Road bike time trialling – does it work?

Rider numbers in time trials are falling rapidly. Could road bike only competitions be the answer?

The time trialling scene in the UK is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s arguably the only place where someone can focus on this discipline and be able to fill their calendar without needing to travel. It’s also one of the cheapest in terms of entry fees – club events cost as little as £3 to enter (for now), entry on the line is allowed, and restrictions on bikes are very lenient.

So why are numbers falling? From 2016-2017, rides in CTT sanctioned time trials fell by 8,500, or 5%[i]. Clearly, something is amiss.

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Picture a time trial rider in your mind. I’m sure the first thing you see is a time trial bike. Compared to regular road or mountain bikes, time trial bikes are very expensive – and there’s an arguably accurate feeling that in order to be competitive, a ‘basic’ bike won’t do. You’ll need to add the cost of some specialist wheels and an aero helmet for a start – and that’s just the beginning.

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Of course, expensive road bikes aren’t all that rare – lots of people ride carbon bikes with carbon wheels just for a Sunday spin with their friends. The issue with a time trial bike is usability. You’re likely to be turned away if you show up to your local group ride on one – tri bars aren’t really made for bunch riding.

What’s more, while tri bars can be very comfortable, you’re going to need to train in the position to reap that benefit. If your TT bike is only coming out for 10 or 25 miles every other week in summer, you’ll generally find the position ‘bearable’. And that’s a realistic situation – after all, if I can’t ride my TT bike with my friends, and I’m obviously not leaving it at work, it’s not going to see a lot of use.

So, TT bikes are expensive, impractical, and generally less enjoyable to ride for a lot of people. You’re going to need one to be competitive, and you can’t really use it for anything else. It’s no wonder that many people point to the perceived accessibility issues caused by equipment as one reason for the drop in numbers.

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The deceptively simple-sounding solution here is to make a category for road bikes only. It’s not a new idea, and many individual events or leagues attempt the same with mixed results. Last weekend, I went along to marshal at a road bike only TT to see how things worked. The event was organised by AeroCoach.

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How do you define a road bike? This is always a big point for debate. Here are the rules from the weekend:

Most riders start cycling with a normal road bike, and CTT regulations allow any kind of bike to take part. We have a goal of submitting a simple series of regulations to the CTT for approval, so that if an organiser wishes to have a separate road bike category for their event (or even wants to run a road bike only race) then the riders just refer to a standardised set of rules.

ROAD BIKE REGULATIONS
1. No aerobars, clip on aerobars or aero extensions can be used
2. Hands must be holding the handlebars at all times whilst racing (i.e. not with forearms resting on the handlebar)
3. Legs must only be covered to mid shin
4. Wheels may have no more than 90mm rim depth and must have at least 12 spokes
5. Helmets must have no visor
6. Ears must not be covered by the helmet (Giro Aerohead helmets are not permitted)

As far as I can tell, these rules allow basically anything that’s recognisable as a ‘road bike’ and ‘road’ kit, while disallowing just about all kit that is specific to time trials. This event was organised as a club event, and had an impressive 66 entries on the start sheet – although there were a few who didn’t show after some wet weather. Clearly, there’s an appetite.

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It’s also interesting to note that riders must keep their hands on the bars, which is often a point of controversy in road racing. Here’s the organiser’s take:

As a way to hopefully get more juniors and novice riders into the sport, we don’t think it would be a good idea for them to feel that they have to ride forearms only if others are doing it – it’s certainly a safety issue, and not always faster!

 

Watching riders pass, it was clear to see that everyone was on a road racing bike, but the range of budgets was very wide. After all, a road bike from a few years ago still ‘looks’ very similar to the latest top-end road machine, but is available for a tiny fraction of the cost. Of course, people generally already own road bikes when they discover time trialling, so there’s no ‘extra’ equipment to buy in order to race. Just show up with the same kit you use on any other day of the week, and look like everyone else.

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While the issue of falling rider numbers is unlikely to be as simple as an equipment problem, moves like this help to open up the sport and address the issue directly. Yes, there are many arguments over the specifics of rules, but to me it seems important to include everything that could be interpreted as ‘a road bike’ and exclude anything that could be interpreted as ‘specialist TT kit’ – after all, it’s not unusual for bikes to be sold as standard with deep carbon wheels, or for weekend warriors to enjoy riding aero race machines.

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Is it the future? I hope so. Yes, I enjoy my time trial bike, and yes, the sport is ultimately around going as fast as possible. However, it’s important to remember that the CTT equipment rules are already arbitrary – after all, a fully-faired recumbent would be faster – and that adding categories which include more riders can only be a good thing.

 

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[i]Cycling Time Trials Annual Report & Statement of Accounts 2017, p.3-4

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