Time Trial Racing Equipment

Start your engines!  Let’s talk about equipment for competing in a cycling time trial event.


If you have never participated in a Senior Games cycling event, you might be surprised to find that it is very competitive with some very serious, talented, dedicated athletes.  Here in Florida, for example, I have had the pleasure of competing against four national and two world champions in my five-year age group races. I have competed in events with five Olympic cyclists.  Unless you have the genetics of Lance Armstrong (and perhaps even then), at the minimum, you will need the proper equipment to be competitive in a cycling time trial event.


Understanding how performance is affected by aerodynamics is important, and some surprising findings were revealed through a study conducted by the MIT Center for Sports Innovation.  Most tests were conducted by MIT students—members of their very successful cycling team–using a wind tunnel.  


Here are some of the findings:


75% of the drag experienced during cycling is caused by the resistance of the rider’s body to the air.


The bicycle itself accounts for 15-20% of overall drag.


A wheel with a deeper rim than 50mm made virtually no difference for the average rider.  Note that I said “average rider.”  At the speeds attained by elite cyclists, more sophisticated wheels such as a rear disk do save seconds.


A non-aero helmet creates 4 times the drag of a non-aero wheelset.  In other words, an aerodynamic helmet is actually more important than an aero wheelset.


Proper affixing of the race number is important.


Racing with your water bottle is actually more aerodynamic than leaving it off.  Racing with your water bottle on the seat tube is more aerodynamic than with it on the down tube.


Racing with gloves causes more drag than racing gloveless.


Here are some specific time savings over a 40 kilometer time trial course based on measured data: 

  • 6 seconds saved for optimized aero position on the bike
  • 5 seconds saved for racing with a water bottle as opposed to not taking it along
  • 4 seconds saved for an aero helmet over a standard cycling helmet
  • 3 seconds saved for an aero bicycle frame
  • 2 seconds saved for using aero wheels
  • 1 second saved for cleanup details (cabling, brakes, etc)


What can we learn from the above study?  The biggest bang for the buck is finding an optimized aerodynamic position on your bicycle.  That means finding your most optimal position using your current position as the starting point.  In other words, have your position “tweaked” by a professional fitter.


One of the best examples of this is American professional rider Tom Danielson, who rides for Garmin-Slipstream, and is a past Tour of Georgia Winner.  In the past couple of weeks Tom’s position was tweaked in the wind tunnel. The resultant data showed that his optimal position was with body slightly raised, hand and forearm position retracted, and elbows widened.  Tests were conducted measuring the power output required to sustain a speed of 50 kilometers per hour (31.1 mph) on a flat road with a headwind.  Amazingly, the power required with his old (and very successful) position on the bike was 353 watts.  After the changes were implemented, Danielson required only 315 watts of generated power to hold the same speed – that’s 38 watts less than before!  In other words, for the same amount of effort that he previously expended, he can generate more power and hence go faster.


If you have the choice of spending $150 for an aerodynamic helmet versus $2200 for a rear disk wheel and front 80 mm wheel, the former choice is not only much more cost effective, but also saves twice the time of the latter choice for the average rider.


Ride with your water bottle during a time trial race.  On my time trial bike, I have only one bottle cage, and it is mounted on the seat tube for optimized aerodynamics.


 Compete with a dedicated time trial bike. 


Glue your number to the back of your racing kit rather than affixing it with safety pins.  I use Elmer’s Craft Bond multi-purpose spray adhesive.  Not only is the racing number more aerodynamic, but it alleviates the distraction of the sound of paper flapping about as is so often the case with pinned numbers. 


The absolute minimum piece of equipment which is necessary to race a time trial is a clip-on set of aero bars.  You will turn a faster time using aero bars than riding on the drops of a standard set of handlebars.


If you don’t think a small amount of time saved is significant, know that in a very important time trial race that I participated in, three of us were within 4/10ths of 1 second apart!


  1. If you want to run the fastest possible time, assuming adequate training and technique, here is what you need:
  3. A dedicated time trial bike with an expert fitting to find your optimal position
  4. A time trial helmet
  5. An aero wheel set – I race the Zipp 999 set (80mm front, disk rear) ideally with tubular tires properly inflated for the road conditions at the race venue
  6. A skin suit
  7. Booties to cover your shoes
  8. A water bottle mounted on the seat tube.
  9. Do not wear gloves
  10. Glue on your racing number


Some final words about the importance of the aerodynamics of one’s riding position:  If you were to check the power you generate riding in a comfortable, non aerodynamic position, you might be surprised to discover that you actually generate more power (as measured in watts on a power meter) in that position than you do in your optimal aerodynamic position.  The fact that you generate less power but go faster demonstrates the importance of aerodynamics, and hence proper positioning on the bike.


If you simply want to enter bicycle races with a participatory attitude to have some fun, you can disregard the above information.  If you want to “make the podium” and ideally win, you probably will not be able to accomplish that, at least in my state, unless you heed the above recommendations.  If you want a sport that “feels good,” forget about time trialing – it is incredibly painful when done correctly!  It is delightful pain however!


In a future article, I will deal with proper time trial techniques and warm-up.


Sandy Scott



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