TTs: a few thoughts

I get a lot of emails and questions about time trials.  Disclaimer: I have no desire to be a coach and my opinion is (a) likely to be wrong and (b) just one amongst a sea of armchair experts.  Either way, I’d like more people to do TTs and hopefully reading this will make you consider pinning on a number.


There’s an endless pool of clichés to describe TTs – in reality they fill different needs for different people.  Some wish to slay internal dragons, some do TTs solely to win, others because they love the gear.  All I know is that TTs provide me with ripe, very real moments and opportunities to experience true flow.  Plus they require lots of carbon toys, which is half (actually, maybe 75%) of the fun of bike riding. The following is a primer to get you thinking about the requirements and idiosyncrasies of TTs.

Step One: check your ego at the door


“It’s cool that you’re strong and I respect it….I do.  But in the end, everybody breaks bro. It’s biology.”

So says CIA officer ‘Dan’ as he tortures Ammar, an unfortunate Yemini detainee in Zero Dark Thirty.  It’s a great film and was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars for a reason.  Aside from being a thought provoking movie on the ethics of the hunt for OBL, I thought Dan’s words also illustrate an important lesson in TTs.

Biology is why, whether you’re Cancellara or a C-Grader, exceeding your 60 minute threshold for the first 10 minutes of a TT will make the next 50 minutes deeply unpleasant.  More important than the discomfort, it will also make those 50 minutes needlessly slow.

This is the first truth of time trials: they punish momentary heroics as much as they reward adherence to process and discipline.  If the pain of sprinting is like an electric shock, TTs are like holding your hand in a fire for an hour.  Both hurt, just differently.

Respect your biology, but remember that you can change your limits through training. This leads us to step two.

Step Two: Find your limit, train it, discover a new limit.

Your limit is the maximum force you can generate for a prescribed duration. You have both a physical limit and a mental limit. A mental limit that exceeds a physical limit will result in going too hard; a lower mental limit not hard enough. The variance between each will depend on your (a) motivation and (b) insight.  You will improve both through trial and error.  This means testing yourself in training and/or racing. Your limit is everything.

As Zero Dark Thirty continues, Dan creates a behaviour/response linkage as he tortures Ammar, telling him over and over “When you lie to me, I hurt you.”

This link between deception and pain also applies to TTs:  lying to yourself and going too hard will result in physical discomfort, lying to yourself and taking it easy will result in mental torment as you try to sleep that night.

Essentially, to ride honestly is to surf the knife edge between biology and perceived limits.

A technique to find that Knife Edge: Thought Stopping

Thought stopping is the suppression of negative thoughts, a therapeutic technique for people with anxiety disorders.  I also find it to be a useful tool in TTs.

One of the first lessons that sport teaches us as kids is the role of the mind as a key limiter when we’re suffering (I also have a theory that courage is inversely correlated to heart rate).   Your ability to realise your maximum-physically-possible output is governed by your mental mastery.  This factor represents the performance difference between two physically equivalent athletes, and the reason why sports psychologists are kept in business.

So give Thought Stopping a try: when any negative thought enters your head, simply say the word ‘stop’.  Literally say it out loud.

Train yourself so that the word ‘stop’ instantly clears your head of any cognition whatsoever. With practice, the word ‘stop’ becomes the equivalent of Pavlov’s bell, eliciting momentary mental silence.  With an empty mind, you can then refocus on things within your internal locus of control – power, pacing, cadence, position and nutrition.

As a slight aside, the stoic philosophers would have been mad-dog TTers because they get the required mindset.  The Romans didn’t have aero helmets or ice vests, but Marcus Aurelius hits a hole-in-one with the line “confine yourself to the present”.  Remembering that line alone will serve you well in your next TT.

Here’s a few TTs in Melbourne to get you started:

You don’t need a special bike to start with, so just turn up on your roadie. This discipline is as much a battle against yourself as it is against others, so the Lightweight disc purchase is initially unnecessary (until you run out of non-equipment related excuses for not winning, then go to town).

  • Mt Donna Buang TT – Saturday 23rd March
  • Kew ITT – Sunday 21st April
  • Phillip Island ITT – Saturday 13th July



2 thoughts on “TTs: a few thoughts

    1. Yes I do. However, the performance gains from pacing a TT correctly outweigh this 10/1, so I’ll continue to stare at the numbers while I race.

      Listening to music in a TT is another interesting question. There has been a few studies showing it is performance enhancing – but I wouldn’t choose to listen to music in a TT, even if we were allowed. I just think it would reduce my focus.

      What do you think?

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