FAQs About Time Trials

Now that I’m taken Midwesttimetrial.com offline, I thought I would post some content here that people would  find of interest.  These are some of the FAQs I had on that webite.

What is a Time Trial?

A time trial is a race against the clock. Riders usually start at 1-2 minute intervals and are not allowed to draft behind other riders. Racers complete a specified (eg, 40K) and their time is measured and compared to other racers.

In most bike races, riders can draft behind each other, saving energy for when they want to attack or sprint. In these races, the first one who crosses the finish line wins, even if they aren’t the strongest or fittest rider. TTs are also known as the “race of truth”, because they are true measure of a rider’s fitness. The winner is the rider with the fastest time, not the one with best sprint or strongest team.

Eddy Merckx, one of the best cyclists in history,
TTing the “old fashioned way” without aerobars or disc wheels.

TTs play an important role in stage races like the Tour de France. There are cyclists who are strong sprinters or climbers, but they might not be the strongest overall rider. The TT basically separates the men from the boys. That’s one of the reasons that multiple Tour de France winners like Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, and Greg LeMond were so successful. They were decent climbers, but they were exceptional time trialists. If they couldn’t TT, they probably wouldn’t have won the Tour de France.

Although TTs are most often associated with road racing, they are sometimes held in mountain biking and cyclocross. These events tend to involve less drafting and group tactics, so winners are often the fittest riders. Hence, there isn’t the need for a specific race to determine the strongest rider.

Do You Need a Fancy TT Bike?

Absolutely not. For decades, racers just used a traditional road bike. The 1980s saw the introduction of fancy aerodynamic gear like disc wheels, egg-shaped helmets, and aerobars. Things went really crazy in the mid-1990s with odd looking, space-aged TT bikes. Then, the winner of the TT wasn’t necessarily the strongest rider, they were the ones with the latest aerodynamic gear. The international governing body of cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), felt that things were getting out of hand. Thus, in 1999, they altered the rules regarding TT bikes, stating that TT bikes needed to be constructed similar to traditional diamond-shaped road bikes. What does this mean? I’ll cover the rules and regulations elsewhere, but nearly all TT/tri bikes sold in the USA are UCI compliant frames.

An aero “superbike” used by Miguel Indurain in the mid-90s.  These
have since been outlawed by the UCI.

What Aero Gear Should I Get?

If you want BIG time savings, you don’t need to spend BIG money. The biggest savings come from getting the right aerodynamic position. This concept makes a lot of sense when you consider that 85% of the power you apply to the pedals goes towards overcoming air resistance and your body generates the most drag. An inexpensive route is to simply get a pair of clip-on aerobars ($50 to $100) and get a decent bike shop to help you figure out the right position (FREE to $250). Many people will experience an improvement of several minutes over a 40K TT with some minor adjustments. If you’re already there, things start to get exponentially expensive with diminishing returns. I’ve put together a list of some the savings and costs associated with them below. Please note that these are entirely based on my own research and estimations from various sources on the information. Time savings would be for a rider averaging 30 MPH in a 40K TT. I’ll cover these parts and accessories in more detail in separate posts.

Handlebars = One of the cheapest and easiest improvements in aerodynamic positioning on a bike is to add clip-on bars ($50 to $100). These will often save you about 2-4 minutes over riding in the drops. Upgrade to integrated TT bars ($200 to $1200) and you might gain up to an extra minute depending on your bike position.

An example of aerodynamic bars (made by Hed Cycling) that allow riders to get very aero.

Helmet = Helmets are mandatory in nearly all bike races in the USA. Your average bike helmet adds a fair amount of drag because of the air vents. Some people just tape over the vent holes, but you’re better off investing in an aero helmet ($100-$200). An aero helmet could save you about 1-2 minutes.

Clothing = Although your lycra shorts and cycling jersey might feel tight and aero, they’re not as efficient as a skinsuit ($100-$300) and shoecovers ($20). These could save you close to a minute over a 40K TT. If you don’t want to spring for a skinsuit, little things like making sure your number is pinned flat against your body can really help.

Wheels = The box wheels that we normally ride around on aren’t very aerodynamic. Wheels with deeper rims help reduce drag. Disc wheels cut through the wind the best. The wheel combination commonly found in TTs is a deep section rim in front and a disc in the rear ($1000-$3000). These aren’t very cheap when purchased new, but they could save you 2-3 minutes. A more inexpensive option would be to get a plastic cover for your rear wheel. These run about $50-$100 and are fairly easy to install and a good idea if you only do the occasional TT.

The famous Hed trispoke wheel used by riders like Lance Armstrong
to improve aerodynamics, especially on courses with varying wind conditions.

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