Riding slowly for fifty meters up and down the farm road, I tried to push away the nerve fuelled butterflies which fluttered around my body. One or two other riders, older guys, pedaled the same loop as we waited for our individual start times. One of them had a fancy bike with a disc wheel that amplified every tick of his chain and clunk of his derailleur. He wore an aero helmet with large Oakleys shades–a mask which made him seem emotionless and unfriendly. The helmet, disc and skinsuit were the first signs of the aerodynamic arms race that would forever change the sport, as racers quickly learned they could buy speed. My tubular tires were pumped up hard enough that with a flick of the finger they pinged. A cotton cap was fitted over my crash hat, backwards, emulating the pros I idolized. A commissaire stood at the roadside with a clipboard and stopwatch in his hand, counting down from ten. Instead of one he said, ‘Go’. On the word, the rider, who was held up by a club volunteer, stood up, and with a couple of pedal strokes pushed on the pedals and pulled on the handlebars, muscling his way off the start line, which had been painted on the road. From a distance, I could hear his deep breaths and a few grunts as he got going. Soon that would be me.
In the canal beside the road which fed the sprouting farm fields, a raft of ducks paddled in circles, seemingly watching us but not really caring. Only a month before, a snowmobiler had gone through the ice. A memorial of flowers, a hockey stick, and photos had been piled in the spot where the machine went under. A black pickup truck whizzed by the start line; the driver visibly annoyed by the cyclists on ‘his’ road.
Time trialing is not just a test of physical strength but also requires intense mental focus. It is also test of aerodynamics where the rider needs to be able to develop power in a unique position. And, they must learn to competently handle the bike on technical courses in high winds in the awkward position. To be great, a rider needs to invest in practicing the skill through repetition and by focussing on the minute details, that will often create the winning margin.
A decade later, when I was warming up for a time trials in professional races, I would think of those nights, where I learned to get up to speed, find a rhythm, pace myself, push my physical limits, and discover the burn in my lungs the effort caused. As a teen I rode time trials on a weekly basis through the spring and summer while as a professional I only rode a handful a year at full speed because, as a domestique, I usually needed to save my energy to help our team leaders in the road stages. The routine of the weekly time trials I did as a kid taught me to pace myself, to dig deep, and to suffer. As a professional with fewer days of time trialing, I lost the knack.
Many of the British teammates I had on Team Sky, were dominant time trialists at the professional level. In the UK, clubs still run weekly time trials and even though my teammates were racing on the weekends at the highest level of the sport, they would return home to ride the club time trials and hone their skills. The weekday races were their testing ground where they could try new equipment and maximize their aerodynamic position while also developing their physical and mental abilities. With practice they could control the variables that would influence their performance, allowing them to arrive relaxed and confident when they raced at the professional level.
Recently, in The Hard Way podcast, top US women’s professional cyclist, Kristen Faulkner explained her approach to training, where her main goal was to work on her weaknesses, which is something many athletes find challenging as it is always training strengths is easier and, initially, more satisfying. Time trialing, for many, is a great challenge.
Across North America and the UK local time trials where everyone was welome were common as local clubs saw their benefit in growing the cycling community. Unfortunately, due to the growth of cities and automobile traffic and the dissolution of the volunteer organized events, there are fewer weekly events. But, it doesn’t mean a rider can’t create their own test course to improve.
While living in Spain, where there aren’t any weekly club time trials to develop skills, one teammate mapped out a course, prepared his clothing and bike as if he were going to a race, warmed up properly and rode the route at race speed. Riding without competition, or a number on his back shifted the mental side of the effort slightly but it was the best he could do to simulate race conditions. Some riders would even devise training courses at home that reflected those of an upcoming race.
Success in time trials comes from a combination of factors such as the ability to focus, the way in which you process pain, pacing, aerodynamics and fitness. All of these factors require practice. If you learn to maximize your potential in time trialing, the skill is transferable to other cycling events and disciplines. For any aspiring cyclist, it is an essential skill.
As the sun set and we loaded up the van with our bikes, I felt the seer of the effort in my legs. The intensity of the race left a slightly metallic taste of blood in my mouth. Riders coughed as their lungs recovered. The burn stoked a fire of improvement and confidence. Some riders milled around the start finish line chatting about their efforts. We pulled away from the canal towards the centre of the small rural town where we would stop to lick ice-creams, cooling off but still buzzing.