Today in France features one of the most beautiful events of our sport: the team time trial. There is little that is more dramatic and poetic than the sight of a smoothly operating team of riders flying down the road in perfect synchrony. Great TTT units and great time trialists hold a huge psychological hammer over their competition, because their opponents know that the TT specialists are able to go it alone and put the hurt down at decisive moments. Yesterday’s surprise attack by Columbia-HTC to split the pack is just another example of perfect TTT prowess.
The big engines of time trialists, like current maillot jaune Fabian Cancellara, also serves them well in all manner of races, as can be seen from Spartacus’s victories at Roubaix and San Remo. For that reason, we at AthletiCamps are big supporters of our athletes working on improving their ability to time trial as part of their overall program. For this article, I asked two very different individuals questions associated with successful time trialing. I consulted Dr. Aldo Sassi (Sports Scientist) of the Mapei sports center in Milan, and Judd Van Sickle (Biomechanical Engineer) of UC Davis Sports Performance and an AthletiCamps coach:
Pez: In general, how do you approach a rider who wants to improve their TT performance? What type of training do you do that is different than other forms of racing, and what is the main focus?
Dr. Sassi: My training method is based on the alternation of high torque, low cadence training and repetition bouts at the anaerobic threshold or just a bit over where a focus on recovery is also important. It’s very similar to the types of things we do off the time trial bike with of course one noticeable difference. The athlete is on the time trial bike doing the workouts.
Pez: How important is it to train in the TT position to improve TT fitness? In other words, is the TT position so different in neuromuscular recruitment patterns, that it takes time to adapt to that different position?
Dr. Sassi: Yes, I think it is very different. This is the reason why my top athletes train twice a week on the TT bike. This is not always enough. We try to approach their TT training in a way that will encompass different training intensities. The more they practice over time, the more they adapt to that position.
Judd: Pedaling mechanics, muscle recruitment and force production are all different in the time trial position. The muscle coordination and recruitment patterns must be learned and practiced to become optimized and efficient.
Pez: When doing a fitting on an athlete, what is the thought process in terms of fitting them to optimize comfort, power production, and aerodynamics?
Judd: This of course is a tricky process and takes a lot of experience and rider feedback. My first preference is power production, with an emphasis on posture and alignment, which tends to result in a relatively comfortable position. Aerodynamics is tricky without the use of a wind tunnel. Of course, I can eye the athlete in their given position and make my best assessment. I try to focus on reducing the amount of frontal area. I think it’s really important to understand that fitting is an ongoing process. You do not just fit someone, and send them on their way. It’s important to receive feedback, make adjustments, and possibly add in some field testing and really fine tune the position for maximal speed.
Pez: What is the biggest mistake you see athletes make when attempting to do time trials?
Judd: Athletes tend to try to achieve the most radical, aerodynamic appearing position they can. Lowering the stem as far as you can and forcing yourself to sit on the tip of your saddle is not necessarily the best way to go fast. Nor is lower always more aerodynamic. The right equipment can go a long way towards improving your time trial. While not as big a factor as training and an efficient, slippery position, equipment choices can make a substantial difference. Aero helmets are probably the most cost efficient investment, and wheels and fancy frames can help as well. Speaking of big mistakes, it makes me cringe to see an athlete with $6000 worth of frame and wheels overlooking the details. There’s no sense in spending that much money if you are going to have lots of cable housing flapping in the wind, or wearing gloves, or a jersey instead of a skin suit.
• I think one of the biggest things to take away is that to be successful in time trialing, you have to practice in the aero position and you have to practice a lot. There is a belief amongst a lot of athletes that you should be able to carry your fitness from a regular road bike over the time trials and be successful. There is no doubt that there are some that are able to do that, but the majority of riders have to adapt to the different position. The recruitment patters of the muscles are different with the closed hip angle created by being in the aero position. And not only do you have to practice a lot, you have to practice all intensity levels. There is a big difference between riding the TT bike easy and riding it at red line and above.
• The equipment issue. In order to be a more successful time trialist, not only do you have to make the time commitment, you have to make the financial commitment also. Most of us have limited budgets and although we are temped by the purchase of a $5K+ setup, it really isn’t feasible. What we suggest is putting your money into two areas. The wheels and the helmet. Find a less expensive frame, possibly used, that fits and then equip the bike with less expensive components. Take the time to research the right helmet and wheel combination that falls within your budget. Of course, if money is no object, and/or time trialing is the highest of priorities, consult a good bike shop and fitter and have at it. Do your research, go to local time trials and see the latest and greatest equipment in action. Ask other riders why they bought what they did and how it has influenced their improvement.
• Rider’s experience. You are your best resource. I love it when my athletes are constantly tweaking their position over time, trying the find the best combination of power, comfort, and aerodynamics. The chance you get to go to a wind tunnel (expensive) and really fine tune your position is slim. Have a friend or spouse take pictures of you in every possible position, make adjustments, practice some more and make more adjustments. As Judd stated, fitting is an ongoing process.
• Flexibility. Good flexibility is quite helpful when working on your time trialing skills. Not only does good flexibility help you become more aero and comfortable, it also helps with allowing your primary power muscles to do their thing. We can classify muscles into two groups – postural and phasic. A postural muscle’s prime job is to support our structure, while the phasic groups are to generate conscious movement. If a postural muscle that supports a phasic muscle is tight, then that phasic muscle will be weak or inhibited. For example if the psoas is tight, the gluteus maximus, which is a prime muscle for generating power on the bike, will be weakened. A good stretching program regularly followed can enhance your performance on the bike.
• As I stated in the opening paragraph, the effort you make to improve your time trialing ability has nothing but upside. Think about where being a good time trialist will benefit your overall program. If you are a stage racer, being a top time trialist will make the difference between competing for the overall or just going for a stage win, especially in shorter weekend stage races where the winner of the time trial will a lot of times win the overall. Bridging gaps to breakaways and attempting to go for the solo wins are also benefits of being a good time trialist. But I think the most important is that teaches the athletes to focus and understand what they are capable of doing at any given moment. It teaches you, from a sustainability perspective, what you can do and for how long. This takes a lot of practice of course.
The goal here is convince those who are skeptical about undertaking time trial training a reason to commit. Another goal is to address those already time trialing to learn some key elements to improve their performance. Time trialing training and competition are fun. It is a goal that is pretty much under your control and not left to chance because of the extreme dynamics of a mass start race. Add a power meter in there and you have your best training partner! Next time we will look at the act of time trialing itself and some do’s and don’ts while you are out there.
Ride safe, ride smart,
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.