How to ride a bike: time trials

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Well well. Another medal, this time by the diminutive Emma Pooley, who "unexpectedly" clinched a medal. Why unexpectedly when we have such a strong squad? Size matters - whilst her dimensions make for a great hill climber, descending is another issue completely as heavier folk gather more momentum and speed.

According to Chris Boardman, tech director for the squad, they worked on her technique so much so that she actually took time out of previously faster descenders, which is pretty incredible, and also tweaked the design of the bike to better suit her stature.

So what's time trialling about then?

Unlike a road race where the whole field starts at the same time, the competitors in a time trial set off at minute or two-minute intervals and ride on their own - against the clock. The rider with the shortest time over the distance wins.

The UK tended to specialise in time trials or "the race of truth", rather than road racing, for two reasons. One was the then prevailing view of professionalism - there was much easier and earlier acceptance of the professional cyclist on the continent, so links between racing clubs and the professional sport were much stronger. The clubs provided new pro cyclists and raced accordingly - with road racing. The other reason was the great British tradition of banning stuff and lunatic decision making. In an early road race, a pedestrian wandered across the road in front of the bunch and got killed... the logical decision, obviously, was to ban massed start racing. Duh!

So time trials were devised to overcome this ludicrous ban. For many years cyclists wore black alpaca jackets and trousers, looking like "ordinary" members of the public simply out on a ride, as they'd largely be on their own. Events started very early in the morning, to avoid too many eyes seeing what was going on (early starts are still the norm and actually dawn provides some great racing conditions) and all courses were published with codes - E72, G723 and so on to further confound and confuse the uninitiated.

Typically time trial courses in the UK are "out and back" - the turn being as close to the half way mark as possible so that any wind or geographic advantage on one leg is neutralised by the other. It's not always possible to get this right - one course near Tonbridge in Kent was famously known as the "Ski Slope" course as the out bound leg made use of a high slip road onto the A21 down which you sped, but didn't have to climb back up on the return.

Distances for time trials in this country are 10 miles, 25 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, 12 hours and 24 hours. OK the last two are times, but the idea is furthest in that time wins... "Getting under the hour" was the big achievement for 25 mile rides i.e. averaging just over 25mph... 

Record times in the UK are:

  • 10 miles - 17 min 58 sec
  • 25 miles - 45 min 57 sec
  • 50 miles - 1hr 37 min 21 sec
  • 100 miles - 3hr 22 min 45 sec
  • 12 hr - 300.17 miles
  • 24 hr - 525.07 miles

My first 25 mile race was held on a wet and windy race on the A24 near Dorking (I can't remember the code for this course, G something). My "minute man", the guy in front of me by a minute, was the club captain. At the start you're held by marshals, with your feet well and truly strapped to the pedals (these days clipped). John went, then it was my turn. Held up by starter officials, the countdown 10 seconds. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and an explosive effort to get the bike going, and up to optimum speed and cadence as soon as possible. Got to the T junction and turned left on to the main A24 and headed south... mile after mile, early morning in the Surrey countryside, focussing on rhythm and speed. No bunch to slipstream here - indeed if you do catch another rider you are absolutely NOT allowed to slip stream - it's not called the race of truth for no reason... Suddenly I saw John in the distance - I was gaining!

I caught John and we battled it out - neither yielding - but of course I'd already gained a minute on him... we were neck and neck into the head wind as we approach "the turn", a large roundabout... we went round and the wind came aft, we shifted up the gears and really started to motor... and it was on one of the climbs on the way back that I dropped John, I suddenly realised I was on my own... and just kept going, elated! 

Finally I saw the finish line and got out of the saddle and sprinted as best I could, down hill, biggest gear (about 105 inches I think), past the time keepers to record my time.. then thankfully, gratefully, slowed and bimbled back to the cars...

My time? I can't remember precisely, but it was about 1hr 5 mins and a few seconds, which was a pretty good result for the first event, in crap weather, on a slow course.

We did a lot of time trialling, as they were so conveniently held in the morning which allowed plenty of time in the rest of the day to... ride! Before I could drive, and if I couldn't get a lift, I'd meet other members of the club in Purley at about 4am, cycle the 18 miles to the old "Pompey Rd" course (the A3 near Ripley), ride the 25 mile race, then we'd go for a 60 or 70 mile club run! All part of a normal day...

The photo above is me riding my old fixed wheel bike on the E72, a 25 mile course. I did get under the hour, just, by a few seconds. I was the first rider for the Anerley Bicycle Club, founded in 1888, to do so on a single speed fixed wheel bike. So there.

Just to revert back to the Tour de France... there are some time trial stages in the Tour - the first day is usually a time trial. A few years ago the final stage, usually a standard road race (but not racing too hard that day), was a time trial. the main protagonists were American Greg LeMond and Frenchman Laurent Fignon, who led by 50 seconds. By the end of the time trial, LeMond had won the event by 8 seconds - it was one of the most exciting races I've ever seen!

So, another form of bike racing. Unlike road racing, which is subject to many changes of pace, consistency is key and it's amazing the speeds that people can achieve, even into their 60's or older!

Being part of a club helps, mainly with paperwork etc as team tactics don't apply so much (though there are team time trials, they are less common). Give it a go, it's easy, as long as you don't mind early mornings!