so- ya wanna do a bike time trial do ya?

...or maybe you'll just do it 'cause its the workout for tonight? Either way, here's some quick info on riding a bike time trial. A time trial is a cycling event where the objective is to produce your fastest time over a set distance.  Time trials are often referred to as a "race against the clock" or the "race of truth".  There is no one to pull you along, keep you company or hide behind...

In preparing yourself for a time trial, consider a [modified] passage from "The Art of War" where the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu suggested that;

"If you know the [opponent] and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred [races]. If you know yourself but not the [opponent], for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the [opponent] nor yourself, you will succumb in every [race]."

- Sun Tzu

There is no drafting or team tactics as seen in road races, criteriums and other mass start bike events.  The time trial is considered to be a solo event, just you and your bike gear. For most triathletes, the bike portion of a race should be a time trial. For those racing as ITU elites, drafting is allowed so the bike has requires different skills, tactics and equipment. However, the time trial is the gold standard for evaluating bike fitness.

At LETC we use a 16 km course that is fairly flat on an out and back course by UBC. Other common time trial distances are 20 and 40 km.  Time trials can be solo, two person (known as a two up time trial) or four person (four up).  In the Tour de France, there have been time trials for the entire team of nine riders.  In team time trials, the time for the team is based on the last rider to finish.  In some cases, teams can finish with less than the number they started with (i.e. 4-up team times are often based on the 3rd rider to finish).  In team time trials, riders take turns at the front based on the time trial length and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each rider.  Learning to time trial as a team is a very tricky skill, but very valuable to learning how to work in a group to maximize the overall speed of the group.

A time trial not only tests your fitness, it also evaluates a number of other areas that contribute to performance;

  • nutrition pre and post event
  • time management regarding arriving on time, preparing equipment, checking in, warming up, etc.
  • equipment management- tires checked, pumped up to 100+ psi, brakes, gears, etc. all working, aero bars in place and adjusted properly, race wheels ready, energy drink in bottles and on bike, spare tubes, etc. in place
  • aerodynamics- spend time studying and learning about body position, riding style, clothing choices, etc.
    • in a nutshell no loose or baggy clothing anywhere!
    • aero position bars
    • aero wheel choices
    • visit aerodynamics guru Len Brownlie's site
  • pacing- what is the best effort you can hold for the full 16 km?  Will that change on the first half to second half based on wind, elevation gain, etc.?
    • study and understand power output in cycling AND its role in time trial pacing strategies
  • logistics- know the time trial course, know where is the wind coming from, know your start time, know who is starting ahead you and behind you.  Before that you should consider where you will park your car, when you need to arrive and all the other details that feed into time management.
  • tactics- you must know how to pace yourself, when to eat and drink, corner effectively, maintain speed on long and short climbs, etc.
  • performance psychology- know how to race on your own, learn to cope with internal and external stress/feedback, learn to test your limits without fear of failure, how to think when you get passed, how to think when you pass, how to deal with physiological discomfort and psychological discomfort, visualize the course and be familiar with it, etc.
  • performance physiology- know your limits; aerobically and anaerobically, power, cadence, speed, heart rate... the more data you know about yourself the better you can craft a successful race plan.
    • performing at your best in a time trial longer than 2-3 minutes requires excellent knowledge of pacing.  An ideal pacing strategy in ideal conditions (no wind, flat course, etc.) uses what's known as a negative split and that involves finishing faster than your start (when you compare the split times).  But only just faster.  In our ideal situation, you should cover the first half of the course in 50.5% of your time and complete the second half of the course in the remaining 49.5% of the time.  Its that precise.
    • A positive split is not much fun, and involves finishing slower than you start (i.e. your second half time is longer than your first half time)
    • pacing will be affected by external factors such as wind, climbs, descents and cornering and internal factors such as motivation, familiarity with working hard, pain tolerance, maintaining focus, etc.

In a well paced time trial, you should cross the finish line exhausted and gasping for breath, unable to remember your name and barely able to see straight without crossing your eyes.

Cycling is an unusual sport and very difficult for many new triathletes in that you have to be willing to subject yourself to huge amounts of physical discomfort in order to succeed, way more discomfort than running or swimming. In swimming and running, technique is so important to speed that physical failure is not reached until well after technical failure.  Cycling is a much less technical sport.  As such, it is very common to be physically exhausted and still required to combine your tactical, psychological and technical elements together in performance.

If this is your first time trial- congratulations on setting a personal record (PR)!

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