Time trialling, or the “race of truth” as it is known, occupies a special place in cycling, particularly British cycling. A time trial tends to mean cyclists setting off at regular intervals and being timed over a set course. This can make it very boring for the spectator, especially if, for example, you see a succession of cyclists doing a couple of laps of the track as part of the Omnium. Unlike a sprint event, there is no sense of seeing who crosses the line first, or the build to an exciting finish. On the other hand, there is the purity of it being a test of pure athletic skill, rather than tactics, and there is no possibility of being sheltered by a team mate. Hence, it really is a race of truth. Events do, or course, intervene, and the size of the field in a professional race, with most riders setting off at 1 minute intervals and the higher placed at 3 minute intervals means that the weather, especially wind and rain, can change decisively over the course of the race. In the 2010 Tour de France prologue time trial, Team Sky were too clever by half and opted for Bradley Wiggins to do the time trial early in the day. He then raced through the worse of the rain and finished 77th in an event he might have expected to win, and certainly do no worse than finish in the top 10. And time trials are not always boring, with the American Greg LeMond famously edging the 1989 Tour by 8 seconds by using aerodynamics to beat Laurent Fignon, resplendent in his flowing locks and professorial spectacles, on the final day’s time trial.
Time trials form the backbone of British cycle racing, dating back to early compromises between cyclists and motorists. Unlike mass start races time trials can be raced without closing roads to other road users and almost in secret. Traditional time trial courses in the UK are given obscure codes like F15/10 which denotes a particular route. Distances may range from 10 miles to 100 miles and beyond and cycling clubs up and down the country hold many events over the summer.
Yesterday I entered my first time trial – a 10 mile event organised by Islington Cycling Club. I had always thought that I wouldn’t enter unless I was confident of cycling 10 miles in 30 minutes or less, the nice round number of 20 miles per hour. As a physicist, 20 mph also has the significance of being the speed where air resistance becomes the dominant brake on the speed of a cyclist, so going faster becomes progressively harder. Thankfully, particularly given how things turned out, I was persuaded that a time trial is an opportunity to set a time, which you can then try to beat.
I rode the course a couple of times in the weeks leading up to the big day to familiarise myself with it. My first attempt, when l started off casually but I soon knuckled down and it took just over 31 minutes so I was pretty confident that I would beat the half hour mark. Especially, since my 31 minutes was on a windy day.
Yesterday was a gorgeous sunny, calm, cold morning and I rode out to the time trial course feeling confident. I had a slightly nervous start. I know that the drill would be for someone to hold me so that I could start off clipped in to both pedals and give me a helping push. However, I wasn’t sure quite how this would work and the starter, Pete, suggested that I could just start myself off, which I did. I then pressed the wrong button on my Garmin so I didn’t start recording the ride properly. Nevertheless I was soon in my stride. I realised my heart rate was too high, so I eased off marginally and settled into a steady effort that I sustained all the way round. I felt I had given my all at the finish.
When the results were read out I was disappointed to be last, and worse to record a time of 30:47. Not that much faster than my first attempt, but it felt much harder work. Not what I wanted, or even expected, but the race of truth lived up to its name. And no excuses as there was barely any wind, nor did I have to stop for any cars. The only obvious learning would be to start fresher and not do a hard 60 mile ride 2 days beforehand. Another chance to seek the truth in 4 weeks time.