There is a time in every cyclist’s life when they realize they suck at time trailing. This is usually right after the first one. If there’s ever a second one, the realization of the first is always greatly enhanced. Quitting typically ensues, or worse, triathlons.
I remember my first time trail, the Texas state TT in 1984. Mike Adams won it, 40k in just over 48 minutes. It was incredible. He went on to get 4th at the national TT that year, racing against some of the best riders in the golden age of U.S. cycling.
Billy Riffe had told me beforehand, “Don’t go out too hard, but it’s your first TT so you’ll for sure go out too hard.” I remember my time. It was a 1:04. I flew the first ten minutes then spattered all over the pavement and got passed by my minute man, 2-minute man, 3-minute man, 4-minute man, and a bunch of stopped-counting-men. Those were in the days when Bob Lowe and Terry Wittenberg were absolute crushers in the time trail.
Mike Adams had super trick TT equipment: a Campy freewheel and two Campy rims. The front had the miraculously low spoke count of under-20, and I think the rear was 28. His 22-pound steel bike probably weighed a pound less than everyone else’s. What an unfair advantage.
Aero bars hadn’t been invented, nor, for that matter, had aero. Everyone hunched over the bars and pedaled furiously. That was it. And it was called the race of truth not because you could spend $15,000 and purchase speed, but because the only meter of your efforts was you.
Time trailing was an art, and I, like almost everyone else, was playing with finger paints on butcher paper while the good riders were painting oil portraits on canvas. If you wanted to time trail well you had to master the urge to go out hard, and meter your output based on perceived exertion, which is a fancy way of saying “know how much you hurt and how long you could continue hurting at that level before blowing.”
What was so vicious about time trailing was that the only way you could get that knowledge was by doing a ton of time trails, which meant spending much time unhappy and alone, and snotified.
Nowadays time trailing isn’t an art. It is first and foremost a shopping experience because no matter how good you are, if you don’t buy aero you will go much slower than even much weaker people. It is secondarily a digital experience because nowhere in sport is a power meter more critical than in a time trail. When you know your FTP (and you can’t time trail well without knowing it), the power meter sets the absolute limit as to how hard to pedal.
It goes without saying that the use, care, and feeding of a power meter and its software require intensive study, an Internet coach, and lots of time spent in a chair, unlike days of yore when it required lots of time spent in a saddle, drooling blood.
Of course there are a thousand things that can get in between the power meter and your brain to gum up your performance, but no successful time trailist today can succeed without learning to use a power meter. The best assessor of perceived exertion will never approximate the accuracy of the strain gauges. Money and computers don’t guarantee success, but their absence guarantees failure.
Knowing I’m a terrible time trailist, I made up my mind to do the state time trail on May 29. And before doing it, I decided to practice. But since time trail practice is like training in the basement, only more embarrassing because people can see you, I invited some friends to join me.
And you know what? We all sucked pretty badly, but it was hella fun! The Colquhouns a/k/a The Brothers Grimm, Patrick F., Paul C., Delia P., Kristie F., and I went out to Westchester Parkway and did a 60-minute time trail.
Kristie and I went first, PP&D went a minute later, and The Brothers Grimm a minute after PP&D. The Brothers Grimm caught us well before we finished the first lap, but over the course of the hour we clawed them back, only to have them finish another couple of minutes up. PP&D had a great time, working out the kinks in team time trailing.
It was really fun having several riders out on the course, chasing and being chased. Afterwards we rode over to the new coffee shop in Manhattan Beach, Nikau Kai Waterman Shop and Cafe, and enjoyed some amazing coffee, an amazing vibe, and a fun debrief. Here’s what we learned:
- Time trailing sucks.
- Time trailing is hard as nails even when you suck at it.
- Time trailing with your friends is awesome.
- Talking about time trailing over great coffee is so much fun that we’re going to do it again. Join us?
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