Some say that the time trial is the purest form of cycling. The rider simply racing against the clock—or as the French say, contre-le-montre. It is also known as ‘The Race of Truth’. An English saying similarly goes: “You cannot hide during a time trial.” But, just like sprinting or climbing, riding a time trial suits certain riders more that others, and it’s also an event which you can specifically train for. Then there are the bikes, clothing and riding position…but essentially a time trial is a combination of legs and aerodynamics in a race against time.

The greats and their skills

The great names of cycling are often associated with great time trialing skills: Fabian Cancellara, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Tom Dumoulin, Greg Lemond and Jacques Anquetil (nickname Monsieur Chrono), to name just a few. And it’s certainly true that you cannot win a major Grand Tour without being able to ride an excellent time trial.

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Rohan Dennis on his way to winning the UCI Road World Championships individual time trial in 2018. Photograph: Cor Vos.

Two of this generation’s top three time trial champions are from the Low Countries: Dutchman Tom Dumoulin and Belgian Victor Campenaerts. The third, and current World Champion, is the Australian Rohan Dennis. During the UCI Road World Championships men’s individual time trial in 2018, Dennis beat both Dumoulin (2nd place) and Campenaerts (3rd) by over 1min and 20secs in the 52.2km time trial. His time was 1hr, 3mins and 45secs. That is an average speed of over 50kph. For over an hour. Let that sink in.

What can we do to improve?

So what is secret of riding a good time trial? Can you train specifically for it? And what is the key? Time trialing is all about keeping the highest power on the pedals for the full duration of the race, however long that may be. One of the first ways to train effectively is to increase your functional threshold power (FTP). Simply put, your FTP is the highest level of power, measured in watts, that you can keep up for one hour. It is generally seen as a good indicator of how fit and strong you are.

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Training on Zwift is a great way to increase your FTP.

You either need a power metre fitted to your bike, or a smart home trainer in your pain cave, or both, in order to measure and therefore improve your FTP. Many of the races and training programmes on the online cycling platform Zwift are ideal for increasing your FTP—and, usefully, Zwift estimates and upgrades your FTP according to your efforts. While not 100% accurate, if you have not yet invested in a power metre but do ride on Zwift, it’s an excellent tool for training your time trial skills.

Once you get a bit confident, there are quite a few time trial races on Zwift that you can enter to see how you shape up. And as they say: one of the best ways to train for a time trial is to ride a time trial. (Protip: if you want to get at the front during a Zwift time trial, make sure you are pedalling high power a good 15secs before the clock hits zero. If you don’t, you will forever be left behind. But this is not quite the same as a race outside, where you are well-advised not to go too fast at the start.)

Time trial aerodynamics

Climbers are almost exclusively governed by power-to-weight ratios (in W/kg of body weight). Very strong, very lightweight riders always win on the climbs. But time trial riders, especially during flat races, are more concerned with power-to-drag ratios. This makes aerodynamics a critical factor in time trialing. It is virtually impossible to measure drag outside a wind tunnel (not impossible, though). Having said that, all serious time trial riders try to reduce their frontal area in order to cut through the air as efficiently as possible when riding. That’s also what the silly helmets are all about.

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This could win you some valuable seconds.

Time trial bike and helmet?

Do you need a time trial bike, and a time trial helmet? That really depends on how often you intend to ride in time trial events. If you are just starting out in time trialing, then we suggest that a pair of detachable aero bars, an aero helmet and a one-piece cycling suit are the minimum investment that you should make. And all these will make a difference to your aerodynamics on the day. Also, keep your chin out, head down and shrug your shoulders together to reduce frontal area. Practice riding like this in your pain cave and out on the road—the muscles involved in an aero position are quite specific. If you are on the road with the sun behind you, look at your shadow to see the width your shoulders take. It will make quite a big difference if you pull them in. 

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A detachable aero bar is an excellent low-cost investment for budding time trial riders.

Pacing is key

One of the most common mistakes made by riders racing their first-ever time trial, is to start far too fast. This will inevitable mean you explode around the half way point and having no fuel left in your tank for the crucial final third of the race. Riders without a power metre are inevitably at a disadvantage in the time trial: if you own a power metre and come to a race prepared, then you already pretty much know what you are capable of. You know your FTP. You know the distance and roughly what (you hope) your time will be. Then the only thing you have to do is to stick to your plan.

Another great time trial rider: former World Champion Tony Martin. His shoulders are pulled in, chin out and frontal area as small as possible. Photograph: Cor Vos.

A game of thirds

Split the race into three parts. For the first third you should actually be riding under your calculated average power for the whole race. This is incredible difficult: you have a number on your back, and are pumped full of adrenalin. It’s really tempting to go full throttle. But you are in fact foolish if you do this. Try instead going really fast, but keeping your power (or perhaps your heartrate, but this may be too affected by the excitement) at threshold level, or a little under. Gradually increase the power after the first third (measured in distance, not time). This means if the course is an out-and-back event that you should be on target power before the half-way mark.

Keep on that power level until you see yourself heading into the final third. Once you are in the final third put on more power. Try and keep a level that you can hold for that final distance. heartrate can actually be a useful indicator here. Your heartrate metre will probably tell you what’s a do-able rate and what’s insane, when you see the number it’s showing. If you can see anything through the pain and snot, that is.

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Laurens ten Dam at the Tour de France in 2015. He is not known for his time trial prowess, but he is know for giving everything he has got. Photograph: Cor Vos.

No pain, no gain

Time trials are extremely painful. They take you to the limit of what you can do on a bike at a constant power rate. They are a great way to test yourself as an individual rider. And you will always ride that little bit harder if you have a number on your back—if you get addicted (like this writer) then by all means buy a time trial bike and enter events regularly. If you are willing to put in the training (in the time trial riding position) you may discover the race against the clock is your true calling. Or at least a great way to train for making a breakaway from the peloton, or your group of friends. Time alone will tell.