Photo Credit: James Gann

Race of Truth: A Beginners Guide to Time Trials

Photo Credit: James Gann

Unlike all other types of road races, the time trial is all about you. No one to slow you down. No one to draft. No one to crash you out. Everything you put in is everything you get out. That’s why it’s known as the “race of truth.” It’s just you and your bike against the clock.

And the clock is ticking.

The Rules

So, what rules are specific to time trials that aren’t found in other road races?

  1. Drafting: this is a BIG no-no. You have to stay at least 80′ (25m) behind another rider, and at least 6′ (2m) to the side. Any closer, and you have to fully pass the other rider, or drop back if you’re being passed. If you’re caught by another rider, you can’t follow close to them – you have to drop back out of their draft. Now, it’s hard to tell what these distances are on a bike, so simple rule of thumb: if you’re close enough to call out to the other rider, you’re too close, and probably not working hard enough if you can talk. 😉
  2. Starting: you are assigned a specific start time, which is usually announced a day or two before the race. You cannot switch times with anyone else, and you can’t start at any other time. You have to be in line at least 3 minutes before your start time. I’d recommend at least 15 minutes. Give yourself time to center yourself for the race.
  3. Equipment: for a USA Cycling event, they have some equipment rules that are specific for time trials that limit the kind of bike you can use. If you can race it in a road race or criterium, you can race it in a time trial. Time trial specific bikes are allowed, with some restrictions: basically, once it starts looking more like a space-ship than a bike, it’s probably not allowed. Then again if you owned one of those, you probably wouldn’t be reading this primer on time trials. 😉 Certain categories only allow specific equipment as well (see the “Race Categories” section below).
    A typical time trial setup, with TT helmet, TT bike, disc rear wheel, and skin suit. [PC: James Gann]

The Course

The most common time trial courses are out-and-back courses. They’re usually flat or include some rolling hills, but rarely any significant climbs. Traffic is controlled along the course so that you don’t have to worry about slowing down, but note: just because it’s controlled doesn’t mean it’s always closed to traffic. Use caution, and always ride as far to the right as possible; this is both to allow traffic to pass and to allow other racers to pass.

A full, standard length time trial is 40K (24.86 mi). However, some categories will have 20K (12.43 mi) and 5K (3.1 mi) distances. These other distances are usually associated to a specific race categories (see the “Race Categories” section below).

The Race Clock

This is IMPORTANT! Your watch means nothing. During a time trial, no other clock anywhere in the WORLD means anything. Just that one clock. The race clock will be located right at the starting line. All start times are based on this clock, so when you arrive, GO CHECK THAT CLOCK! Know if it’s different than your watch, and know when you have to be at the starting line. Again, you have to be in line at least 3 min. before your start time. There will be a whip (a person calling out numbers) by the start to get you in line. Be around the starting corral 10-15 min. before your start and listen for your number.

The Start

Time trials have a unique start position. You’ll be seated on your bike, clipped in (if you have clips), with your hands engaging your brakes, already in race position when you start. Behind you, a holder will be holding your back wheel and saddle so that you don’t fall. Admittedly, it feels a little funky at first to have someone balancing your bike for you. I’d recommend practicing this with a friend (that you trust) so that you can feel the awkwardness.

A volunteer will hold your bike while you’re seated. An official will give you a 5-second count-down. [PC: James Gann]
An official will be in front of you to one side, and so will the race clock (on the other). When your time is about to start, the race official will give you a five second countdown. They’ll say “5-4-3-2-1-Go”.

Don’t start until you hear “Go.” The official will also countdown with their fingers right in front of you as well, so you have both an audio and visual countdown.

Race Categories

Time trials can be separated into skill and age group categories, and by gender, just like other road races. Only these categories are eligible for state and national championship jerseys (if this is a US Cycling championship race). Like in other road races, women can choose to compete in any of the men’s categories.

There are categories that are special to time trials that you won’t find in other races, though.

  • Merckx: This category was named for famed cyclist Eddy Merckx. This category consists of non-time trial bikes (i.e. normal road bikes you’d see in other kinds of road racing). There are also additional equipment restrictions. Most commonly:
    • No time trial bars/clip ons
    • No time trial (tear drop) helmets
    • No disc wheels
    • Wheel depth limitations: this changes per event, and can be anywhere from 50mm down to box-rims only, so check the rules for your event.
    • Aero clothing restrictions: usually this means no skin suits, arm covers, or shoe covers; but like wheel depth, this changes per event, and these days most events will allow skin suits. Think of the Merckx category like taking your normal road bike to race a time trial. Often, Merckx categories will have a shorter course (20K) except in the higher skill categories.
      No skin suit, aero helmet, shoe covers, TT bars, and shallow rims. Merckx-style! [PC: James Gann]


  • Triathlon: Think of this category as the opposite of Merckx. If it’s aero, use it. Shoe covers, disc wheels, deep-dish rims, tear-drop helmets, the works. That means bikes specifically designed for triathlons (which are usually not allowed on other road races) are game. Bike that lack a seat tubes, bikes with irregular frame shapes, bikes that fill in frame gaps, etc.
    This screams speed (and emptied bank account).


  • L’Eroica: A fun division for the vintage bike aficionado. Only vintage bikes are allowed, which typically means:
    • Down-tube shifters
    • Must have road-style drop bars
    • Manufactured before 1990

    Like Merckx, this category is usually a shorter course (20K).

    Classic style.

Tips For First Timers (pun intended)

Time trials aren’t aren’t maximum power. Even maximum aerodynamics won’t win you a time trial. What wins a time trial is balance. Balancing your effort over the entire course. Balancing your aerodynamic position with your power output. Balancing your breathing and your cadence and your effort to the terrain. If you cross the finish line with power left over, you didn’t work hard enough. If you approach the line gassed, you went out too hard. You need to cross the line right when you run out of gas.

Here’s a few tips to help you do your best at your first time trial:

  1. Know the course. Like any other race, you need to know the terrain. In a time trial, even a slight incline can eat up precious watts if you don’t know its coming. Pre-ride the course if you can, and if you can’t, map the terrain on RideWithGPS or Strava so you know where it’s flat, where it rolls, and where you can push.
    • Use slightly higher cadences for uphills to reduce torque and power requirements.
    • Use slightly lower cadences for downhills to change the muscle fiber usage in your legs while maintaining speed.


  2. Know the weather. As we all know, the wind is our enemy and our friend. Some time trial courses will have turns, which will change the wind direction you’ll have to face. So understand where you are in relation to the wind. For all intents and purposes, wind is just like riding uphill or downhill – know when you can conserve and when you need to spend a little more to get around it. Combine this with your knowledge of the course to gain a double-advantage: know where the wind breaks are (rows of buildings or trees), where crosswinds might hinder you in a tucked position, etc.
  3. Know your position. You are the largest component in a time trial. The more aerodynamic your position and the longer you can hold that position without losing power, the faster you’ll go. If you don’t have aero bars and aren’t used to staying in the drops for 30 or 60 min. at a time, start riding in the drops all the time. Even when riding slowly.
    • Keep your elbows tucked in.
    • Practice riding with your hands on the hoods while keeping your elbows bent and your upper body down.
    • Practice changing your position from the drops to the hoods and back without lifting your upper body.
    • Practice drinking water without lifting your upper body.


  4. Stick to a plan. A time trial is a lot of effort over a long period of time. Sometimes, you’re going to feel great, and other times, not so much. But when you feel great it might actually be time to conserve, and when you’re feeling tired might be the time to push. Things like the weather, wind, and terrain can fool you into thinking differently about how you feel at the moment. So make a plan and stick to it.Split the course up into four equal pieces. For a 40k time trial, that’s about 6 mi per section. Based on the terrain and the wind direction, label the sections of the course 1-4, where 1 is the easiest effort, and 4 is your hardest effort. What you label these will be different for everyone based on your abilities. A flat section with a tailwind might be the time for some people to hammer and make up time. Others might use that time to recover from a harder section or conserve for an upcoming section. The idea is to give you a relative effort goal, so you don’t blow up too early, and don’t leave anything on the road.
  5. Find the time. There’s all sorts of little ways to gain time. The key is to find the seconds, and you don’t have to spend money to do it.
    • Stretch after warming up: keep your muscles long and loose to maintain that aero position.
    • Cover up your helmet: if it’s not super hot out, tape those holes. I know it’s not stylish, but it’s faster.
    • Shave the legs: people often think this is just a fashion or style thing, but Specialized proved otherwise in their “win tunnel.” Faster riders can save upwards of 70s over a 40K, but even an average rider can save some 30-40s.
    • Braid your hair: if you have long hair a tight, short braid will be faster than pony tails or a hair bun. For further benefit, tuck it into your jersey. Again, Specialized showed even this small change saves some good time.
    • Wear tight clothing: if you don’t have a skin suit, find that jersey that doesn’t quite fit anymore. 🙂 Loose clothing will ripple and catch wind. Even race cut jerseys will tend to pucker/fold at the front when you’re in a good, tucked position. An easy tip: bend over into a tucked position, pull your jersey down until it’s smooth, roll up the extra at the bottom and pin it with a safety pin. It’ll look weird when you’re just standing around, but it’ll be perfect when racing.
    • Pin the bib number: or better yet, get into a tucked position and have a friend pin it for you. Make sure the number if flat across the top where wind can get in. I use a minimum of 12 pins for a TT (one on each corner, two on each side). 3M also sells and adhesive spray you can use, but pin it as well if you do, so you don’t accidentally lose your number.
      Don’t give the wind an advantage. [PC: James Gann]
  6. Get a good start: before your start, make sure to find a solid starting gear. Remember, you’ll already be on the bike and clipped in, but you want a gear that allows you to spin up quickly without using too much power, and without having to stand. Set your starting gear before you get to the start line.
  7. DON’T STAND! I know this gives you more power on a climb, but unless that climb slows you to below a relative airspeed of about 12 mph, you’re just creating a larger surface area, and you’re using up more of your power reserves (for you numbers/math peeps, check this out).
  8. Practice your turn: on an out-and-back, you’ll be at minimum speed in 2 locations: the start, and your turn. The faster you can get up to speed from the start and turn-around, the better. The shorter your braking distance into the turn, the better (though if you miss the turn or crash, then it’s obviously not worth it).Turns are typically performed on a 2-lane road, so a width of about 24-30′. There will be an official or volunteer at the turn, making sure you don’t turn before the turning cone. Usually, there will be up to three cones in a row, and you have to turn after – but as close to – that last cone. A few things to remember:
    • Know how long it takes you to slow down to a safe turning speed. If you overshoot the turn, you’ll ride farther and take longer. But if you enter the turn too fast, you could risk a crash. If you slow down too soon, you’ll be slow entering the turn, losing time. If the weather is wet, make sure to adjust your braking time accordingly.
    • Downshift before your turn but increase your cadence to compensate and maintain speed. The lower gear will allow you to ramp your speed right after the turn.
    • Practice turning. Find an empty neighborhood road or parking lot and practice accelerating, slowing, turning, and accelerating again. Rinse and repeat that oval.
    • Try to stay clipped in. If you have to unclip to prevent crashing, by all means, but staying clipped in will save you time.


  9. Race past the line: this is not just for TT, but for any race. I’ve seen races lost by less than an inch because people post up early or think they’ve won. In a race that comes down to tenths or even hundredths of a second, don’t let up until you’re sure you’re past the line.
    It ain’t over until AFTER it’s over. [PC: James Gann]

  10. Race for you. The beautiful thing about a time trial is that even if you don’t win, you can win. Ride against yourself, not anyone else. Focus on your speed and performance, and do the best you can. Then come back to the race next time and try to beat your own time.