Race Of Truth

Most bike racers cringe when they hear the words “time trial”. It seems like only the most sadistic souls would look forward to suffering alone on a hot, windy stretch of road only to find that in the end, they lost valuable time or Omnium points which will cost them the race. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Well, it doesn't have to be that way. With the proper preparation and training, most riders can drastically improve their performance in the “race of truth”. Former master's national time trial champion (and multiple medallist) Dan Coy and USCF Elite Coach Mike Skop have put together a number of suggestions and strategies to improve your performance.


Pushing a big gear for 1 hour is very different from racing a criterium or club ride for the same duration. In order to maintain maximal speed and power during the event, you must continue pedaling at all times that it is practical. Unlike crits or road races, there are few if any breaks for your legs to recover. Riders who don't prepare themselves will find their legs, back, neck and shoulders aching. They will become uncomfortable in the saddle and want to stand or sit up. Each time they do, they lose more time, become more discouraged and drop further down in the rankings. The only way to overcome these problems is to incorporate time trailing intervals into your training program. Many riders will add Lactate Threshold workouts to their training regimen, but few will do them in an aero position to help the body get used to being in that posture for extended periods. Start by riding in the “aero” position for short durations, at full power, to help strengthen the gluts and prep the body to ride powerfully in this new way. Combine this with riding in the “aero” position for long durations, at an easier pace (10 bpm below LT HR). This will help to get used to staying in the position for an entire event. Once you are able sustain riding in your TT position for more than 30 minutes at a time, begin to perform your LT intervals on your aero bars. (Note: you should monitor your power and speed to ensure that you are not overly restricted)

A fit and fresh time trialist should be able to ride at 92% (+/– 2%) of maximum heart rate for up to 1 hour, and slightly higher for shorter events. Do you know your maximum heart rate? There are several ways to obtain it, however, because of this nature of testing maximal exertion, it should only be done in a carefully supervised and controlled manner. There are ways other than testing that can be used to approximate your max HR. What is the highest number you have ever recorded on your heart rate monitor (sprinting, climbing, or whatever) during a race? That is probably close (but a few beats lower) than your true maximum hear rate. Add 3 bpm to this number to use a starting point in calculating your TT HR.

These, of course, are only approximations of what your true TT HR should be. For the elite athlete who wants a more exact figure, physiological testing is recommended. Georgia State offers this service locally (for a fee).


To the casual observer, riding a time trial may seem simple; just put your head down and go. Truth is, there are a number of skills and techniques that must be mastered in order to maximize your success. Dan Coy has put together a list that covers a number of the most overlooked areas:

Handling skills: Riding with disc or tri-spoke wheels while your arms are close together in the aero bars requires getting used to, especially in windy conditions. Practice riding with the equipment you will use on race day on an open stretch of road with no traffic. If you are with other cyclists, make certain that they stay well away from you to avoid any mishaps or collisions.

Starting gear: Usually you will be in the big-ring and an easy cog (16, 17 or 19), but not the easiest cog. Ride to the start line in this gear to make sure it is precise and the chain is not slipping or skipping. In choosing the correct gear, pick one that allows you to accelerate quickly and get to your optimal cadence quickly, but not so easy that it requires excessive shifts to get up to racing speed. Practice will help determine what is best for you.

Heart Rate Monitor: Turn your HRM display on your wrist or handlebars so that you can see it at all times.

Set your timer: If you are using a bike computer (do not watch the speed or average speed, this information is useless), start your stopwatch (clock, timer) exactly 1 minute before your start time so you can have both hands on the bars when you launch off the start line. Important: remember to stop your timer immediately after crossing the finish. Having an accurate race time on your watch is an important double check to ensure the officials have calculated your time correctly.

Starting: Hands in the drops, dominant leg positioned for first down stroke at about 1 o'clock, squeeze the brakes and rise out of the saddle with a second or two to go, let go of the brakes and blast off!

Pacing (the basics): Accelerate to speed quickly, but not beyond your target heart rate. On a flat, windless course, a good time trialist will have nearly even splits on an out-and-back course. If your first half is considerably slower, you probably did not warm up enough. If your second half is slower, you might have a problem with pacing, endurance, or mental attitude. On a rolling or hilly course, it is reasonable to allow about +/- 5 beats per minute of your target heart rate, but don't sprint up the hills and coast down the other side!

Cadence: For most riders a cadence of 75 to 95 rpm is optimal, however you should experiment before the event to find what is most efficient for you.

Position (the basics):

  1. Elbows close together
  2. Back flat
  3. Knees close to the top tube
  4. Slightly more forward saddle position

Turnarounds: The biggest opportunities to gain time come when you are going the slowest. If you can carry more speed into the turnaround (on an out and back course), you have the opportunity to pick up valuable seconds. There are different strategies that can be used to maximize your speed in the turnaround area depending on the layout and allowable area. Your focus should be on choosing a strategy that allows you to carry maximum speed to the corner, make the turn and quickly accelerate away.

You need to practice starts and turnarounds! Often it is only one or two seconds that determines the winner and a good start or turnaround could make the difference.


Don't expect to hit the line and be at your peak level of performance within a few pedal strokes. You must warm up adequately for a time trial. Either on the road or trainer, you will need to include some hard efforts, however, no sprints, jumps or anaerobic efforts should be done.

Preliminary Warm up – 30 Minutes

  1. Ride easy, less than 70% of maximum
  2. Check the Start location
  3. Check your Start time
  4. Sync your watch/computer to the official clock
  5. Find a suitable place for more intense riding, but still be aware of what's going on

Intense Warm up – 30 Minutes The following percentages and rpm are approximations. Do not try to get your heart rate up to the suggested level as soon as you begin each interval; instead try to reach that level near the end of each interval. Attempt to arrive at the start line no sooner than 3 minutes before your scheduled start time

Minutes HR (% of max) Gear Cadence (rpm)
2 70 Moderate 90
2 75   100
2 80   110
2 90   120
2 Rest      
3 75 Hard 80
3 85   85
3 90   90
2 Rest      
3 70 Moderate 85
3 90   110+
3 70   <50


The ability to go your hardest and sustain that level of effort for the entire race requires experience and lots of motivation. Your training can help to provide this motivation and toughness. Knowing that you have done this before, that you are prepared, can go a long way in overcoming the self-defeating thoughts that are the downfall of so many riders. During the event, do not focus on the pain or discomfort, but instead, work to achieve the feeling of finding the power and rhythm that helped you maintain maximal speed during your training sessions. Constantly monitor yourself to make sure that you are working at the proper intensity and that you are maintaining that intensity. A heart rate monitor usually helps riders with this task.

There are also mental “tricks” that you can use to stay motivated:

  • Count as you stroke. I personally like counting what I call a “pyramid”. Start by counting 10 strokes on your right foot, then 11 on the left, 12 on the right, and continue to alternate until you reach 20. Then begin counting backwards. A typical “pyramid” takes about 3 minutes and you must concentrate to not lose track, thus not focusing on how bad you might be feeling while maintaining your cadence.
  • Ask yourself if you can go harder. Go harder.
  • Do not think about how bad you feel. Think about how good it feels to have the ability to be working hard.
  • Do not worry about the headwind; everyone else has to deal with it too.
  • Keep asking yourself if you can go harder. Go harder!


Time trials are often the deciding factors in stage races and Omnium events and therefore need to be taken seriously in planning your training. With the right efforts, you can dramatically improve your time trialing success and find yourself using your newfound skill to beat your competition instead of hoping not to lose too much time. As with everything else, practice makes perfect and this is no exception. Now is the time to start incorporating time trailing skills and exercises into your training schedule so that you'll be prepared for the “Race of Truth”.