My friend Mark, who races mountain bikes but trains on a Giant Advanced carbon road bike with our group, asked me a question last week. He said he wanted to race in an upcoming time trial and wondered what he needed to do to his Giant to go fast.
I’m sharing with you what I told Mark because time trialing is fun. It’s the easiest and safest form of racing road bicycles since it’s just you against the clock. Time trials are typically held on flat or rolling out-and-back courses with minimal traffic. A common distance is 10 miles, or at an average 20mph speed, a 30-minute effort.
Tip: Time trials are fun races for seeing what you can do. Set a benchmark at your first one and then see if you can beat it over the season. It can be highly satisfying to watch your personal record improve. And you might find that you’re good at TT’ing and competitive in your age group. It’s mostly about fitness and focus. You don’t need to be a great bike handler or tactician as you do to race group events or even mountain bike races.
Time trials are often easy to find and inexpensive or even free to participate in. You don’t need a USA Cycling license in most cases and you can usually ride any bicycle. I’ve even done a few on my antiques. Most time trials require wearing a helmet and obeying course marshals, since they are usually at the start and turn-around making sure you’re safe.
Typically, each rider is given a start time, and you leave the starting line in order of times at 30- or 60-second intervals. When you catch another rider, you continue right past them because following them (“drafting”) is considered resting and against the rules.
Some bicycle shops hold weekly time trials, so asking around or checking their sites is one way to find them. You can also check regional racing schedules. For example, here in Northern California, we all refer to the NCNCA list.
The Santa Cruz club here also runs time trials throughout the spring and summer (the record is currently held by local pro Ben Jacques-Maynes - good luck beating him!). And, we have the cancer-fighting Beat the Clock time trial series not too far away.
USA Cycling has a national Events page where I found a few time trials listed. Another way to find them is to ask your riding buddies if they know of any.
Some time trials have different categories, including one for standard road bikes without aero equipment. That’s usually called the Merckx category. Choose that if you prefer not to modify your road bicycle or gear.
If you want to go as fast as possible and compare yourself to the competition racing time trials in preparation for important USA Cycling races, like state and national championships, you need to add some wind-cheaters to your set-up.
To get started, the most free speed for the money is available with 2 add-ons, an aero helmet and aero handlebars, which are also called clip-ons. Both are available at many price points, and even the most affordable models will make you significantly faster.
They do this by putting you in an aero tuck and ensuring that the wind flows past your body with minimal drag. Be sure to practice with the clip-on bars because they put your hands much closer together than you’re used to. Also, you have no braking from the aero bars (unless you add it). So, you need to pay more attention to the road conditions and be ready to move your hands to brake.
The fun part of time trialing with a few aero upgrades like this is going faster than you may have ever thought you could go. In fact you might like it so much that you add some tall-profile wing-like wheels to your sled. Or, go whole hog and buy a complete time trial bicycle (often called tri or triathlon bikes, too).
I’ll wrap up with 4 TT secrets your competition probably won’t tell you:
1. Warm up very well, with several hard efforts and breaking a good sweat.
2. Don’t start too hard (probably the biggest mistake after #1)
3. Learn to “turtle.” Just like it sounds, this is lowering and tucking your head in and out of the wind.
4. Ride the straightest and smoothest legal line on the course, but stay safe! Most time trial courses are open to traffic. Don’t forget that.
Good luck and have fun!
Jim Langley has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for 38 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached 7,503.