The New Addiction: Time Trialling

Having joined local cycling club Witham Wheelers at the end of 2014, the next progression having joined them on several cafe rides and their Reliability Rides (the same idea but without the coffee stop) was to take part in their weekly time trials. The staple diet of many British cyclists for generations, the once clique, at times secretive (codes for courses) is now happily a much more all embracing pastime, which sees riders of all shapes, sizes, and abilities compete against others, but more importantly, themselves and their previous best efforts.

Witham Wheelers has a summer time trial league, mostly consisting of a weekly 10 mile TT on a rolling course shaped roughly like a drunk stick man. In a world far removed from running, where the only real requisite (for a man) is a pair of trainers (Which can be as cheap or as expensive as you desire, it makes little difference as long as they fit and suit your running style – if you believe the experts) cycling and, in particular time trialing, is a discipline where money can buy you fancy kit and the fancy kit can earn you free seconds, perhaps even minutes. On display at any club TT are a dizzying plethora of aero bikes, aero bars, aero helmets, aero wheels, aero bottles, skin suits, shoe covers and more. It’s a discipline where aero drag is the devil and plenty of power too is a must.

Ten miles on a bike may seem a simple proposition, but when you are racing contre la montre, and you are an instinctively competitive animal, it is as tough as any running race – in some ways harder. The pain is different but it is a painful pursuit. And I am addicted.

My first foray in time trialing was a brief dalliance back in the year 2000 when I was a Leamington CC member for around six months. I took part in two or three of their time trials on the Fosse, raising a few eyebrows with my mode of transport – a mountain bike, and attire – trainers, baggy shorts and, for my first effort, a cotton t-shirt with Kermit the Frog all over it. I think I was not far from last on the flat time trials, but I caused a minor sensation when later in the summer on the hill climb TT at Edge Hill, aided by the purchase of a cycling jersey and shorts, I pedaled my mountain bike up the hill in a time good enough to take third place. The efforts merited attention of the club newsletter (Promising newcomer I was crowned) and there were even mutterings of banning mountain bikes for hill climbs as they could be construed as having an unfair advantage with their more generous compact chain sets.

Over the winter I had a couple of worrying crashes on my commute to work. I then changed jobs which meant long hours and a long commute and cycling all but disappeared from my training regime for five years. In late 2006 I bought my racing bike I still ride to this day. I used it to ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats, took part in a couple of sportives and a duathlon, but was sparingly used for many years until the end of 2014 when I joined Witham Wheelers.

The bike cost me £1000 which I considered a small fortune for a bike. I now realise there are people I ride with whose wheels probably cost twice that amount. The plan is to upgrade, but for the time being I’m making the most of my slightly overweight, slightly inefficient machine and using the most of my limited financial resources to make marginal gains in other areas.

For my first TT I knew I needed a pair of aero bars. I researched long and hard and purchased literally the cheapest ones I could buy. They are very simple, prone to a little movement unless I tighten them a lot, but for short rides they are doing a decent job of getting myself into a reasonable aero position. I was pretty nervous at the start line, barely able to clip myself in properly despite being firmly held at the start. I shot off and pedaled as hard and fast as I could. Four minutes in and I was shattered, heart rate sky high and with that horrible dead feeling in my legs. And that was on the downhill section! The rest of the ride was a lesson in how not to time trial – unable to sit in an aero position, legs full of lactate, and I came home in 27:25, claiming 22nd position and one precious point. Not as terrible ride as I thought, but there was over four minutes separating myself from the winner.

First Witham Wheelers TT – showing less than optimal aero position.

The second TT I thought I’d be able to easily go quicker by just knowing the course, but was not willing to give it everything as I had a half an eye on running the London Marathon that weekend. I was though a touch disappointed to see I’d managed to go seven seconds slower. This prompted hours of research on the internet on learning good TT technique and, more importantly, the cheapest ways to earn ‘free time’ in the form of aero enhancements. I stumbled upon a website which, although based on an elite rider, gave a good indication of where I should prioritise my budget to get the best bang for my buck. Aero bars came first, followed by skin suit, aero helmet, and shoe covers.

I had the (cheap) aero bars covered. My cycling jerseys are all fairly baggy – a penchant for loose fitting running clothing carried over into cycling. Two days after running the London Marathon I couldn’t face running so thought I’d give the TT another chance. I purchased the closest I can get to a skin suit for now – a Witham Wheelers club jersey, which was a long overdue purchase. Going against my instincts to size up, I got a small which just about fits and certainly doesn’t flap around in the wind.

I then went against all best practice when testing kit for aero improvements – I changed another variable. The previous two attempts at TT’s I’d ridden fairly high cadence – averaging 93 and 96 rpm. Because the legs were pretty worn out after the marathon I tried the old school approach of grinding out a big gear in warm up. Instantly I saw that the pace was as good, if not better, than when I was spinning frantically. I could also stay in the aero position more comfortably with the bike more stable.

So I rode the TT in blustery conditions, riding as best I could with the legs in the shape they were. Whether it was the power (or shape) of the jersey or the change in cadence, against all the odds I rode the course 22 seconds faster than I’d previously done, coming home just outside 27 minute (27:03). As less people had turned up in the windy conditions, I was pleased to finish eighth. It was a pleasant surprise that left me wondering if I should run a marathon every Sunday.

Spurred on, I scoured eBay for second hand aero helmets – the next investment in the pursuit of speed. To my surprise second hand helmets were selling often for not much less than new ones, which ultimately made me opt to go for the piece of mind of purchasing a new one. I went for a Lazer Tardiz in golf ball white – on sale at nearly half price at the wonderfully named Fat Birds (Don’t Fly) cycle shop in Hunstanton. I splashed out on the plastic cover which blocked out the vents when it wasn’t warm enough to merit having them. More seconds saved, perhaps.

The Aero Helmet

Last week I didn’t get to try out my new purchase as gale force winds meant all but the most resilient turned out to ride. I hate strong winds so plodded off to Grantham Running Club for a hills session instead.

Yesterday though things were better. It was still windy enough to be less than ideal, but not, in my opinion, dangerously so. Looking distinctive in my new aero helmet (My two year old daughter called it the airplane helmet) I set off for my fourth effort at the Witham Wheelers 10 Mile TT. My warm up was less aggressive than in previous weeks. Going off number 18, I pfaffed around in the final minutes debating whether to wear arm warmers. With two minutes to go I decided to wear them; with a minute to go and called to the start I decided to tinker with the settings on the Garmin. I finally got my feet in the pedals with around 15 seconds to spare.

The TT began into the wind. Settling briefly into the tuck I immediately noticed the difference the aero helmet was making – I reckon around 2-3mph over the short stretch to the first left turn. The run down to ‘turn one’ was aided by the wind and with the chain in the lowest gear I ground out a super low cadence – probably too low – as I hit 31mph approaching the first hairpin turn.

The Strava segment suggests I took the hairpin quite well. I then faced the reality that the wind had aided me quite a lot as it was now full on in my face and the long drag back was interminably hard. Head wind and 1% gradients are probably my least favourite cycling conditions and once again I lost time. I picked up a bit as we passed through Hungerton and the wind became more of a cross head wind. The long drag the second hairpin took an eternity. All eyes were on the average speed. I knew that if I made it to the hairpin at >21.7mph I was on for a new PB. I clocked 22.0mph as I turned back on myself. Invigorated I settled back into the tuck position and ground the big gear as best I could.

Once again the final mile and a half saw me flag a little. It’s going to take a few more weeks before I have the cycling legs to give it full beans for the full ten miles. Spurred on though by a possible new PB, I pushed hard to the line, shouting out my number and stopping my Garmin. 26:34! Thirty seconds better than last time. The power of the aero helmet! I knew too that my official time would be quicker, and so it was (26:29). What I hoped I may be able to achieve come the end of the summer I’d managed at my fourth attempt.

I was so happy I rode home and tried a brick session run. That too wasn’t a disaster. After a tough first half mile I settled into a steady, if little ponderous rhythm to clock a sub 22 minute 5k.

Thoughts already turn to the next time trial and where to extract more time at minimal cost. Working on optimum cadence is probably key, then working on getting a good tuck position. All good fun, and so far not too expensive. But I am looking at bikes on Ebay…



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