Tips & Recipes
How to ride a time trial
EF Education-EasyPost Head of Performance Peter Schep shares his top tips to help you race faster against the clock
When Stefan Bissegger rolls down the start ramp this Sunday at the Chrono des Nations, he will know exactly how he wants to ride the race.
EF Education-EasyPost Head of Performance Peter Schep has been studying the French time trial for weeks. With detailed course data, Stefan’s power numbers and aerodynamic profile, and the predicted wind and weather conditions, Peter can use Best Bike Split to determine the fastest pacing strategy for the European champ. He knows where Stefan should go hardest and where he can relax. The goal is for Stefan to come across the finish line absolutely empty, having dosed his effort across the course’s terrain to achieve the fastest speed.
“You start with a fuel tank of available energy, and you want to empty this fuel tank during the ride as efficiently as possible to get the fastest result out of the course,” Peter says.
Peter knows just how fast Stefan will have to ride to win Chrono des Nations. At 45.5 kilometres, it is one of the longest time trials of the season. Results from past years show that the winner is likely to ride between 50.5 and 51.5 kilometres per hour. That means that the effort will probably be between 53 and 54 minutes. Modern pros rarely ride time trials of that length. Besides the world championships, most of their TTs are a lot shorter. That makes pacing all the more important.
We can’t share the exact details of Stefan’s race strategy for Chrono des Nations, but Peter is happy to share some of his top time trial tips, which you can use to create a plan to go faster in your own races.
Don’t trick yourself. Your best-ever power numbers on a 20-minute climb in the middle of summer are not going to be a good gauge for what you can do over an hour on a rainy autumn day on a TT bike. When you’re out of breath and your legs are full of lactic acid from turning over the pedals as hard as you can for 40 minutes, you’re not going to be tucked into your ideal aerodynamic position unless you have spent years perfecting your technique. Your bike weighs what it weighs.
“People need to understand that the accuracy of the input is key to creating a good plan,” Peter says.
At the professional level, everything is measured. Peter has calculated Stefan’s coefficient of aerodynamic drag (CdA) at various yaw angles in a wind tunnel. He has years’ worth of Stefan’s power data from similar time trials. He has tested his lactate threshold and Vo2 max in a lab. He knows the rolling resistance of all of the tyres in his quiver and the weight of all the components on his bike. He knows how close to peak fitness Stefan is right now. He knows the predicted wind speed and direction for every kilometre of the course.
Very few amateurs have the resources to do all of that research and testing. You don’t need to. While Stefan is competing at the pinnacle of professional cycling, where championships are won and lost by hundredths of a second, Best Bike Split offers riders of all levels the same tools that Peter uses to craft Stefan’s plans. The programme can factor excellent estimations of all the metrics that our team measures into its calculations. It can estimate the number of seconds you will save if you race with aero shoe covers versus what your time would be without, but it will only be able to do so accurately if you’re honest about the effort you are going to be able to maintain for the duration of the race. Use the best data you have got, and the software’s models will be astonishingly accurate.
“I can tell you that we have been within a few seconds of Best Bike Split’s estimated racing times a few times,” Peter says.
Go harder where you can gain the most time
Start a time trial flat out and you’ll be in the red in a few minutes. You’ll then lose time trying to recover. Hit a hill later in the race, and you won’t be able to go as deep. You’ll cross the line empty, but have gone slower than you could have done, because you spent your energy inefficiently.
“In your fuel tank of available energy, you need to know how much aerobic and how much anaerobic energy you have available,” Peter says. “If you go anaerobic, you will need a significant period of time for recovery.”
Your anaerobic energy system is quickly exhausted. It kicks in during very high intensity efforts that exceed your aerobic system's capacity to deliver oxygen to your muscles. When you can't inhale enough oxygen to fuel your effort, it burns the sugar stored in your muscles directly at a much faster rate than your aerobic system is able to do. A lot of lactic acid is produced as a byproduct. If you increase your effort beyond a certain point, that lactic acid will soon flood into your bloodstream faster than your body can flush it, seizing your muscles.
You’re better to save your hardest efforts for the places en route where you can gain the most time. You can go harder on a climb if you know there is a descent on the other side of the summit where you’ll have enough time to recover, but you don’t want to be gasping for air when the road flattens out and you have to settle back into the effort you want to hold for the rest of the race, especially if the wind is blowing in your face.
“The rule that I use for Stefan on a rolling course, like we had during the first seven kilometres at the worlds in Wollongong, is that if we know we want the average to be 425 watts, we are going to roll between 400 and 450 watts,” Peter says. “That is a crazy wide range, but he will understand that if he goes fast, he needs to keep himself as aero as possible with lower watts, and if there is more resistance, it is 450. You need to set the range pretty wide and let the rider anticipate between these upper and lower limits. On the two-minute climbs we had at worlds, I limited him to 500 watts.”
The faster you go, the more aerodynamics matter. Especially at speeds over 50 km/hr, aerodynamics are critical. Races are won and lost by the ways riders hold their hands or the angles of their elbows on their aero bars. The best time trial equipment in the world and fastest aero position won’t be fast if you can’t ride them at full speed from the start of a race to its finish. Peter uses Best Bike Split to show our riders how important it is to stay focused on keeping in their aero tucks.
“I know that only small changes can impact their CdAs by more than 5%. For a pro with a CdA of 0.2, this only means a difference of 0.01. That’s 5%. It seems a tiny bit, but if you move the slider left or right, I can prove to the riders that if they lose concentration in their aerodynamic focus, 0.01 could mean close to a minute time loss over a TT for example.”
The best time trial riders will even stay aero on steep climbs. While others sit and stand and bob up and down to try to push their power through the pedals, TT specialists can ride very close to their max in their aero position. That takes a lot of practice, but can win them a lot of time where it most counts.
“They know that at any speed aerodynamics play a role. At 25km/hr, it is still pretty efficient to keep your position, so long as you can maintain pretty close to your optimum power output. Those final words are key. There are other riders who would lose more time by staying aero than they would gain, because their power output would drop significantly.”
To climb as fast as possible on a TT bike, you have to train a lot on one.
During a long, rolling time trial, you want to be putting power through the pedals the whole time. A good test of this is to look at your normalised power, which is your average power when the zeros from coasting are taken out. It should be virtually the same as your average power. That requires a much steadier effort than, for instance, a road race, which is full of lulls and short, sharp accelerations. To roll at top speed for close to an hour and have strength in your legs for the final kilometres, you have to keep your cadence up, instead of grinding over a gear at high torque.
“The target is around 95 rotations per minute more or less,” Peter says. “If it is way over 100, then you probably need to go to a bigger gear because there is an efficiency loss, but to limit muscular damage, I really prefer to have a minimum of 95.”
The best time trial riders can race at their optimal one-hour power at these cadences. You might wonder why you can’t hit your best numbers on a TT bike. Maybe you set your records on a steep climb at 80 rpm and haven’t trained enough at speed.
“There is quite a strong relation between a rider’s preferred rpm to their optimal one hour power on a TT bike,” Peter says. “That Stefan prefers a higher cadence to most climbers could explain why he is closer to his road threshold on a TT bike as well.”
Luckily, leg speed is something that you can train. Go out and ride at faster cadences with more and more power on your TT bike and you’ll soon be getting to finish lines faster.
Take the fastest line
Europe has a lot of roundabouts. When Peter first started using Best Bike Split, he had to wonder a couple of times why the software’s predicted finish time was off when the average speed it predicted was spot on. As it turned out, he’d uploaded .gpx files that took the outside lanes around roundabouts. In a race, you want to cut straight through the centre: the fastest line possible. The difference between that racing line and Peter’s .gpx routes could be huge.
“In real life, you take the shortcut through the roundabout, of course, and those roundabouts are quite big,” Peter says. “Going around is an extra 150 metres; two roundabouts is 300 metres.”
That shows how important it is to hit your line. Go through the apex of every corner. Don’t wobble from left and right across the road. It’s easy to lose your focus when you are pushing your body to the limit, but you don’t want to ride an extra metre in a time trial. How many watts you have pushed or how aero you were won’t matter if you have ridden half a kilometre further than your rivals. It’s a race, not a lab test.
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