Time trialing, like climbing is one of those things that most riders assume that you are either good at or bad at. Either you’ve put in the training to succeed or you don’t have a chance in hell. And this is generally true. While aerodynamic TT-specific equipment will substantially improve your performance (proper equipment can save you up to 5 minutes over the course of a 40km race, or at least the 58 s LeMond gained back on Fignon in 1989), it still often comes down to the strongest rider taking the day.
The tips below won’t give you 5 minutes back or even 1 minute perhaps, but when mere seconds might separate you from a spot on the podium, you’ll want to make sure you do everything right to prevent that from happening. In the 36 tips listed below I’ve attempted to compile every piece of time trialing advice I’ve acquired over the last 15 years of bike racing. As always, if you find there’s something I missed, I’d love to hear from you. Enjoy and happy time trialing!
1) Practice your starts. Have a teammate hold you and practice doing held starts at least a dozen times before race day. They should stand behind you and hold underneath your saddle. When done properly, the holder will not push you off. They just let go. For extra authenticity, do the countdown “en Francais!”
2) Riders are generally held by a starter and go off in either 30 or 60 intervals. Check and quadruple-check your start time! Ask Pedro Delgado if he wouldn’t have liked to have back the nearly 3 min he gave up for being late at the 1989 Tour prologue!
3) For time trials with turnarounds, break at the ABSOLUTE LAST SECOND. Instead of taking the shortest line through the turn, ride straight up the right side of the road, hit the breaks, turn sharply to the left. Circle around the turnaround and get back up to speed as fast as possible.
4) Practice turnarounds during a hard interval effort to most closely approximate race conditions. Practice it somewhere safe so if you overestimate your speed, you won’t go down.
5) Pre-ride the course if possible. Do it at the same time of day as your race to get a gauge on wind, temperature and any other potential factors.
6) Tune your bike up before the race. Clean and lube the chain and check the shifting to make sure it is smooth. Remember David Millar’s front derailleur and dropped chain at the 2003 Tour prologue that gave the maillot jaune to Bradley McGee? Make sure to check your race wheels as well, especially for any cuts to the tire. When you actually put the race wheel on the bike, make sure the rear wheel is secure and not going to shift and go against your chainstays. This can be especially problematic with the hard initial acceleration at the start line.
7) Unless it is a very mountainous time trial, ride a straight block on your time trial wheel for the biggest possible gear selections.
8) Keep a bottle of Accelerade or some other energy/hydration mix with you from the moment you wake up. Hydration is essential to peak performance.
9) Eat your last big meal about 3 hrs before your event. This will vary from rider to rider so experiment with this in practice. The longer the event, the closer to the start you will be able to eat.
10) NEVER ride new equipment, wear new clothes or try out a new drink or food on race day.
11) The smoother the road, the higher the tire pressure you can run. Tubulars can be inflated to 180 lbs, but on a rough road, that means your tires will be bouncing around a lot. When your rear tire is not on the ground, you can’t propel the bike. 120 is a safe call for most tires and roads.
12) Caffeine is legal and performance enhancing. However, if you drink it every day, the effects will be minimized. Try to only ingest caffeine when you really need it.
13) When you get to the race, check the official race clock and synchronize your watch with it. Check to see if they are on schedule. Best thing of all is to have a countdown timer on your watch that you synchronize with the official race clock. Set it for the time gap between the start of the clock and your start time.
14) Get a really good warm up. The shorter the event, the longer the warm up.
15) Give yourself a full hour on the bike to warm up. This does not include bathroom breaks (of which there should be several if you are properly hydrated), snack breaks and time to pump up tires and put on your race wheels.
16) Wear knee warmers or Skins during warm up unless it is extremely hot. This provides compression causing increased blood flow and gets your muscles warmer faster.
17) Stationary trainers are best for warm ups. Don’t use your expensive tubular tire on the trainer. Bring a spare wheel.
18) Start your warm up by riding easy to moderate (zone 1-2) for 30 minutes.
19) After 30 minutes, do 4 leg openers. These should last for 3 minutes each. Over the first minute, gradually bring yourself to your threshold heart rate. This should be just below your time trial pace. Hold it there for one or two minutes and over the last minute bring your effort back down to an easy/moderate pace. Recover 5 minutes and repeat. These should be just hard enough to get your heart rate up and a sweat going, but not tax your system or require any significant recovery time.
20) Have someone at the start line to take your jacket and knee warmers.
21) Generally you should start with your chain in the big ring and an easy cog in the back. However, in practice, make sure the chain angle is not too severe.
22) Start your timer exactly 1 minute before you start to avoid last minute fussing.
23) Start with your hands in the drops or on the ends of your cow horn bars and your front leg in the 10:00 position.
24) With 1 second to go before your start, squeeze the brakes and come out of the saddle. Remember to breathe.
25) Get up to speed very quickly but do not go above your time trial pace. Aim for negative splits meaning you speed up very slightly, rather than slow down over the course of the race. In a perfectly paced ride, you will be completely spent when you cross the line.
26) Unless you have a power meter, pace yourself on perceived exertion. Heart rate can take up to 10 minutes to adjust to your effort. Keep in mind that due to the adrenaline of race day, you will be able to ride at a higher heart rate than in training.
27) Keep in mind that due to the adrenaline of race day, you will be able to ride at a higher power level than in training.
28) On rollers, you may recover a bit on the down hills and work a little harder on the up hills. It is most efficient to keep your speed consistent. Before a short hill, shift into a harder gear and power over the climb out of the saddle. The bigger gear and the low cadence will prevent your heart rate from rising too much. Shift as you come over the crest to keep your cadence from increasing on the flat or downhill, which would cause your heart rate to go up.
29) Optimum cadence for a time trial is generally 90 to 105, but you must practice this. Leg speed is the key to cycling and it is easy to train. If you can pedal smoothly at 120 rpm in training, you will be extremely efficient at 105 rpm in the race. To train this, do one interval a week building from 10 minutes to an hour with very little resistance at 115 to 130 rpm.
30) Keep your head up! Not only is it safer, but it is actually more aerodynamic. There’s no “point” in having the rear of your aero helmet sticking up high in the air!
31) Take the shortest line possible. On a closed course, don’t stick to the right side of the road when it curves to the left. Cut through the inside and save precious seconds.
32) You generally won’t need water in an event shorter than an hour, but carry a water bottle anyway. It’s more aerodynamic.
33) Count your pedal strokes or breaths to distract from the pain. If you notice you are breathing only on the right pedal stroke, alternate it to the left from time to time.
34) Use visualization during the race. I sometimes imagine I am riding in the draft of an 18 wheeler. The slip stream is just pulling me along. Sometimes I visualize a teammate riding next to me with his hand on my back pushing me forward. These exercises are usually worth a mile or half a mile per hour. Make sure to practice this in training instead of just trying to do it on race day. While you’re at it, visualize the entire race many times before the day of the race
35) Drafting is not allowed. If you catch up to a competitor, the overtaken rider is required to fall back to a specified distance (usually about 50 meters) behind the other or maintain wide horizontal separation so that he receives no aerodynamic shelter or help from the other. When passing a rider, make sure you do it authoritatively and don’t get caught for drafting yourself.
36) Start your recovery the moment you cross the line. Use a recovery drink such as Endurox or have a PowerBar Recovery Bar waiting for you in the car. Replace your race wheels and then hop back onto the trainer for a specific cooldown to enhance the recovery process.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com. To find out more about the Liquid Cycling club, go to LiquidCycling.com.