Cycling Time Trials Decoded

Now the clocks have gone back, you may begin to notice you have gained extra daylight time, that the world seems a little less bleak, and that your bicycle wheels are spinning further and faster.

The eagle eyed of you may also notice something else: strange clusters of men and women in giant baby-grows, often straddling bikes with remarkable horns protruding from the handlebars, standing beside the road side in clusters.

With the arrival of spring, the time trial season begins.

The start line of the Redhill CC Club 10

The start line of the Redhill CC Club 10

What is timetrialling, and were did it start?

Often called “The Race of Truth” time trials are very simple: riders set off at 1 minute intervals, completing a set distance (often 10, 25, 50 or 100 miles), against the clock. Each rider competes individually, and the one who completes the distance in the shortest time wins.

The beauty of the race is that timetrialling, for most people taking part, is about beating their own personal time. Everyone, whatever level, can be competitive.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

The events began when racing on British roads was illegal – staggered starts meant that those competing could claim to be “just going about their business” (as quickly as they possibly could, eyeballs bulging, mouth frothing, of course…). Participants often wore inconspicuous clothing, and courses were given codes, such as “H25/8” to maintain the secretive nature. The racing is now well above board, insured and legal – but the codes still exist.

Do you need a fancy bike to take part in time trials?

No. You need a road worthy bike, and it is advised that you wear a helmet (if you are under 18 it is compulsory).

When racing solo against the clock, reducing air resistance is favourable, so when riders start to get serious they’ll often invest in a time trial bike, aero helmet, skinsuit, and so on.

The sort of BMC you might get if you were feeling very fast...

The sort of BMC you might get if you were feeling very fast…

However, none of this is required, and most events will have a number of competitors riding on road bikes. The true battle of timetrialling is to race the clock, and to race yourself – no fancy bike is required to do this.

If you want to be competitive against the field on a road bike, now is the time to enter. The first and last months of the season (March/April and September/October) often feature “sporting” courses – these are generally on hilly terrain, through country lanes – reducing the benefits of having a time trial bike, and these events often feature separate classification and results listings for those on road bikes.

What events are available?

Events vary dramatically – there is something for every rider, from sporting courses on twisty country lanes, and fast dual carriageway “dragstrips” that are usually favoured by those chasing a personal best time.

The majority of cycling clubs with a road cycling sector will hold a weekly time trial in the summer months. Weekly courses are often 10 miles long, riders just arrive at the agreed time, pay £3, before being given a number which signifies what time they will start their race. The day and time is usually stated on the cycling club’s website.

Having competed a couple of club time trials, those who find the style of racing suits them will usually move on to enter ‘open’ events – where there will be larger fields, and more distances available.

Cycling Time Trials (CTT) are the national governing body for the sport of TT, and all ‘open’ events are listed on their website here.

Entering an ‘open’ event

The deadline to enter is usually about 10 days before the race takes place, giving the organiser time to create a start list and mail it out.

Courses still have “codes” – but you can find one near you by filtering by district, then clicking on the code for a description of the course and location.

Some events will require you to print out this form, which needs to be sent to the organiser with a cheque, usually for around £8. Time trialling is a fairly old fashioned sport, so it was just a couple of years ago that they introduced online entry – provided the organiser is internet savvy (not always the case) you can enter online – the website clearly states which events can be entered online.

To enter a CTT event, you don’t need any sort of license, but you do need to be a member of a cycling club that is affiliated to the CTT. Most clubs are affiliated, and being a member means you are insured. On top of that, being part of a club means you’ll meet other riders who can give you advice and encouragement. If you’re looking for a club, check out our piece ‘Popular London Cycling Clubs’.

Riding your first event

If you’ve entered an open event, a course map and start list will be posted and/or emailed to you. Then, you just need to turn up, and…  what happens now?

It’s best to arrive at the event HQ about 1 hour before your event – giving you time to change, get your number, and use the toilet multiple times – then get to the start.

Once the rider before you has been set off, you’ll be called forward and given the option of either being held up, with your feet in the pedals ready to go, or you can choose to start yourself.

A time keeper, often a rather elderly individual who was probably once very fast, will tell you when you have 30 seconds before your start, then 10, then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: GO! The 54321GO will always be said in exactly the same way- regardless who utters it, in whatever part of the country – or perhaps it just always sounds the same.

At this point – you’ll either push on the pedals, and go, or clip in and go. Open events will be signposted, and “cycle event” signs will ensure drivers know you are about. At club events, you may need to know the course.

Over the first few miles, you will want to stop pedalling – this is good, as long as you don’t actually stop.

The idea of a time trial is that you ride as fast as you possibly can, for the required distance.  If you finish and feel you could have done more, you could be disappointed, but if you go too hard, you risk slowing down before the end. Getting a time trial right is about treading the red line – and not slipping over it.

Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll shout your number as you swoop past the time keeper at the other end, then roll back to the event HQ – where, if this is an open event, you will probably pay 50p for a very nice piece of cake. And I can promise you, that cake will taste like the best bit of cake in the world.

For more information on staring out in time trials, visit:

For CTT information and events, try:

To see some geeky conversations about events and timetrialling in general, visit:

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

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