Your First Time Trial

Article reproduced by permission of Cycling Plus © Cycling Plus and Dan Joyce 2007 

Time trialling is an ideal introduction to competitive cycling. It's just you, your bike, and the stopwatch. Dan Joyce tells you how to get started.


Time trialling is the simplest of competitive formats: a race against the clock, with riders starting a minute apart. It's known as the 'race of truth' because there's nowhere to hide, no one to draft behind; just you and the bike and the thumping of your heart. Oh, and a clock ticking.

Most events are fixed distance, being 10, 25, 50 or 100 miles. There are also fixed time events - 12 and 24 hours - with the objective being to ride the furthest you can. Courses are on public roads and are either 'out and back', using a roundabout to turn halfway, or circuits with consecutive left turns. You can take part on any roadworthy bike except a recumbent. Normally you need to be a member of a Cycling Time Trials-affiliated cycling club.

Thirty seconds," the timekeeper calls out. The starter holds you up while you clip into your pedals. Deep breaths. "Ten seconds." Your pulse is rising, your mouth goes dry. "Five, four, three, two, one..." You're off! Out of the saddle, you're powering down the road to get on top of your gear.

For the next half an hour your lungs will work like bellows. Your legs will strain on the pedals. Your nose will run. You'll be effortlessly overtaken by a skinsuited cycling machine who set off four minutes back, his disc wheel roaring like a Star Wars TIE fighter.

At the finish you'll suck in ragged gasps of air, feeling so shattered you want to be sick. So you'd be forgiven for asking: where's the fun?

Why do it?

Well, it's nice when you stop. But there is more to it than that. Once you've got your breath back, your body is swimming with endorphins. It feels good And at some primal, work-ethic level, it's satisfying to have ridden at 100 per cent capacity, to have learned where your limits are. There's a sense that you've used the time productively, having seized the day rather than let it drift by.

It doesn't matter what your fitness level is, whether you're 22 or 82, male or female. If you can ride 10 miles on a public road then you can ride a time trial. It's not like a road race, where if you fall off the pack your race is over. Since the slower riders set off first, finish times cluster together.

You'll automatically get your personal best time (PB) in your first time trial. Whether it's 31:07 or 25:12, that's your target to aim at next time. It doesn't matter what time anyone else got – first and foremost in a time trial, you're racing against yourself.

Where to ride

Time trials take place on measured courses on public roads open to traffic. Accordingly, riders are obliged to follow the usual rules of the road. Historically, time trials were shrouded in secrecy as cycle racing was banned on British roads. By riding separately, time triallists could be seen to be 'going about their normal business' rather than racing. Riders wore inconspicuous clothing and courses were named with a recondite code system – such as V415 – that's used to this day.

Nowadays the secrecy is gone, although it can still look a bit impenetrable. A time trial start will see a group of cyclists in a layby on a Tuesday evening. The course start and finish might be small marks on a kerbstone. Only a few marshals in brightly coloured vests and perhaps some fold-out signs saying 'cycle race in progress' indicate that there's anything going on. It's not like popping down to the leisure centre. Yet it's not as cliquey as it may appear, and most local cycling clubs are only too happy to see new faces.

How to race

If you want to ride more than one or two time trials, you need to join a club that's affiliated to Cycling Time Trials, the sport's governing body. There are more than 900 around the country, and membership can cost around £12 - £25 per year. The club secretary will send you a list of club events, and you can ride any of them. As well as the annual membership, you pay an on-the-day entry fee, from £4 to £8. That's local club events. Open events are bigger, attracting riders from across the region or sometimes the country. You have to register in advance for an open event and the fee will usually be a bit higher. You don't need a racing licence for either type of event; membership in a CTT-affiliated club is sufficient. If you're under 18 – the minimum age is 12 – you must have a parent/guardian's authorisation.

You can have a go at time trialling without first joining a club, because many also run 'Come and Try It' events. "The idea, as the title suggests, is that you come and try it to see if you want to join the club," says Phil Heaton, former Cycling Time Trials' national secretary. You'll need to check with your local club's secretary to find which events are 'Come and Try It'.


All you need is a roadworthy bike. That includes mountain bikes and tourers but not recumbents. If you're 18 or under you have to wear a safety helmet (an aero helmet is allowed only if it's up to approved safety standards). If the bug bites, you might decide to get an aero race bike. To begin with, a decent £500 starter bike such as the Specialized Allez or Trek 1000 will be fine. Either could be used for training or day rides if you later upgrade to a better model for racing.

Assuming the bike is at least half decent, with road tyres, the biggest effect on your speed (apart from your fitness!) is not the machine but your position on it. You make up the overwhelming bulk of the air resistance, which is what mostly stops you going faster. So don't wear baggy clothing, and make sure your handlebars are as low as they can comfortably go.

To get more aero still, fit clip-on tri-bars. Profile's Century ZB aero-bar (£35, is the cheapest. More expensive bars offer greater adjustability, lower armrest cups and better aerodynamics. To get a good fit on your tri-bars, you may need to get a different stem.

Upgrading your tyres is another way to go faster. Many starter bikes come with 25mm training tyres; they won't roll as well as decent 23mm (or narrower) race tyres, even those that come with a bit of puncture protection like the Vredestein Fortezza Tricomp (£22), Schwalbe Stelvio (£30), or Continental Grand Prix Attack/Force (£60).

Perhaps the biggest improvement will come from using a heart rate monitor because it will tell you how hard you're trying. Budget models (Sigma or Halfords) are available for under £30, and even big names like Polar and Cardiosport have models around £50. Mount the HRM to your handlebar or tri-bar where you can see it. Many time triallists like to use a bike computer instead of, or as well as, an HRM.


You don't need to train at all to do your first time trial. You'll want a base level of cycling fitness, but if you're a regular cyclist you'll have that. Nevertheless, the effort level will come as a surprise. Have a go at riding flat out for several miles, just so you know what it feels like. Use this opportunity to check that your riding position is okay when riding at full speed.

If you want to do some training, remember that any training regime is only going to make a difference over weeks, not days. Add to the frequency of your rides rather than the intensity. That's your fitness base.

If you want to get your body used to 'changing up a gear', try some basic Fartlek training. (Go out for your normal ride and after you've warmed up, pick a landmark you can see – like a tree or house – and race up to it. If it's close, sprint. If it's half a mile away, ride harder but don't flat-out sprint. Once you've reached it, ease off for a few minutes, then repeat.

Whatever your riding regime, make sure you don't do any hard rides for a couple of days before the event. Your body needs time to recover.

On the day

You don't want to race on a full stomach – but you don't want to race when you're starving either. Have a carbohydrate-rich snack, like a banana sandwich, three to four hours before the event, and drink plenty of water.

Most local events require that you arrive at least 15 minutes before the start. Build in some spare time. You'll probably sign on for the race with the timekeeper beside a car boot. The timekeeper will then hand out race numbers. These are safety-pinned to the back of your jersey, right at the bottom not high up on the back. Ask someone to pin yours on for you.

As you'll be one of the first riders off, double check with the timekeeper how much time you've got before you start and exactly where the start is. If you've got time to spare, ride down the road a bit to warm up. Riding out to the event can be a useful warm up if it's local enough, but remember you'll have to ride home, too!

Get to the start with a couple of minutes to spare. At one minute to go, you'll get in position. Make sure you're in a gear you can accelerate away in. At 30 seconds, the starter will – if you wish – hold you up. Take some deep breaths, clip into and orient your pedals.

Don't slaughter yourself in the first few miles. You need to get into the ride – find a rhythm for your breathing and pedalling that's hard but sustainable. Try not to let your mind wander. Keep half an eye on your heart rate monitor or bike computer, or count your pedal strokes for one leg (one, two, three, four) and then the other, and repeat.

Other riders will come past you. Don't worry about it. When you can see the finish, give it everything. Keep riding straight past the finish. When it's safe to do so, do a U-turn and return to where you met up before the race - not the start. Don't hang around the timekeeper or try to talk to him. He'll be over with the results shortly.

Have a drink. Get your breath back. And when the timekeeper reappears, go and find out your time. So, how did you do?

It doesn't matter what time anyone else got – first and foremost, you're racing against yourself


Article reproduced by permission of Cycling Plus © Cycling Plus and Dan Joyce 2007 Photography: Paul Smith, Warren Rossiter