Tour de France primer: What is a time trial?

Learn all about cycling’s individual race against the clock

July 18, 2023

A time trial is cycling’s purest test.

In a time trial, riders race alone down a set course, setting off one after the other at regular intervals. The clock starts for each of them when they roll down the start ramp and stops for each of them when they cross the finish line. Out on the course, there is nowhere to hide, no other rider to draft behind. It is just each rider and their machine against the wind and the hills they have to climb.

That makes aerodynamics decisive. For time trials, racers ride special bikes and wear special equipment that is designed to slice through the air with as little resistance as possible. Every centimeter on our Cannondale SuperSlices has been optimized for aerodynamic efficiency and tested over and over again in wind tunnels. The same holds for our Rapha speedsuits, POC time trial helmets, and carbon-fiber Vision wheels.

Narrow handlebar extensions allow riders to tuck their arms straight ahead of them like ski racers. Ours are custom made by Vision and shaped to make sure that our riders sit in their most aerodynamic position without losing power.

To ride a fast time trial, pacing is crucial. Go too hard at the start or on a certain hill and you can easily max out, slow down, and be unable to accelerate again. The key is to ride the fastest speed you can maintain across the whole distance, pushing harder on the sections of course where you can gain the most time, such as uphills or headwinds, and letting off to recover on the parts where you would gain less. We use BestBikeSplit’s math and physics engine to help us plan our time trial pacing strategy.

In the Tour de France, time trials are often won by fractions of a second. To win, riders have to take every corner on the limit, racing through the apex of each turn at max speed. They will ride the fastest line across the whole course, heads ducked out of the wind. 

In the end, it still comes down to the strength in their legs. That’s the beauty of time trialing: the fastest rider always wins.

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