What the heck is a time trial?

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Tom Owen gets the lowdown on the hurtiest discipline in professional cycling, with some expert insight from world team Time Trial champ, Alice Barnes

Earlier this year Alice Barnes helped her pro team, Canyon//SRAM, take its fifth world team time trial title at the World Championships in Innsbruck, so she’s well placed to clue us up on what a time trial is, why you should do one, and how you can train for it. We called her up to get the lowdown on time trials, both team and individual…

Over to you Barnesy. What’s a Time Trial, then?
“A time trial or ‘TT’ is a race against the clock, taken on individually or as a team, rather than a mass start like you’d see in a typical road race. Everyone posts their best time on that course, and the winner is the rider (or team) with the fastest time.

“Time trials are either individual (one racer at a time) or team, where the entire squad participates in a joint effort to set the best time – usually taken on the 4th rider from the team to cross the line.

“The courses take place out on the road on varied routes and terrains – from super short and punchy courses of a few kilometres to long arduous efforts of more than an hour.”

How does it actually work?
The time trials you see on TV usually begin on a start ramp, with an automated countdown that lets the rider know exactly when they are ‘off’. At amateur level it’s far more likely to be done in a lay-by off an A-road, with a man holding a clipboard and stopwatch counting you down before saying something encouraging like, ‘away you go’.

“You have different courses suiting different people,” explains Barnes. “A flatter, straighter course is better for what you’d call ‘pure’ time triallists. People who just go as fast as they can. Then there are hillier courses, which are better suited to more rounded riders.

“It’s horses for courses. A flatter course suits me better as I’m not a climber. But it also depends on the legs you have on the day.”

In the UK, time trials are overseen by Cycling Time Trials. You can visit their website and search for events near you. There are a range of distances and course types, from a flat 10-miler to get you started, up to epic hilly 50 or 100-milers.

What sort of rider does it suit?
A rider with a bigger build will tend to be better at time trials than someone slighter and more whippety. See the small-but-speedy Coryn Rivera (155cm) who specialises in sprints, in comparison to Canadian TT machine, Leah Kirchman, who stands at 167cm.

“The people who excel are mostly riders who can maintain good power over time. That’s why climbers like Annemiek van Vleuten, Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome are good at it – it’s a similar sort of sustained power output over a period of time.

“In women’s racing, it’s different to men’s. There is less specialisation – so you genuinely have a top group of riders who can win any race, from flat to mountains to TT.”

How do you train for a time trial?
While training for the team event helped Barnes improve her individual performances too, she says the biggest thing you can do is to spend more time on the time trial bike and get used to riding it.

“The biggest impact for my performance this year was spending more time on the time trial bike. During a busy season it’s hard to get that much time on the TT bike because you’re always road racing or training for road racing.

“If you can also increase your ability to spend more time at higher power, that is really beneficial.”

And speaking of those crazy TT bikes…
If you’ve seen a Women’s WorldTour time trial bike, you’ll know they look about as similar to a regular bicycle as a chihuahua does to a Siberian husky. You know they’re the same species, but they couldn’t look more different from one another. We asked Alice how different it feels to ride one.

“Pretty different! You use your glutes a lot more, and the different positions mean you can feel it in your shoulders. Hip flexors also take the strain, as you don’t get to stretch them as much in that really hunched-over position.”

If you’re wondering how fast a TT bike can go, Canyon//SRAM completed the 54-kilometre course on their Canyon SpeedMax machines at an average speed of 52.6 kilometres per hour. WHOOSH.

Do I need a special bike to enter a TT?
No, to enter an amateur level time trial you can turn up with any old road bike. If you find you get a taste for the particular type of punishment encountered in a TT, you can look at investing in a special TT rig. Clip-on aero bars like these go some way to improving your aerodynamic shape, without the need to invest in an entirely new bicycle.

Who are the pros to watch?
As well as a massive engine, it takes a particular mindset to excel at time trials, and Barnes says there are a handful of names in the Women’s WorldTour that you don’t want to come up against.

“Based on the World Championships individual time trial, you’d have to say the Dutch are the ones to watch / avoid!” All three podium places in Innsbruck were bagged by riders from the Netherlands, with Annemiek van Vleuten taking the top spot. “In any individual TT you look at, Annemiek, Anna van der Breggen and Ellen van Dijk are always at the top.

“In the Canyon//SRAM time trial squad this year, we all have quite similar abilities and strengths. We had Alena [Amialiusik] and Elena [Cecchini] for the climbs. Also Trixi [Worrack] has won a lot in her own right. Lisa Klein is a young rider who’s got really good individual TT results to her name. And, of course, Hannah (Alice’s sister) is pretty strong!”

And what about the big races for the season?
The Worlds is the biggest event in the TT calendar, although 2018 was the last year we’ll see a team time trial world title handed out – the UCI is scrapping the pro-team format in favour of ‘something’ new.

Other key TTs throughout the year include the team time trial at Crescent Vargarda, as well as the team or individual TT stage in the Giro Rosa each year – in 2018 there were both. Time trialling is also an Olympic discipline, with Kristin Armstrong the current Olympic champ.

Feel like giving time trials a shot? Visit Cycling Time Trials to see if there’s one happening near you soon.


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