With the exception of the very act of pedaling the bike, very little of what goes into winning is actually done during the race. The winner simply uses this time to solidify an outcome that has been months in the making. Of course it takes training to develop the endurance to win a race against the clock, but this post is about more than pointing out that the person that trains the hardest is most likely to win. It goes beyond training: the winner is often the person that is the best prepared, and training is only one facet of preparedness. Time trials are won on the morning of, the days before, and the weeks and months leading up to the event.
Hours Before: Fueling and Priming
The hours on the morning of, leading up to the race, are arguably the most important. Even with meticulous preparation in the months before an important time trial, the race can be lost simply by not paying attention to the details on the morning of the race. The two aspects that have the biggest impact on race performance are breakfast and warmup. For race-day breakfast, I like to eat at least 3 hours before the race, and the meal always consists of something I know my body will not reject: I train on oatmeal, so I eat the same boring oatmeal before the race. Learn what works for you during training and don’t take chances on race day. The three-hour window between eating and racing gives your body time to convert the food into a usable fuel; namely, glycogen.
Now that the engine is fueled, it’s time to get everything up to operating temperature. In a time trial, every second needs to be used putting out a race-winning effort, so metabolic systems need to be ready to light a fire as soon as the official says it’s time to go. It is imperative to get in a proper, structured warm-up before the race, and I see no alternative to a trainer for this purpose. Planning to ride around on unfamiliar roads surrounding a TT venue is the perfect recipe for just cruising around. A proper warm-up will get the legs up to race effort (or even above) over the course of an hour. The warm-up should suck, it should make you sweat and then it should allow some time to recover before the real effort starts. Ideally, you should unhook from the trainer, throw in your TT helmet, suck down a drink and then roll to the start line a couple of minutes before your listed start time. (On that note: make sure to synchronize your clock with the official start clock, then set an alarm. Missing your start time is embarrassing.)
Days Before: Scouting
Preparedness isn’t just physical. To do well in a time trial a cyclist needs to salvage every possible second and studying a course is critical to identifying opportunities to steal time from opponents. Aspects of the course falls into three categories: terrain, technical aspects and weather. The terrain is going to dictate pacing more than anything else; hilly parcours require slightly different pacing strategies than pancake flat ones. Pre-riding a course is the best way to experience the terrain and make minor adjustments to a pre-planned pacing strategy. More important than experiencing the extremes in the terrain, pre-riding the course lets you mentally map out the technical aspects. Experienced time trialists takes the time to learn which turns can be taken in the tuck at speed, and which ones require the braking and control of the bullhorns. Maintaining speed through corners will conserve energy by eliminating the necessity of re-accelerating to race pace, ultimately saving a lot of time over the course of a 40k.
While terrain and turns are physical absolutes of the course, weather is more of a wild-card and can’t necessarily be scouted in advance. With this in mind, the orientation and landscaping of the course provide critical information on how to read the weather forecast on the day of the race. While pre-riding, think about what the normal weather conditions are, as well as what they could be.
Weeks Before: Training
Of course winning is going to take a lot of training; this is the no-brainer. Training is what cyclists spend most of his or her time doing, but in order to maximize the benefits of training for a particular race, efforts should be specifically chosen to emulate the efforts that occur in that race. In the case of a time trial, training should focus on increasing threshold power, and the closer to race-day, the more race-like intervals should become. As the race approaches, total daily training load should gradually increase to mirror the work-load that is going to be undertaken at the race and a greater proportion of a time trialist’s work load should shift from the road bike to the time trial bike. In this way, nothing is new on race day: the suffering is the same and the position on the bike is the same.
Because the goal is to let training mimic racing as much as possible during the preceding months, an experienced time trialist incorporates as much racing into his or her training plan as possible. Mistakes are going to happen, and it is easier to write-off a pacing or equipment problem as a learning opportunity during a local TT than it is to throw away months of preparation when a similar mistake is made at an “A” priority race halfway across the country.
Months Before: Setup
With months to go, before the average racer even thinks about deciding to race on that fateful weekend, the winner is spending time getting his or her time trial bike set up properly. Depending on the race, this could just be new cables and a few tweaks to position, or it could mean a complete overhaul to ensure that rider and bike comply with UCI regulations. This step needs to get done well in advance of the race to give plenty of time to adapt to the new setup and work the kinks out during training.
Setup isn’t only about making sure your gear is ready for the race, you also need to make sure you are ready psychologically. There is a simple mental task that must be accomplished well in advance of the race; a goal needs to be set. You need to decide to pour everything you have into the race and commit to yourself, your teammates, your coach and your sponsors that you are going to do everything possible to achieve the singular purpose of winning that bike race. Without a goal, it is too easy to quit the first time the going truly gets hard. Without motivation and desire, preparation is impossible.