Racing a Cycling Time Trial – Part 3

The Race


by Sandy Scott


You have completed a thorough warm up, and it is 10 minutes until your start time.  Earlier, you have checked to make sure that the start times are going as scheduled.  Prior to getting to your place in line, put your bicycle in the gear with which you will start the race. I typically start in 53-14 assuming no wind and a flat roadway at the starting line.  If you start in too low a gear, you will spin out too quickly leading to unnecessary early shifting.  If you start in too high a gear, your legs will be forced to make a harder effort than needed to efficiently get off the line.  You need to try this in practice to find your own best starting gear and then consider start conditions.  Some of the variables include an up or down slope, tailwind, fast, sharp turn just off the line, ramp start, holder or foot-down start.


I have had the experience of my chain coming off while being held for the start and pedaling backwards to position my cranks to clip in with my second foot.  Because bar-end shifters are constantly variable, it is easy to not be precisely in gear with them.  Upon completion of shifting into your starting gear, roll your cranks backwards for a few repetitions to assure yourself that the chain will not come off at the starting line.


There is a tendency for competitors to line up for a time trial much too early – a time that would be better spent completing a thorough warm up.  You will find many of them casually chatting as they await their turn to start.  You, on the other hand, will take your starting place minutes before your scheduled start.  Your engine will be well warmed up, and you will be ready to immediately commence a hard effort without shocking your body and getting needless lactic acid buildup.  You will have time to chat when you collect your gold medal.


When you are number one in line, pull your bike up to the starting line, clip in with one foot, apply your brake(s), and confirm with your holder that he or she has you securely held prior to clipping in with your second foot.  Some competitors do not feel comfortable being clipped in and balanced by a holder.  If you do not wish to be held, inform the starters of that fact as you pull up to the start position.  Place the pedal of your power leg at the 2 o’clock position in preparation for coming off the line with a powerful down stroke.  Reset your computer to zero so you have an independent measure of your time and accurate distance.   You don’t want to be manipulating anything but your pedals when you are given the “go” signal.  If you are using a heart-rate monitor, start it with five (5) seconds to go in the countdown, and get out of the seat in preparation for the release by your holder.  When the starter finishes your countdown, accelerate very briskly to get up to race pace.  A fast start is particularly important in a short time trial such as one contested over 5K.  Remember, often fractions of a second separate the finishers and you don’t want to lose the race due to poor start. 


As an aside, a study of running milers showed that coming off the line very fast in the first 10 seconds led to no more of an anaerobic state than coming off the line slower.  The same holds true for a cycling start.  Let’s assume that your planned average speed for a 5K race is 25 mph.  Remember, you are not only starting from zero, but most time trial races have a 180 degree turn at the half way point where you can lose most of your momentum.  This means that when you are looking at your computer, you had better be looking at more than 25 mph in order to achieve your planned average. 


Continue your acceleration, look down the road, and when you have reached your race pace, settle back into your seat and on to your aero bars.  Often times, your adrenalin will carry you to speeds much too fast to sustain.  I, for example, am often surprised when I first check my computer to discover that I am doing over 30 mph.  Slowly let your speed bleed off to your planned race pace.  Understand that speed can be VERY misleading in that there might be a head/tail wind and/or down or up slope.  For those of you who use power meters, wattage is the ultimate gauge of effort. 


There are many conflicting philosophies and techniques as to how to properly race a time trial.  Some coaches advise to treat the first half of the race as if it were the whole race, and then use everything that you have left to race the second half.  I don’t always agree with this.  Assuming no wind, I have found that I can achieve the best times by racing a negative split; i.e., racing the second half of the race faster than the first half.  The danger with the opposite strategy is blowing up prior to the finish.


 My philosophy of racing on windy days is a bit different.  Many racers are quite conservative when the starting leg is into the wind.  They try to conserve energy reasoning that they will make it up by going very fast on the downwind leg.  In these conditions, especially in a short race like the commonly-contested 5K at Senior Games events, I treat the headwind portion of the race as if the turnaround point is the finish line.  I know through experience that once I turn around, I will be able to still go fast on the downwind leg.  Using that technique at the 2007 Florida State Senior Games, I was able to break both the 5 & 10K state records on a day in which there was a very brisk headwind on the outbound leg, and many racers performed well under their potential. I believe in putting an extra effort into the slowest part of the course where for example there are headwinds, hills, etc.  This is where you spend and gain the most time.  You might be saying to yourself, “Great theory pal, but it just doesn’t make sense to me.”  As a retired airline pilot whose degree is in engineering, let me demonstrate my thesis using an airplane and a simple mathematical problem.


Assume that a 100 mile east/west (200 mile total) course has been marked out in the sky.  Assume that there is no wind.  An airplane flying at 100 mph enters the course flying in an easterly direction, traverses the course, makes a 180 degree turn, re-enters the course and flies the course in a westerly direction.  According to the formula of D=RT (distance equals rate of speed multiplied by time), solving the equation for T (time) reveals that the airplane took a total of 2 hours flying the 200 mile round trip.  Note that we are only counting the time on the course.  Now assume that the wind conditions change, and there is a 10 mph wind from the east.  The airplane again enters the course flying at an indicated speed of 100 mph, and flies the eastbound section of the course with a 10 mph headwind (groundspeed would be 90 mph).  The aircraft reverses direction now flying the westerly portion of the course with a 10 mph tailwind (groundspeed would be 110 mph).  The question is, did it A) Take the same amount of time in both examples to fly the round trip? B) Less time with the wind added? Or C) More time when the wind was added?


The answer is not as important as the reason for the answer.  The answer of course is “C”:  It takes longer to fly the course when the wind becomes a factor.  The reason for that result is that the aircraft spends more time flying at a slower ground speed in the headwind than it does when it is flying faster due to the tailwind of equal intensity. In other words, you are flying for a longer period of time while being bogged down by the headwind than you are when being helped by the tailwind.  Hence, the headwind has more of a negative effect than the tailwind has a positive effect.  There is no way of making that time up unless speed is increased.  If you do not expend an extra effort in the headwind, the same phenomenon will be the cause of you riding a slower time trial.  Admittedly, it is a painful, albeit effective, technique!


So, there you are racing the course:  You have settled into your aero position, you are riding at your planned race pace (or power goal), and the pain is getting a bit uncomfortable.  What often separates the winners from the losers is mental attitude and mental work.  The poor time trial rider often deals with the pain by disassociation – the rider thinks of pleasant, distracting things to get his or her mind off of the incessant pain.  The good time trial rider embraces the pain, and works at testing the limits of that pain.  You don’t have to slow down simply because you are experiencing lactic acid build up in your legs. Perhaps you can even increase your speed without suffering additional pain.  And if you do suffer additional pain, embrace it!


You must constantly be aware of your effort, speed (and/or power when using a power meter) and focus on the race.  It is vital that you constantly run checks on your position and your body.  Make sure that your speed has not slowed ever so slightly and, if it has, increase your effort to regain your planned pace (or power).  Check that your body is relaxed and that you do not have a “death grip” on the bars.  Remember, you have a fuel tank with a finite amount of fuel to use in the race.  The ideal expenditure of fuel is to empty the tank as you cross the finish line.


Excessive gripping of the bar, grimacing of the face, tightness in the shoulders, etc., all use fuel unnecessarily.  Check your knee position – they should be very close to the top tube in your pedal stroke.  The more you let your knees wander from the optimal position, the less efficiently you will be able to cut through the air.  Check your shoulder position – make sure you are not bringing them up towards your ears. Push your abdomen towards the top tube to be more aerodynamic. You must constantly monitor these things throughout the duration of the race.  Be sure you are belly breathing rather than inefficient and enervating chest breathing.  Relax! 


If the course is a technical course, be aware of your surroundings.  I personally seem to lose a lot of my cognitive skills when I am performing at a maximal effort.  As an example, at the Senior Olympics in 2007, I was sure that I was en route to a winning effort based on my pace, and the closure with other racers well known to me.  I rounded a turn at about 30 mph, turned down a steep roadway only to be confronted by barricades at the end.  I had gone off course!  I had to make a 180 degree turn, climb a steep grade only to arrive 30 seconds later at a spot that I had been doing 30 mph rather than almost zero.  Needless to say, I lost that important race.   Last year at our USCF state road race championships, I was the lead cyclist following a police motorcycle escort.  I was so intense and focused on racing fast, that when the motorcycle made a 90 degree right turn on the actual course, I kept going straight and off course.  I fortunately caught up and won the race.  I plan to attempt to think more clearly in the future!


When you reach the turnaround point, get up out of the saddle and accelerate back to race pace prior to settling back into your aero position.  It is particularly vital to make an efficient, SAFE (I have fractured my neck in a turn on a time trial course) turn in a short time trial.  As an aside, practicing turns as part of your training will be time well spent.  The barriers in the turn, officials, and cones can be quite intimidating and distracting so practice a few times on the course by rounding them before the race.  When you do practice your turns, try to simulate race conditions by approaching at race pace, not braking too soon, and losing as little momentum as possible in the turn.  This will also give you an opportunity to choose your optimal braking point for the race.


Focus on riders that started before you – try to close on them.  A technique that some successfully use is to focus on a road sign or other landmark and make believe that it is a very strong magnet pulling you towards it.  


Continue to check your pace, position on the bike, hands, face and shoulders for relaxation.  As you tire, there is a tendency to mash down on the pedals.  Check your pedal stroke for smoothness and symmetry.  By now, you are probably seriously hurting, but allow yourself a brief moment away from the business at hand to envision that championship medal and jersey that you are about to win.  Last year at the Florida State USCF time trial championships contested at 20K for my age group, the second half of the race was into the wind.  The pain was so intense that I promised my body that if it let me not blow up and win the State championship, I would never subject it to that kind of punishment again!  It did, but, of course, I broke my promise!


Here is what Dave Viney is thinking towards the end of a time trial effort:  “Over the last few km I keep repeating the mantra – I am not going to lose this damn race by a few seconds after all this pain –keep the pressure on –don’t put yourself in the position to be saying-“If I had known he was 3 seconds ahead of me I could have caught him but I didn’t know” – just assume somebody out there is within a sec of you so every second does matter – don’t give it away at the end!”


As they get tired, many racers make the mistake of looking down at the road.  If you are wearing an aero helmet, that simply places a big wind catcher (the long pointed end of the helmet) into the airstream.  Maintain your position on the bike.  Many riders make the mistake of continuously searching for a gear that “feels better.”  Find that gear that enables you to run at a very efficient time trial cadence of around 85-95 rpm, and stick with it!


At last, the finish line is in sight!  You have nothing different to do than you have been doing.  If you are able to speed up or sprint at this point, you have not held a fast enough pace.  You should have nothing left in your tank as you approach the finish line which means you were running on fumes. 


As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider and think about in order to ride an efficient, fast time trial.  You have no time to spare to disassociate yourself from the task at hand.  If you have practiced the above techniques in your interval training, they will become second nature when you race.  You race as you train.


Do a nice warm down on your bicycle, and ideally arrive at the awards ceremony in time to take your place on the top step of the podium. 


If you are competing in the typical Senior Games events, there will be both 5K & 10K time trials.  Continue to ride your bike between the events to keep your legs loose.  I consume an athletic gel such as Clif Shots™ between races, hydrate myself, and start thinking about the next race.  If you put forth the maximal effort that you should have in the first race, you might entertain thoughts of scratching from the second race.  You will find as you warm down that you will finally stop feeling like you are sick to your stomach and your lungs are on fire as many often do at the end of a hard-run time trial – especially an early season effort.


Train, plan, and race hard, and enjoy one of the most self-satisfying experiences in our sport – a well run, gold-medal-winning time trial race!


Sandy Scott

©Sandy Scott, 3/31/09


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