How to Ride a Time Trial… “The Race of Truth”
Being well-trained and strong is essential to riding a fast time trial, but there’s a lot more to it than just fitness…
Solo road events such as the individual time trial leave you no place to hide. It’s you, your bike, the road, and the clock; no cat-and-mouse with other riders, no significant varying of effort, no drafting, and no positioning within a group. In USA Cycling events, as opposed to mass-start events, drafting is prohibited.
Within sixty seconds of your violent solo start, your heart rate is usually approaching your max, and you should be well into OBLA (onset of blood lactate accumulation; the point at which you are producing more lactate than you can eliminate.) Training for a time trial will be the subject of a future article; this piece focuses on how to ride a time trial most effectively. That said, you should determine what your maximum heart rate is, and what your lactate threshold is. Once you settle into the agony of the actual race, your heart rate should be just below, right at, or slightly above your lactate threshold (LT). You may also have heard the term “anaerobic threshold (AT),” and there has been a discussion for decades as to whether or not it’s the same thing as LT. They’re not the same, but more significant is they both occur at about the same heart rate. The best way to monitor AT or LT is with a heart monitor, once you have predetermined what your LT and VO2 max are. This can be done in an athletic performance lab, and the information will help you train at the appropriate level. VO2 max is a measurement of oxygen uptake; how much oxygen your body can process. Peak oxygen uptake is traditionally corrected for total body weight and is reported in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). The highest VO2 max I had at age 56 was around 60. For comparison, a fit Greg Lemond measured a whopping 92.5 in his late-20s. A sedentary middle-aged man might measure at 35. Enough of this techy stuff until a later article, though.
Assuming you are in race shape, you have been fit properly to your road or time trial bike (Red Rock can do this; call them), you are almost ready. Show up early. Get a good parking space where you don’t have to ride your bike through gravel. Find the port-a-potty. Sign in. Synchronize timepieces. Breathe deeply. Being nervous will force you to pee many times. This is normal.
Your bike and course prep
Check out the course and the weather conditions the day before the race. If the road is typical coarse Utah chip seal, you may want to run 100 lbs. of tire pressure. On smooth asphalt (less than 1% of our lovely roads), you can run 120 to 140 lbs., depending upon your tires. You may want to skip using a rear disc wheel in windy conditions, especially in crosswinds. If the race is short; 20k, for instance; remove your bottle cages and don’t take any water. You’ll reduce weight, but more importantly, you’ll reduce drag. (I’ve seen cyclists roll to the line for a 10-mile time trial with two full 28 oz. bottles. Derp.) Camel up a bit before you start, and you’ll be fine. Consider taking a small bottle, half full, if you’re doing a 40k. Avoid making height adjustments to your bars or seat post before a race, other than checking them for tightness. Clean your chain and lube it the night before.
The shorter the time trial, the more intense your warmup. With five minutes to your start, get in line, and relax.
The most useful parameters I would display on my computer for a time trial were elapsed time, average speed, and current heart rate. I was always aware that an average speed of 25.7 mph put me on target for a 58:00 40k. If I went out with a tailwind, I knew I’d have to be over 27 mph to the turnaround to break an hour. Figure this stuff out before you race so you have a plan that transcends just “riding hard.”
Make sure you take a nature break within 15 minutes of your start. Again, make sure your watch or computer is synchronized to official race time. In the last Category 2 race I ever did, in Colorado, I rolled up to the timer and asked him if I might have missed my start time. “Not unless your name is Scarpelli,” he chortled. Missed it by three minutes.
Generally, time trial starts have people who serve as holders. Communicate with the holder. When you’re about to click in with your second foot, say “Up!” I’ve been dropped twice. Make sure you’re in your big ring before rolling to the start and in a manageable gear for acceleration from a dead stop. A 53 x 17 worked for me. Don’t start in a 53 x 25, or you’ll instantly be spun out, and in a 53 x 13, you’ll labor to get up to speed, losing as much as five seconds as you bog at 40 rpm. Stand up at the start and crank until you’re at around 100 rpm, sit and upshift to an appropriate gear. You may want to stand again for a bit. As you sit down, concentrate on settling into a groove. I would always say to myself at this point, “Okay, here we go…” Your heart rate is probably over your max at this juncture, so let it gradually come down to just below your anaerobic threshold. Don’t let your cadence go below 80 bpm, or you’ll be “lugging a gear.” There’s no shame in downshifting one gear to maintain 80-90 rpm. On flat or rolling courses, your shifts should be in one-gear increments.
Pay attention to your surroundings
Find the smoothest part of the road, which is usually the cars’ right tire track, maybe three feet into the lane. Sometimes the shoulder is smoother, but not if it’s chipseal. Find the smoothest path. I’ve even ridden many miles on the smooth white shoulder line. Be “quiet” on the bike; don’t move around or squirm. Stay relaxed and keep thinking “heart…lungs…legs.” Shut everything else down. You and your bike are a MACHINE. Keep your head up enough on the aerobars that you can see in front of you. Most time trial accidents are because of a rider hammering with their head down…into a stationary object.
Smooth, big pedal strokes
As you torque with one leg, float the other leg so you’re not canceling out your effort. Your feet should float freely in your shoes, otherwise, you’re jamming your feet forward. You may have heard that the correct pedal stroke technique is to do circles, but I don’t entirely agree. Your stroke should be circles, but with an added smooth “stomp” on each power stroke. Just don’t oppose the power stroke by putting momentary weight on the non-torque leg. Practice this.
Make landmarks into your mini-goals
See that farmhouse 400 yards up the road? Push to that house, keeping your speed up. When you get there, do you see that crossroad 300 yards away? Push to that road. Then push up that ¼-mile rise in the road, etc. If you split the race into dozens of “mini-goals,” you may find it easier to maintain intensity. And don’t daydream. In a few time trials, I found myself thinking about something unrelated to what I was doing, and I’d look at my electronics to see I was lollygagging at 18 mph with a 131 bpm heart rate. GAHHH!!
Embrace the pain
The one who can die the most times…wins. No one enjoys pain, but you can train yourself to accept it and partner with it. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not riding hard enough. Learn to enjoy that feeling you get when you’re rolling hard and your heart rate is above 170 bpm. Celebrate being a CYBORG.
Uphills and downhills
Lose as little speed on a gradual uphill as you can. If you’ve time trialed the Southern Parkway, you know this. Downshift reluctantly, and only if you can’t stay on top of a gear. You can go anaerobic cresting a hill because you can recover somewhat on the other side. Gut out the hills. And by “recover,” I mean using slightly less effort; just enough to drop your heart rate maybe 10-15 bpm to get under your lactate threshold again.
Negotiating the turnaround
Don’t start coasting too soon; maintain your speed until you’re maybe 50 yards away from the cone. Take a big, fast drink, if you took a bottle with you. Glance behind you for vehicles or other riders before turning. Don’t assume the volunteer at the turnaround is paying attention. Go past the cone from the right side of the road, and cut hard, and then accelerate back past the cone. You should go into oxygen debt again, just like at the start. Settle in for TT Part Deux.
It’s always windy
Even if there’s no wind, and you’re going 25 mph, you’re essentially riding into a 25 mph wind. If the first half of your race is into a headwind, don’t be demoralized. Just know that you have to put in a harder 1st-half effort like I had to during a 40k next to Utah Lake in 1992. I suffered at <21 mph into a 20-35 mph headwind and got to the turnaround in 36 minutes. Coming back, with a monster tailwind, I averaged 37 mph and covered 20k in 20 minutes, sometimes spinning out a 54 x 12. Be aware of conditions and think about what you have to do, before and during the race. (56:21, a Utah 45-49 40k record for three years until Dan Cooper beat it by several minutes. Thanks for asking…)
The last few long miles
Like the last five miles of a century, the last two miles of a time trial are the hardest. Time stands still. You’re tired, fed up, a rolling lactic acid factory, butthurt, and you just want to be over. Well, buck up, Sparky, the pain is temporary, and quitting is not an option. As you get within a few miles, you should be pushing over your anaerobic threshold and starting to gasp for air. You should be making ghastly wheezing sounds that you’ve never made before. Try to maintain some semblance of form on the bike and don’t disintegrate. You can endure five more minutes of pain. Maybe you can even lift that average speed up a few tenths! Push hard through the finish line; don’t coast up to it. Races have been lost by .02-second. And if you have enough left for a crowd-pleasing sprint to the line, you didn’t ride the course hard enough.
It would be wise to continue rolling for a few minutes after you cross the line, lightly, to spin your legs out. Now’s the time to drink and eat. And check your time to make sure you don’t have to contest a mistake made by the timer. If you rode as hard as you could have…and you didn’t manage to lock your keys in your car or back over your race wheels in the parking lot…it was a good day!
Written by Paul Scarpelli
How to Ride a Time Trial… “The Race of Truth”