A Demographic Time Trial

If time trialling continues in the format that currently exists in Scotland (and the rest of the UK), predominantly older men competing, using busy, main & trunk, or dual carriageway roads, it will eventually create its own demise. If we start changing things now & re-invent time trialling, Scotland could have one of the most vibrant, relevant & modern time trialing scenes of anywhere in the world. Making it feel safe, accessable, & relevant to youth, junior, under 23 & female riders is going to have a much wider appeal. Resulting in a younger demographic & the removal of the time trialling stereotype among other disciplines, that of the fat old man of cycling, stuck in his ways & entrenched with out of date ideas. This blog is going to upset a few people (it maybe has already), but if we need to change cycling for the better we need to take an honest look at exactly what we’re dealing with, Scottish (and UK) time trialling has to change the most, but its the discipline where that change is going to be hardest fought.

Where are we now?

We have Scottish senior individual time trial championships at 10miles, 25miles, 50miles, 100miles (If anybody considered it in any way relevant & organised one in Scotland, we’d have a 12 Hour championship too). Along with that there are the much more ‘future friendly‘ championships of the Hill Climb & the Team Time Trial, I’m going go leave those alone for now, I think they are sustainable.

Unless you’re in total denial, you will know for a fact that we have lost a great number of time trial courses over the last 25 years. If you consider that the prerequisites when choosing these courses are that they have to be fast, i.e. high traffic flow, good surface, as flat as possible. Then you consider that we live in Scotland, which isn’t exactly renowned for being all that flat, or having that many great surfaced roads, you can see that the English time trial model isn’t really something we should have adopted all those years ago.

Demographically, time trialling is mostly middle-aged & old men, there are a few bright young stars taking part, but they are few & far between, almost everybody has a ‘V’ next to their name. This isn’t the environment that attracts new riders, perhaps some people start watching time trials at le Tour & get inspired, but the reality is quite different, nobody watching, buzzed by fast-moving traffic & having to negotiate a roundabout by moving into the outside lane in front of 70mph vehicles, a different sport from that we see on the TV.

Imagine the scenario, a 14-year-old youth rider wants to get into cycling because he sees Bradley Wiggins looking incredibly fast in a time trial, his parents encourage him to “join a club” and they look on in horror as his first event is on the Westferry Course, which is essentially a continuation of the M8 Motorway, after club riders were telling him he’d do a fast time, as if that was more important than relevant performance against his peers. That’s one kid lost to the sport & a very bad reputation spread among other parents about what cycling is all about (I’ve seen a letter from a very angry parent regarding a very similar situation, I had to deal with this as a club secretary & I agreed with everything the parent said). We need to change this, we’re not acting responsibly if we try to seek out these courses, we require a very much more realistic approach in order to help time trialling flourish & become relevant again.

When you look at how many of these longer courses are left to use compared to a few years ago, if we don’t address the issue now, we’ll be 10 years down the line & wishing we had set up an alternative modern approach, rather than trying to do it in a mad panic.

What could we do? : The ’10’

The ’10’ is a much easier event to keep, it’s also relevant to road & track riders too, it’s roughly the length of a ’20 minute test’ which many riders use to estimate their functional threshold (I prefer a ramp test), so it’s very relevant to anybody training scientifically with power. There are lots more choices for suitable courses, finding 10 miles of flat road is much easier than 25, 50, or 100 miles.

What could we do? : The ’25’, ’50’ & ‘Olympic’ style TT’s

If we look at placings on the ’25’ & ’50’ especially, we can probably predict who is going to win the other by looking at the results, both are physiologically very similar. If you look at who wins what is called the Scottish Time Trial Championship (or Olympic Time Trial Championship), the podium of that looks very similar too. So we have three events of a very similar physiological ability, that seems a bit odd to me, so why don’t we just have one, the one that can be held on our lovely Scottish roads away from heavy traffic? We can let the veterans have their own ’25’ title if it’s really necessary, but the rest of the sport has to move on & stop hanging onto the old imperial view of what time trialling is, otherwise just keeping irrelevant championships to appease the dinosaurs is going to be detrimental overall. (There’s an argument to allow the dinosaurs to do their own thing, as CTT/RTTC down south & let the sport modernise & progress without them)

So, given a free rein, I wouldn’t intend keeping the 25 or 50 mile time trial championships, replacing them both with the more manageable ‘Olympic’ style course of a similar distance (this will have every dinosaur reading this boiling by now, if you hadn’t realised you are one until now, this is your wake up call). This is much more relevant to something like a Tour TT, a Worlds TT, the things people see on TV, we can set them in stunning countryside, the Meldons & Trossachs are recent good examples of this. It also helps us find the talented riders at these events, rather than the ones who had the best day, or were brave/stupid enough to ride as close to the passing traffic as possible.

Where are we now? : The ‘100’

I would have other plans for the ‘100’, it’s popularity is on the decline, but in reality it could be one of the most popular events if we think a little differently. People travel from far & wide to ride Sportive’s on our wonderful roads, they could ride the Scottish 100 mile championship time trial on similar roads, we could have hundreds of riders taking part over a day. Riding 100 miles is a huge challenge to many riders, I think this could revive the distance, numbers are way down in its current format (see below). We either radically change it or watch it disappear very soon, like the 12 Hour has, the 100 in the flat-road format IS next to go, then the 50 if nothing changes. So lets change things now, we’ll be upsetting 20 or 30 riders by choosing a scenic 100 route, we may be delighting hundreds. There are lots of routes which require very few marshalls, we have the roads, people want a challenge, riders can say they’ve ridden a Scottish championship, what’s not to like? Organisers could even get creative & run it as a point to point event & put some buses on the next day, keeping riders in the area & developing good community relations with councils, hundreds of people staying in the finish town having achieved a 100 mile goal, the B&B’s, guest houses & pubs would be full. Cycling doesn’t have to be anti-social & early in the morning, it can be part of a community event & part of helping tourist areas survive out of their regular season, extending it by a week on either side. Glasgow to Oban? Aberdeen to Aviemore? Ullapool to Skye? If we start thinking away from ‘fast’ & ‘flat’, suddenly our least marketable time trial distance becomes very marketable.

  • 2009 Scottish 100 Mile TT Championship finishers: 29
  • 2010 Scottish 100 Mile TT Championship finishers: 27
  • 2011 Scottish 100 Mile TT Championship finishers: 24
  • 2012 Scottish 100 Mile TT Championship finishers: Can only find 10 finishers listed!

Whatever last years finishers may actually be, this event is obviously dying, without a drastic change in format it WILL go the same way as the 12 Hour, I can’t see it lasting another two years as it is.

Recommendations

So here’s my potentially unpopular recommendations, but I know many agree that change is required, the resistance to change from the dinosaurs will be incredible, bitter I expect, but it requires radical change or there won’t be time trialling in the near future. It’s up to you to put your ideas forward, publish them, send them to SC, do whatever, but get your ideas out there or time trialling will collapse in the next few years.

Senior Championships

  • 10 Miles: Keep this event as it is, but get a bit more creative about choosing safe courses, they don’t need to be traffic assisted, it’s placing that count in a championship, times are irrelevant.
  • 25 Miles: No requirement to keep this event. Was once ‘blue-riband’, is now a broken rich tea biscuit.
  • Olympic Time Trial: Keep, a distance of between 40km to 60km, but cannot be run on standard distance non-sporting courses.
  • 50 Miles: No requirement to keep this event.
  • 100 Miles: Keep the event, but radically change it, use a Sportive style scenic 100 mile course, one which people will want to ride in large numbers, this is what Scotland does best.
  • Hill Climb: Keep this event.
  • Team Time Trial: Keep this event.

Youth  & Junior Championships

  • 10 Miles: Keep this event.
  • + 2000m (Youth) & 3000m (Junior) road time trial. This allows the riders without access to a track to measure themselves against other riders without having to learn to ride the track, we could identify a lot of talent from the Highlands in this manner, a ’10’ may not show how good they are at pursuiting.

The ‘New’ Time Trialling

The above is a series of ideas about what could happen to an ageing race scene with a few changes. But it will require an appetite for change, which could be the major stumbling block, as those clubs with a high interest only in  time trialling are generally the least progressive & modern of the clubs we have in Scotland. Many clubs have plenty of time trialling interest, but also have others regularly competing in different disciplines, these are a totally different case, I’d go as far as calling multi discipline clubs ‘vibrant’. The resistance to change is less likely to come from there.

I can see this post causing some debate & some old school feedback/ranting. But without change, the loss of courses will continue as traffic volume increases. We will have to deal with it at some point, it’s best to have that plan now, implement some of it & prepare ourselves to welcome some of the new riders into an area of the sport which should be assessable to all, not just old guys on five grand bikes. Time trialling isn’t dead, it just needs a younger & more diverse audience, the current format cannot achieve that, a bit of creative thinking & some changes certainly can make it a huge & forward-looking area of our sport. We’re in a demographic time trial in this discipline, we need a new course.

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Breaking Wind

I’m often irritated by reading some very uninformed & aggressive forum trolls ideas on what makes riders fast in a time trial, the bit that bothers me most is the complete lack of understanding of aerodynamic theory. This isn’t too hard to grasp, at it’s most basic, something small creates less drag, while something big creates more. But it gets complicated when we start looking at cross-sectional area & body lengths, here’s some busted myths…

I don’t go fast enough to use any aero kit.

Aye you do, even if you’re ground speed is low, you most likely race in winds blowing faster than you can ride, so you’re combined air speed is at a significant level where small aero advantages will make a big difference. It’s all too often you see riders off their aero bars while riding into a headwind, this is the worst thing you can do, this is precisely the point that you need to be the most aerodynamic, regardless of your overall average speed.

Get aero in a headwind, think about air speed rather than road speed for aerodynamics.

Why are pro riders going faster in time trials when they lose weight?

It’s not hard to understand, a smaller object requires less power to travel through air at the same speed as a larger object. A larger object has more wind resistance. So if we take one ‘sample rider’ weighing 80kg, then reduce his weight to 75kg, will he be faster on the flat? The answer is undoubtably yes. But you’re now thinking that it only counts if a rider reduces that weight as fat content, incorrect. The rider can reduce the weight as a mixture of fat & muscle, making their limb & torso cross sections smaller, while not reducing their overall fat percentage, here’s how.

Lets say this ‘sample rider’ is pushing 400 watts during a time trial at 80kg, 400W isn’t too much in muscular terms, but it’s a lot in aerobic terms. Your average skinny youth rider is perfectly capable of producing a wattage much greater than this in a sprint, so that in itself displays the required muscular physique to produce over 400W. So if our ‘sample rider’ reduces their weight to 75kg (for example if they were already at a very low body fat percentage), then they have lost 5kg but still have plenty of muscular power left to produce the required wattage.

Aerobic power output does not require big muscles, smaller muscles have less drag, an endurance rider can lose muscle and still go just as fast aerobically. Similarly, if you’re a chubby cyclist, you could record some much better results from eating less cakes & drinking less lemonade.

If I go as low as possible, I’ll be quicker?

Also not true.  As the hip to torso angle decreases, so does power generated, so a rider who’s front end is crouched as low as possible is losing power in that position. This results in a play off between power & aerodynamics, something that is going to be very hard to replicate unless you have access to the measurement resources of a pro rider, so you’re going to have to estimate it yourself. There’s also going to be physical limitations here, Jonathan Vaughters has said that his pro rider, Dan Martin, has bad hip flexion, so will be unable to attain a very aerodynamic time trial position, potentially ruling him out of winning grand tours with a large amount of time trialling in the future. There’s also the physical limitations involved here, get too low and your thighs will start to hit your ribcage. It’s all about finding a ‘sweet spot’ that is correct for you as an individual, a compromise between aerodynamics & power generation.

Low isn’t always best, everybody is different, so it’ll take a bit of work for each person to find their optimum position, don’t try to copy somebody else exactly, but certainly take some tips from photo’s & videos of pro’s with a similar body type to yourself who have access to wind tunnels.

I can go just as fast as somebody else who weighs the same as me with the same power output.

Maybe you can & maybe you can’t, some things are just down to genetics. If you are the same weight & height as somebody else, but possess a longer back & shorter legs, you may have a lower aerodynamic drag. A simple rule is that longer objects along the direction of movement through air cause less turbulence, so a rider with a long body like Wiggins for example has a genetic aerodynamic advantage, he has short arms relative to his size and can also tuck those away easier as everybody has to conform to the UCI positional rules which advantage & disadvantage certain body types. So if you have access to a power meter, you may be able to find your optimum position by doing some field testing, but it has to be very closely controlled, likely impossible to do the estimates on different days, or even different conditions on the same day, a very subjective & complicated area to step into.

A time-trial bike is quicker than a road bike.

Again, this statement isn’t true in itself. The statement should be, ‘a correct position on a time trial bike is faster than a correct position on drop bars.’ I’ve been really shocked by the awful positions of some riders on tri-bars from early season Scottish race photos, some actually assuming worse positions on tri-bars than holding the tops of the bars, yet they assume they are ‘aero’ as they are using aero kit. What people forget is that aero kit in itself isn’t aerodynamic as such, it is used as a tool to get YOU more aerodynamic. You can spend all the money you like and bolt on all sorts of stuff, but without some thought & correct positioning, you could be better off without it.

Spend some time to get your position correct, don’t just bolt on kit & hope for the best.

A constant heart rate gives the fastest time.

As far as heart rate goes, it’s a historic measurement, it measures the effect on your body of what you did to it a few minutes ago, so in short time trials it is virtually useless for the first few minutes until you reach a plateau. At that point, if you encounter a headwind and you maintain the same speed, your heart rate monitor will tell you all about it, just a bit too late. Another effect is something called cardiac-drift, where your heart rate rises over time with a constant power output, so if you maintain a constant heart rate over a time trial, your will be producing less & less wattage as time goes on.

Heart rate isn’t an ideal guide to riding a time trial, but can be used wisely if you’re aware of its limitations.

A constant power output gives the fastest time.

You’ll not be happy about this if you’ve just bought a power meter & you think that if you find your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) and ride at exactly that then you’ll produce the fastest time possible, that’s not what will happen.

Every race will have slightly different gradients, slightly different wind conditions, different weather, traffic etc, there’s plenty of variables. It’s been shown that if there is a small hill with a subsequent small descent, then it’s best to power over that slightly and recover on the downhill (you’ll always find it much harder to maintain high wattage downhill, so it’s almost an enforced rest). It’s also been shown that the differences in power outputs when riding in a tailwind are much smaller relative to the difference in speed you gain, so shoving out a load of watts in a tailwind won’t necessarily gain you that much time. The opposite is true in a headwind, where large time gains can be gained through smaller changes in wattage.

So for those using power meters there are some very specific strategies you could use to achieve the fastest time possible by varying your wattage throughout your ride depending on gradient & wind conditions. An absolutely constant power output is never likely to give you the best result, it’s worth experimenting to see what works best for you.

Aerodynamics is irrelevant when climbing.

Take the Tour of the Campsies time trial as an example, the fastest riders can be seen climbing ‘The Crow’ on the tri-bars, Arthur Doyle is a prime example of this, look over some recent photo’s if you don’t believe me. If you require heavier aero kit for the rest of the ride, you may as well use it on the inclines. We can also see that pro riders like Richie Porte used tri-bars during Paris-Nice to win the Col d’Eze time trial. Porte opted for this setup over the lightest possible bike he could use, he did this because it proved faster, I trust Sky’s boffins to be able to calculate this kind of thing correctly.

Again, there’s more to this than meets the eye, pro riders are climbing significantly quicker than amateur riders, so there will be a larger effect the faster the climbing speed. Any rider will gain an advantage from using tri-bars & aero kit on anything but a straight out hill climb.

Conclusion

Hopefully I’ve given some riders something to think about, I really hope I don’t see those kinds of photos from early season again, with riders who look like they’ve not even spent 20 minutes setting up their TT bikes correctly. Put you bike on a turbo trainer, set up a mirror so you can see your position and aim to get ‘in the tube’, i.e. everything apart from your legs into an imaginary horizontal tube. The smaller the imaginary tube you can fit your body head & arms into, will generally prove to be the most aerodynamic, but remember not to go too extreme or you’ll reduce your power output too much. It will take some time to perfect, but it’s worth much more time to you than buying the next very expensive bit of aerodynamic kit and not using it optimally, or even worse, it slowing you down through poor setup.