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The Art of Time Trialling

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Photographs: Paolo Ciaberta

Alex Dowsett, Taylor Phinney and 140 – three of the very best against the clock – on what goes through their minds during a time trial. This is an edited extract from 1 issue 49.
DOWSETT: Firstly it depends on the type of time trial, anything up to 16km, or 10 miles, goes something like this: I start far harder than I ever planned to, I then settle into a pace far faster than I ever planned to, and then I simply think, “Well Alex, yet again you’ve set the level of effort bar far higher than we ever planned to, bloody idiot – God help you if you don’t hold this to the finish!” Then it’s a case of hanging on…
A long time trial, 30km-plus, is a little more calculated… but not much more, as the pain is the roughly the same.  Throughout the whole duration my mind is processing three things simultaneously that seem to detract quite nicely from the pain.
First: gear selection. Am I in the right gear to be putting out as much power as possible? Everyone rides at different cadences, for me it seems to be around 95rpm. I heard a story about the Aussie, Dale Parker, mid Tour of the Gila TT. Descending at 80kph, he dropped into the 54×11, didn’t like it so shifted back into the 12. He also won – convincingly.
Second: Aerodynamics, which is predominantly my shoulders and head. Are they tucked in? No? Well, tuck them in then.
Finally, and for me the most important thing: speed, distance and time. In short, simple math. On a normal course – start and finish in the same place, not too hilly – I’m aiming for anything above a 50kph average speed. From experience, I know I’m capable of it and that it should get me a there or thereabouts result.
Of course, everything in that third thought process is kind of irrelevant. Races have been won at less than 40kph and at over 55kph, and even if I’ve done well enough to give me 30 minutes to cover the last 10 miles, it doesn’t mean I’m going to go any slower or easier. If anything, it just means the added morale of a high average speed and good performance will make me push and suffer that little bit more, perhaps with the hint of a smile on my face.
So once I’m settled into the TT and know I’m feeling good enough to not revert to damage limitation mode – a whole different approach to a TT altogether, for when the legs are, as they say, pedalling squares – the math starts. I’m working out how far to go, the time I have to do it to achieve my desired speed and whether it’s feasible. This then progresses into specific sections of the course. For an out and back course, it’s easy: if I’m travelling at 45kph on a particular section on the way out, I know I need to be doing at least 47kph-plus on that same section on the return leg – the extra 2kph accounts for speed lost at the start, technical sections and accelerations… You get my drift? The slower you go in one place, the faster you need to go in another.
As for the last 10km, I refer back to my short course mentality.
TAYLOR PHINNEY: The thoughts that spring up in my mind during a TT really depend a lot on my current state of fitness as well as the distance of said TT.
Let’s start at the top. If I am absolutely crushing a TT, and it is one of those races that just flies by, one that barely hurts, then my thoughts are pretty consistent, and very positive. The phrase “let’s go, you are the man” pops up a whole lot. Due to my restricted ability to think since I am right at my physical limit, repeating that phrase is about all I can manage. Over the course of a prologue, I am able to keep this phrase on repeat for the entirety of the race. This is mainly due to the brevity of prologues, and also the fact that I love doing them.
You see, as a bike racer, wins don’t come often for 99 per cent of us. Being a prologue specialist is actually quite a fortunate trait, because it offers me the opportunity of a win more often than if I was a climber, or pure Classics rider. So pushing myself, knowing I can win – change the course of a season, reap the spoils of victory – is just that much easier.
On the other hand, let’s say that the TT course is hilly, and I mean very hilly. And let’s imagine that it is on the longer side. Let’s assume that I am not in peak form, that I know I am not going to win. Mentally, this is the worst type of TT for me. I don’t use SRM numbers in TTs, I mainly go off feel. I’ve barely ever used a radio, so I try to focus on what I am doing, try to find a rhythm. The worst feeling is when you just know how slow you are going; you feel it, you know the people in the team car behind you feel it, and anyone watching can see that you aren’t a superstar. Tunnel vision is your friend, so blocking everything out is key – and often the hardest part. Frequently, yes, the mind will wander off to anything from a cute girl on the side of the road, to what you are going to have for lunch. “Focus, focus, focus” remains the mantra of suffer-fest TTs.
140: The plan before is really important to me, because I like to have two or three things to take into the race. If the route is technical, you have to prepare where you want to put more of your power down because it might be more beneficial to go really fast on a climb, for example, because you can gain, or lose more, there. If there’s a climb, to stay in the race you’ve got to be within contact of the smaller or lighter guys when you reach it, knowing that you can bring a bit back later.
Before the start, I try to think about my strategy, what I need to do. I break the race up, maybe there’s a particular section where there’s a climb, or I want to start really hard and try to be aggressive, or it could be better to start a bit slower and build into the time trial… it always depends on the course. I’ve broken it down before and I’m just thinking about executing the plan. They’re clear thoughts. When you do it right you just go into the zone. If you’ve broken it up into two or three parts then you just do the first bit as best you can, then the second might be a descent, so just try and stay in the middle of the road, relax, and almost use it as a bit of a rest before the next part, which might be flat, so you’ll have to really get stuck into it again.
This is an edited extract from 1 issue 49, available now.

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