained effort of 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the course, length and rider. I discuss training, warming up, and racing, and I include a short section on getting aero and efficient at the end to describe the effect of positioning and technology on your speed.


Training for time trialing can be incorporated easily into normal rides and will enhance your performance in the peloton as well. Instead of focusing on jumps, sprints, climbs, or drafting technique, time trialing focuses on sustained maximal effort. That's what you must do in training: long surges of 2+ miles are the minimum. Often, it's best to find a several mile long stretch of road with no real interruptions (the 10 mile Concord-Carlisle loop, for example), and crank up to speed for as long as you can. But you don't have to "lone wolf" it to get such training. If you're with a pack you can simply lead a long stretch as hard as you can, or, if you can't quite lead, drift to the side (out of the draft) and see how long you can keep up with the pack. Best yet, if you know the town lines or sprint points, start a steady surge (no drafting!) 2 miles or so beforehand (e.g. right at the turn onto Glezen road before the Campion Center) and see if you can string it all out and win into the line. Not only will this help simulate time-trial efforts, but it will dramatically improve your endurance. Remember that it is important to practice in the position you will have on the bike in the time trial. Don't neglect to ride your TT-specific bike or adjust your saddle and aero bars as described below.

Warming up for a race

Warm-ups are crucial for a good time trial or any triathlon race that you're serious about. I've read a lot of literature about this and I have synthesized my own ritual. Roughly 60 min before your start, get on your bike (race or training bike) and spin easy for 25 minutes or so. Stretch for 5-10 minutes. Get back on in your race gear and ride for another 15 min. In this section, throw in a few (3-4 at most) surges of up to 60 sec at 75-80% race effort. Recover fully before going again. This puts you at about 15 min prior to race start. During this time, spin easy (or walk around/stretch a bit) to stay loose and maybe put in a few 10-30 sec surges at 90% effort to keep your nerves in proper check. Take care of any last minute details you need to, but make sure you stay warm and loose for when you start! The goal of the routine is to arrive at the start with all the muscles you'll be using fully warmed up (which can require a little intense work), but not to accumulate any lactic acid.


So you're finally on the line and ready to go (don't be late!). Have you done your homework? You should always scope the entire course ahead of time. Drive it when you arrive or ride it the day before or in warm-up (depending on distance) and take special note of tight turns, hills, and road conditions. Make strong mental notes!!! Since you're trying to go all out for the entire race and you can't follow the leader's moves, you need to be able to make good decisions on how to best handle the technical parts (so you don't go too fast into that turn and do a head stand in the crowd see former World Time Trial Champion Abraham Olano in last year's Tour de France). It's OK to slow for turns!! It'll cost you less than a wipe-out. Other than that, the key to racing is to stay aero and efficient (see "Getting Aero and Efficient" section for further info)!! The longer you can do these, the better off you are! If you're cranking up a hill at 20+ mph, stay aero and efficient rather than standing up and blowing it! If you slow below 20 (to 17 or so) on a hill, standing won't affect you as much and maybe you'll be able to pick up speed and use a different set of muscles. And gauge your progress!! Don't go blowing out at 30 mph and bonk by the end at 10 mph!! You should have a good idea from training what sort of effort you can sustain for a given time: try to start at that (the fastest races are "negative split"). And then, as you approach the finish (1/2 to 1 mi out), you should rev up and give it all you have for those last 1-2 minutes!!

Knowing from your training what sort of effort you can sustain will help you ride at the right intensity during the race. For long time trials (up to 1 hour or so), 100% of lactate threshold is the goal. You can approximate this through heart rate monitor use (only if you've used it consistently in training), or by the crude breathing rate test (gradually pick up speed until you can barely breath enough for it.....that's roughly it). If you do the latter, make sure you don't go anaerobic right away, or you'll unknowingly ease off and be riding at less than threshold pace. For shorter time trials, you'll shoot for 100% to begin with, and by halfway you should be up and over it until the finish (yes, you probably haven't gone hard enough if you didn't feel like puking at least a couple of times).

Getting Aero and Efficient

The most important considerations in time trialing technology are aerodynamics and efficiency. An effective balance must be achieved! Aero at the expense of comfort and efficiency costs power and energy (and thus time). Efficiency and comfort at the cost of aerodynamics costs drag (and thus time).

A bike set up for time trialing or triathlons is different than a road bike in a few respects: it has a steeper seat tube angle to place the rider more over the bottom bracket (and it adjusts the head tube angle for stability), it has aero-bars, it is often more stiff, and it may offer "aero" profiling of the frame. By far the geometry and aero-bars are the most important advantages. They allow a comfortable body position while crouched over in an aerodynamic position, and allow for efficient power delivery to the cranks. They can be replicated on a normal road bike by adjusting the seat position (perhaps with a "forward angled" seat post) and adding clip-on aero bars (both modifications take 5-10 min total).

Positioning on a road bike with clip-on aero bars is tricky. If you don't change to a forward angled seat post, you should at least put your saddle all the way forward. The goal is to maintain the same torso/leg angle you're used to on your bike, and since you're hunched over on aero bars, that means bringing your hips forward. The more extreme that angle is (compared to normal), the less power you'll be able to put out (try it.......stay hunched all the way over and keep your butt on the back of your saddle and ride for a few miles........then compare to a more forward position and you'll see how much more efficient you are).

As far as aero bar spacing goes, there are 2 main points. You should be able to draw a vertical line from the front of your shoulder to the back of your elbow. If you can't, you're either stretched too far forward or crunched too tightly. Elbow to elbow distance should be less than the width of your shoulders, but they should not be touching!! The most important thing here is stability and comfort. You'd like your forearms to be facing straight ahead (your fists should be slightly separated at the ends of the bars), but don't sacrifice stability for this. Bottom line--try it before racing!! Start with the elbow pads reasonably spaced apart and move them in after a few miles (on roads or trainer.....but not rollers.....too unstable). Repeat this until you feel too unstable or uncomfortable, then move them back out to the last position. The more you ride like this, the more comfortable you'll be and you may be able to move the pads in a bit after some experience. Note too that steering is more sensitive when you are on the aero bars, so be sure to practice with them before racing.

If you race a time trial on a standard configured road bike, the two most aero positions are 1) in the drops and 2) scooted forward on the tip of the saddle, with your forearms resting on the bars and your hands dangling loosely over the front wheel (very similar to the position using aero bars). Again, steering becomes more sensitive in this position, so be cautious and practice before racing.

Second to an improved position (with aero bars), an upgrade in wheels can significantly reduce your time-trial time. The verdict is still kind of out on which wheels are the "best," but there are other concerns than just aero. Most aero wheels are carbon fiber and are unrepairable (just so you know). Rolf makes a good set of aero wheels with plane bladed spokes that is easily repairable. So, weigh the pros and cons of different wheels and buy a set that's right for you.

Most TT-specific bikes are sold as "triathlon bikes" and any good bike shop can help decipher the differences. Just remember that the rider produces the most drag in the equation, so little "aero extras" like aero-foil tubing, etc. will produce minimal gains compared to the change in body position (in case cost is a concern for you). A good, no-frills bike can be had for $1500 or so (Cervelo, QR, etc.). However, you must note that if you buy such a bike, you must train on it at least once a week (more at first) in the race season to get used to the change in body position and handling.

Sorry if I've been too windy about this. But it is a very important aspect to bike racing. After all, Lance not only was the winner of the Tour, but he was the fastest time-trialist. And, more importantly, he started his athletic career as a triathlete!!

Tri-on! --Chad Connor