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 secretive code, 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 weekday 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 with a small membership cost. The club website will have 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, usually around £3.
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, 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 £300-£500 starter bike will be fine which 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.
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. 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.