Effective Time Trialing

By Karen Brems, Masters World Cyclocross Champion 

In my opinion, time trialing is about 85% legs and lungs, 10% brain and 5% equipment. To train your legs, you need to do intervals of varying distance on a relatively flat or slightly rolling road (I use the Portola Valley Loop a lot), in your TT position. Time trialing requires both speed and endurance. To build speed, you need short intervals of 3-4 min. well above your race pace. and 5-10 min. intervals at or slightly above your race pace. To build aerobic power, do longer (15-20 min) intervals right around your anaerobic threshold (slightly below race pace). If your goal is to break an hour for a 40km TT (25mph) then try to work up to 3-4x15 min. @ 23.5 - 24mph. Do 8 min. intervals at 26-26.5 mph. Go 3 min. at 28mph. These are very difficult workouts if done correctly, so you need to be sure you are relatively fresh when you are doing them and recover afterwards. The rest interval should be such that you are recovered enough to put in a good effort on the next interval - roughly equal to the work interval when above threshold, 8-10 min for the long intervals.  A good way to gauge improvement is to do intervals of fixed distance and time yourself. Find a stretch of road that takes you approximately 5-10 min. to ride and time yourself on repeats on it. I used to do laps at Mission College for TT training. You also have to have a very good base fitness level before you start these. Motorpacing can also be an effective way of training for time trials, but it is difficult to find a driver and a place to do it. You can do things like 5 min. on, 10 min. off or 10 min. on, 5 min. off all behind the motor. You can also have the motor go a fixed speed, slightly higher than your goal race pace and alternate sitting behind it and coming around and riding next to it. As in all interval training, the shorter the interval, the faster you need to go for it to be effective. It is supposed to hurt!

To train your brain, you need to do a lot of time trials. You have to figure out exactly how hard you can go for a given distance. It is usually harder than you think! You should finish a TT with nothing left. If you can sprint at the end, you probably didn’t go hard enough. You are better off spreading that “sprint energy” over the last few km. A heart rate monitor is very useful here. Some people don’t like to watch their heart rate in a race as it can limit you. This is where a computer downloadable model is nice. Personally, I like to watch my heart rate during a time trial to make sure it doesn’t drop. I’m not afraid if it goes really high because those are usually my best time trials. Also, on a hilly course, you can make sure you don’t blow yourself up on the climbs. You do have to blow up sometime either in a race or in training because you will never find your limits unless you exceed them. When I have a good TT, my heart rate will settle in after about 5 minutes and remain constant within a beat or 2 until the last 1-2 km where I will take it up another 5 beats or so. When I am fit, I can time trial about 8-10 beats below my max. heart rate, which is well above my AT. There are conditions that will affect heart rate: in extreme heat, it will generally be several beats higher than normal and if you are fatigued, such as in a stage race time trial, it will be lower than normal. You also have to learn to maintain concentration for the entire duration of the race. This is where doing practice time trials helps. These can be relatively short - 15km - 20km.

You should also practice starts and turnarounds at least once or twice. If you have an opportunity to see the race course before the race, look at the turnarounds and ride them if possible on the bike you will race on. At least be certain where they are! Time trial bikes handle much differently than a road bike. At world’s in ‘94, there were 3 turnarounds and I did them all at least 3 times on the day before the race. You can easily loose a couple of seconds in a turnaround.

As far as equipment goes, in order of importance (and price) you should get:

1. Aero bars

2. Fast wheels: a rear disk and an aero front wheel (such as a Specialized Tri-Spoke, Spinergy, HED Jet, Mavic Cosmic etc.) is the fastest combination. A regular spoked front wheel with few spokes (18-24) is a good (and much less expensive) substitute.

3. A TT bike.

The biggest advantage of a TT bike is you can get a better position. It is very difficult to get low enough on a road bike. Time trial bikes with short head tubes and long top tubes top tubes make this possible. If you time trial on your road bike, you should lower your stem as much as possible. If you have an old road bike, you can set it up as a TT bike using a Look ergostem to get lower. You may have to move your saddle forward to avoid hitting your knees on your chest, thus requiring a longer stem. You can also put shifters on the aerobars which is a big advantage on technical, hilly or windy courses. Reaching down for a shift lever is very un-aerodynamic. Also, you will shift more often if it is easy, thus spending more time in optimal gears. Many people also use longer (by 2.5mm - 5mm) cranks and a bigger chain ring for time trials. On a flat time trial, weight is much less important than aerodynamics. (Most time trial equipment is fairly heavy.)

It is important to train in the position you will race in (save the fast wheels for the race though). You have to be comfortable on your aerobars. At the very least, put clip-ons on your road bike for your time trial workouts.

Finally, pay attention to details. Look at how your cables and computer wires are routed. If you have long hair, braid it or tuck it into your helmet. Wear a skinsuit. Buy or borrow a TT helmet if you can. Use shoe covers. Remove any extras from your bike such as water bottle cages. I used to carry a water bottle in TTs, just in case, but I found that even in a 40km TT, I never drank anything and it disrupted my breathing too much if I tried. Use lots of pins to make sure your race numbers are secure. Both Rebecca Twigg and I sewed our race numbers on our skinsuites at World’s.

In many cases, time trials (and stage races) are won and lost by only a few seconds. In ‘93, in the final 14 mile TT at PowerBar, I beat Eve Stephenson by less than 1/2 a sec.! Likewise, backing off or losing focus for even a few pedal strokes can cost significant time. Every pedal stroke, you have to ask yourself “am I going as hard as I possibly can for this distance?”