Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Truth in Time Trials

It's been a few days since the Nebraska State Time Trial Championships, hosted by Team Velo Veloce.

I've heard it said that a cycling time trial is a race of truth. There is no peleton to hide among and conserve energy, and drafting isn't allowed. No, it's been said that the truth comes in how much suffering you can manage while racing against the clock.

Given that, I question how truthful time trials really are. There are lots of additional variables that enter the equation, including the fit on your bike, your bike's style (aero/road)and its wheel set. Other advantages include skin suits and TT helmets. And let's not forget the chamois ointments and sports creams.

Allow me to digress on the use of chamois butters and sports creams. Not too long ago, cyclists used real leather chamois in their shorts to provide a moisture absorbing layer to aide in saddle comfort. But after awhile, the chamois would become hardened. Ointments like bag balm were applied to help soften/condition the leather.

Later, synthetic chamois were developed. The synthetics advantage was that they didn't dry up and stiffen over time. They were also cheaper and could be marketed in AS SEEN ON TV spots.
Yet despite the popularity of synthetic chamois, cyclists still have found it difficult to part with these beloved ointment and creams. Many say that they provide a degree of protection against grimy (sweat) that contributes to saddle sores and chafing. While this information is valuable to any cyclists, it is of particular importance to the time trialer, who's spending the majority of time rocking back and forth on the nub horn of the saddle. The post-race suffering one can endure by failing to abide by this last point can be significant.

Now please note that these ointments are not to be confused with the icy/hot types of sports creams (think of a cycling-specific version of Ben-Gay with a 500% markup that is sold exclusively at your LBS). While the icy/hots have a legitimate place in cycling, you don't want to apply those down there. You know what I mean. But apparently during cold and wet conditions, icy/hots are applied to retain heat on the legs from calf to the upper vicinity -- but not too close! -- of the nether regions. Don't worry. If it's applied too liberally, you won't ever make that mistake again. Now I would never have guessed how popular the icy/hots were until I saw a a group of cyclists dipping their grimy hands into a communal jar at the Norfolk Classic race weekend. It was like, hey friend, that's some good stuff... and hey what's that on your lip... no worries... got any Chapstick you can also lend a buddy?"

Till date, I haven't used any of these sport creams or chamois butters. But if I do, I'll forgo all of these products for a simple jar of Noxzema. Noxzema has a solid reputation of efficacy. Take Ignatius Reilly, who had "several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxzema" (Confederacy of Dunces, 46). Granted, Ignatius applied his practice with a different objective in mind (visions of his pet border collie, Rex), but the spirit of it all is still the same: lubrication.
Can lubrication make a difference in a time trial performance? The truth: not a chance.

I've come to realize that no matter how much training and Noxzema is applied, lacking aero equipment puts you at a significant disadvantage in a time trial. Among elites and pros, the equipment difference are often trivial, because they get all of the good stuff from their sponsors. Sometimes that includes a set of Mavic R-Sys wheels that can explode (allegedly) like a trick cigar. But for the most part, pro riders' equipment is neutralized.

On occasion, however, the advantages of using aero equipment over standard among the pros is obvious.

Take this year's final time trial at the Giro. On a short (15K) course through the eternal city, challenger Danilo "The Killer" di Luca used a standard road bike in his attempt to overtake overall General Classification leader Denis Menchov, who was riding a time trial bike. In a word: FAIL. I don't get it. The Killer was already 20 seconds in the hole before the TT even started AND going against the Giro's previous time trial winner. Yet despite a dramatic crash within sight of the finish line, Menchov crushed di Luca's hopes and sewed up the Giro victory by padding an additional 20 seconds to the overall time. Apparently, you can lay your TT bike down and still comfortably win a major tour against a roadie.

If it makes a difference in the pros, imagine the disparity among amateurs.

You don't need to imagine. I'm going to tell you.

In the cat5 field, I rode a TT bike and won the category by over six minutes. The rider in second place was on a standard road bike.

Among the cat4s, my effort would have been good for fourth place. In this category, those lower than fourth were mostly on standard road bikes.

Among the cat 1-2-3s, I don't believe that there wasn't a rider in the top twelve who used a standard road bike. Most in this group had very nice TT bikes, helmets, skin suits and the like. Moreover, the riders who finished in the bottom of this category are stronger riders than I am despite the fact their times were over two minutes slower.

From this point of view, the truth in time trialing is relative; equipment is a great equalizer.

Perhaps among amateurs, time trial races could offer an Eddie Merckx category, where no perceived advantages* are allowed. That way, those who don't have the luxury of a dedicated TT bike with expensive aero components can have a more truthful comparison against similar peers.

With the allowance of a few precious exceptions, that seems fair to me.
*EXCEPTIONS: Noxzema, rubber gloves, and a swatch of fabric from an old umbrella.


  1. I did feel bad sometimes, when I'd win a stage race just because of my TT abilities. Sometimes I had better equipment than others, and sometimes I didn't.

    But I was always comfortable in my TT position and could always hover right around LT with no problems. So this let me do very well at the "race of truth."

    My guess is you ride your TT bike fairly frequently right? Well there you go. Remember my evil Munson ramblings about specificity and being most efficient on a bike you're used to? Well ask Bryan and Mr. Miles if they were used to their TT positions. That's some proof in the pudding.

    Do you know how you did compared to last year? I remember, since I was officiating, that you won handily back then too, but were concerned that we were off by 15 seconds or something? So your 6 minute victory was your answer to that issue, eh?

    Great job man. I guess you could call it the race of relative truth. You still powned it though. Time to upgrade? Maybe after Omaha weekend?

  2. It was once said that being Cat5 Time Trial champion is a dubious honor...sort of like being the tallest midget in the circus....

    I like the Eddy Merckxx divison for TT. That's a good idea.

    But I'm also proud of you for shattering the field--and doing well in cat 4 and 3!

  3. Thanks Mike. I haven't been as regular as I should be on the TT bike, but enough to be comfortable. I believe I meter power steadily around LT threshold. Still, there's room for improvement.

    As for a year to year comparison:
    1) this year, course was a 1/2 mi shorter.
    2) 65 F at start. Last year: 72F w/ 94% humidity.

    Equipment was the same.

    Average speed went from 23.9 mph -> 25.1 MPH. I'd say that's an improvement.

    Murphini. It's little people. Bully. Anyway, tell that bearded lady on a mountain bike that this little person is thinking cross for the fall. Perhaps I'll come to KC for a race. We'll see how dubius this distinction is then.

  4. I really like the standard bike idea. Especially if it's a stage race format.

    The course layout also plays a lot into the results. If it is mostly flat, you'll see more big, fat, fattys near the top of the leaderboard in the cat 4/5 field.

  5. um ... the course was the same as last year.

    I think. I was seeing spots at the time.

  6. Um ... Yeah. I'm addressing Time Trials in general in response to this post which seems to be talking about time trials in general. In general, that is.