Unlike sprinters, time trialists usually fit into two physical categories. The first category are built like tanks – not short, but thick set with big chests to accommodate big lungs and powerful legs to keep the pedals spinning. Think Fabian Cancellara. Other time trialists are more rangy creatures, with long lanky limbs and not a huge amount of body weight. Their slim builds make them more aerodynamic, and the long legs make for more powerful pedal strokes. Think Bradley Wiggins or David Millar.
Although hill-climbs are perhaps the most unrelenting challenge for professional cyclists, time trials are perhaps the most vicious, simply because there is no place to hide. Time trials are a very simple idea – it is an individual race against the clock over a set distance. The fastest rider over the distance wins. There is no peloton, no groups and no drafting. If you catch the person who set off two minutes ahead of you, then you are obliged to pass them. If you sit in their slipstream, or in the slipstream of a camera motorbike, or in the slipstream of a team car, you are disqualified. It is, quite frankly, rather brutal. The trick is rhythm and cadence – keeping your legs spinning at the same speed consistently for long periods of time is vital, as is keeping a schedule and working to it. As Chris Boardman explains, time trialists have to ask themselves a question – ‘Can I sustain this effort until the finish?’ If the answer is yes, you aren’t going hard enough. If no, then you’ve already lost. The answer should be maybe.
When watching a time trial, there is a clear visual difference to other stages or races. Not only is there no peloton, there is a marked difference in equipment. For a few hours cycling makes a foray into Formula 1 territory, with aerodynamics and weight taking on an even bigger significance than usual. Tri-bars are fitted, which allow cyclists to tuck in their elbows; aero-wheels which slice through the air more effectively are used, special ‘skin suits’ which resemble seriously tight lycra onsies are made to fit each individual rider, and special aerodynamic helmets are worn – all in an attempt to decrease wind resistance. The rider also adapts their position on the bike, sitting right forward on the point of the saddle.
As with sprint stages, different routes can favour different riders and time trials can take on many forms. Some are a very simple flat out-and-back bosh, whilst other courses can be far more technical, with lumps bumps and short climbs, as well as tight corners included. Certain riders thrive on the more technical aspects and are better through corners or up climbs, which is where they gain their time, and others are better at the flat out mosh to the finish. The format that time trials take and how they are used by race organisers can also be varied. Time trials are often used as prologues, providing an exciting start to stage races, they can be adapted to hill climbs, or sometimes they can morph into team time trials. Team time trials are an amazing treat for viewers, where whole teams take to the road in a team pursuit style race along road courses.
Time trials are used as individual stages in the Grand Tours, but also possess their own World Championships and their own race at the Olympic Games. There are normally only a small number of time trials that take place within the Grand Tours, usually only two or three, but their significance for the overall standing and the eventual winner of the general classement can be huge. In the Tour de France for example, where there is usually a time trial after the mountains but before the final stages on the run into Paris, time trials have become a virtual king-maker. If two rivals have managed to keep each other in check right through the mountains, then the best time trialist is able to break the deadlock and virtually win the overall title. Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in the 1989 final time trial by eight seconds, snatching the yellow jersey from the Frenchman. Eight seconds is still the smallest winning margin ever in the Tour de France. The significance of this has not gone unnoticed by professional cyclists – in order to be a serious contender for the overall victory, being able to time trial well is a must.
In recent times, time trialling has been dominated by one man, the enigmatic Swiss Fabian Cancellara. Nicknamed ‘Spartacus’, Cancellara has used his time trialling ability to good effect, often wearing the yellow jersey in the opening stages of the Tour de France after taking it in the opening prologue. Other fantastic modern time trialists include the current time trial World Champion German Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins and David Millar. Historically, riders such as Miguel Indurain and Chris Boardman have been acknowledged as fantastically talented at the time trial.