Legs against the clock: What does it take to be a good time-triallist? Allez! Allez! CC consults the experts…

Yesterday at the UCI World Championships in Yorkshire we witnessed possibly one of the greatest time-trialling performances of all time.

Young American Chloe Dygert Owen obliterated a world class field to take the women’s elite TT rainbow jersey, despite conditions better suited to ducks that elite cyclists.

To ram home the point of just how bad the weather conditions were, it’s worth searching for the videos on social media of European champion Johan Price-Pejtersen and Hungarian rider Attila Valter.

Price-Pejtersen hits a huge puddle and immediately gets thrown from his bike and engulfed in the water while Valter’s crash in the wet conditions – which ends with him skidding 50 yards down the road – really needs to be seen to be believed.

But conditions aside, what does it take to be a good time-trialler?

Allez! Allez! CC chatted to former World Champion Bert Grabsch – who took the rainbow jersey in 2008 in Varese – and Britain’s John Archibald, who was second in the national TT this year, part of the GB team that took bronze on Sunday in the new mixed relay TTT and will take to the start ramp in Northallerton later today for the individual event.

Track specialist Archibald, who has had a fine road season, was only drafted in to race the TT at the last minute after former Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas pulled out.

Here’s what the pair had to say about their triumphs, technique and everything in between.

Bert Grabsch (Germany)

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How did the time trial became your specialism – when did you discover that you could push yourself deep against the clock?

When I was junior I won the time trial and in my first year as an amateur, I was second in the German championships in 1997. I participated in the team time trial 100km with Jens Lehmann and Thomas Liese! This was my hardest time trial ever and from then on I was sure I could specialise in the time trials.

What do you think is required to be a good time trialist?

You have to be concentrated, focussed and you must go over your limit. But very important

to be a good time trialist you have to train time trial at the winter and at the season once or twice per week on your time trial bike!

What is more important for a time trial – mental strength or physical strength or can the two not exist without the other?

I think you need both to win a big time trial. It must suit you and you need a lot of strength both mental or physical!

How would you prepare for a time trial? Perhaps in the weeks/days leading up to it and on the day itself?

You have to sit on your time trial bike twice per week or more for an important time trial.

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In terms of the position, compared to the normal bike, its more difficult!

You breathe deeper and your body must be one unity. No training on the time trial bike equals no success!

You became world time trial champion in 2008, just describe that day – the preparation, the ride, the emotions.

This was the biggest day of my life. I was German Champion and I’d won a stage at the Vuelta that year. I knew that I was in good shape and the course suited me perfectly.

The legs were very good and I’d prepared well and my form on the day was 100%.

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It’s a day I’ll never forget because it was undoubtedly the biggest success of my career.

You took victories in ITTs at the Vuelta, the Dauphine and four German national ITT – how does each differ in terms of their importance? Is an individual TT in a Grand Tour much harder to prepare for than the German nationals?

It’s definitely harder in a GT because I had to work for my sprinters Greipel, Cavendish or Goss in a Grand Tour and for the mountain stages I was on the limit because I wasn’t a climber. I was not fresh and not for full power!

For a one day time trial – like the national TT or the Worlds – I had the perfect preparation and I was relaxed.

How much importance do teams put on ITTs (and TTTs)? You were a member of the Colombia team which had some very good time trialists (you, Tony Martin, Brad Wiggins etc) – was it a focus or were the TTs left to the individual rider?

My team Colombia did a lot for time trial training – wind tunnel testing or aero testing and must have a good aero time trial bike!

In my time I had Giant and Specialized bikes but today every bike company has a perfect aero bike!

John Archibald (Great Britain)

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How important is your track background to the success you’ve had in TTs over the last few years? Does one feed into the other? 

In my case, the TT background has fed into my track work. The crossover isn’t straight forward, but the attributes required are very relatable.

I’ve found that pacing on the track, using a fixed gear and no power/speed data (other than a lap split every 15secs), means that I’m now much more in touch with pacing by feel.

In turn, this has helped my time-trialling on the road, where previously I was too “number-driven”.

Similarly, how has the work you’ve put into the time trials affected your road race performances? You’ve been strong in a number of rounds of the National Road Series and obviously got the win at Stockton last weekend – is it the case that TTs can benefit road races? 

I enjoy both, so this helps massively in my training and preparation. You can definitely be good at one discipline, without specific training for the other. So I wouldn’t say you need to have both abilities to be successful. On the flip side, my style of racing encompasses both disciplines and they have fed off each other this year.

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If you have a big threshold and can back in up with endurance, you’ll be able to hang with the moves in the later stages of the race. The finishing touch is the big anaerobic kick to win the race… which is something I’m still working on.

How much of a leveller is a time trial? You were sandwiched between two WT riders on the podium in the national road race champs this year, does it come down to individual rider strengths rather than what level you’re racing at week in, week out? 

In a time trial, long stage races and high training loads seem to become less indicative of performance. In that sense, it levels the playing field with people who have less time to train.

In my case, I have the hours available, but choose to favour short and specific sessions that target my goals. A thorough course recon and suitable equipment choices also make a huge difference. But again, this isn’t something totally restricted to World Tour riders.

What strategy did you employ in terms of the pace etc going into the nationals this year?

Considering you had to be on the power all race, since the downhills were never really steep enough to enjoy a substantial recovery, you couldn’t drift far from the threshold. I had a modest strategy with a bandwidth of power in mind, and the potential to build into the time trial if I felt good.

As it came to it, my modest strategy turned out to be really hard and I had to fight to hold my form and speed towards the line. This is maybe why I had a good ride – it ended up being fairly evenly paced.

How much time have you spent getting your position right on the bike and how often have you changed that riding position over the years – is there any particular point where there was a moment of clarity which has influenced your position?

I always search for improvements in my position, although this refinement process has become much more subtle as the years have gone by. Every time I change something, there is a light bulb moment, whether it teaches me why I liked something previously; or like something new.

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For instance, I changed my bar setup for nationals this year and it took me over a month to feel comfortable on it.

The difference of millimetres can be what feels right and wrong. The only way to pinpoint it is by spending time on the bike. In the last two years, I have fiddled much less, but in the initial stages, I could be making 30mm to 40mm changes just to experience the extremes of each position.

What kind of preparation do you go through ahead of a time trial – how easy is it to switch from road race mode to TT mode? 

A lot of intervals that are specific to the event – it’s no secret what’s required to ride a good time trial. I regularly incorporate this type of training into my program, so the specificity period towards a big time trial doesn’t actually take that long for me.

Being aware and realistic about your ability is crucial. Just because people brag about huge FTP numbers, doesn’t mean you have to go out and match it. I start somewhere comfortable and build the numbers as high as I can. You have to test the boundaries to find this out, but the sensations become very familiar once you’ve done it consistently for a few seasons.

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