Time trials are called “the race of truth” because it’s just rider and machine against the clock with the fittest1 person winning. I interpret things differently. My interpretation is that time trials are the race of truth because if you don’t know how to pace them, the truth is, you’re going to have a bad time.
We want you to have fun during time trials so let’s talk pacing. The most basic pacing strategy is to break a race into quarters:
1. For the first quarter, once up to speed, settle into an effort that feels to be towards the bottom of your threshold zone.
2. Increase the pace a bit for the second quarter and go a little harder.
3. The third quarter would finally get you to 100%.
4. The fourth quarter is laying it all out there and increasing the pace if possible (if you paced it right, you won’t be able to increase the pace until the finish line is in sight).
Sounds simple. The reality is that course profile and weather conditions dictate the pacing strategy. As an example, let’s do a case study using the Tour of the Gila time trial, which has some tough climbs and is usually windy.
Pictured is an example race-day plan using a mapping program (ridewithGPS.com) and a weather app (bestbikesplit.com is another option for creating a plan). With the Gila time trial course, the goal is to start off quicker than you would using the above “quarters” strategy. This is because of the fast descent after the first climb, which allows for some recovery.
After the descent, on the middle section of the course, the goal is to settle into a good hard effort. Once to the final climb, it’s full gas. Here, we think about the weather. The descent to the finish is fast and has the added tailwind so it will be hard to gain much time. As a result, the goal is to “finish” the race once the descent begins as the last 4 miles will pass by quick and pedaling will be difficult.
Now let’s see how it went for a couple of our athletes. For athlete 1, they started off too strong. While they do great getting up to speed, they maintain a high pace for too long. In this instance, the athlete felt they had to chase down the racer in front of them. The result is their power (the purple line) is already decreasing due to fatigue by the time they reach the top of the climb. Later in the race when heading up the final climb, they weren’t able to put out the power needed because of fatigue.
Athlete 2 does a much better job early in the race. They are quick to get up to speed and then settle into a pace which is only slightly above what they’ll average for the entire race. This athlete though, tackles the middle of the course too strong and is fatigued for the final climb. Power (again in purple) starts high for the climb but fades towards the top when it is critical that the athlete gets up to top speed for the descent.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. All of these figures and data analysis are pretty daunting. However, the concepts are really simple: know the course, know the weather, and ignore your competition so you can do your own race.
That last point comes with a bit of a caveat. Towards the end of the race when you’re deep in the pain cave, use the other racers as carrots to chase down. Let that killer instinct out and you can find that motivation to push just a bit harder.
Pacing is a bit of an art form and only gets better with practice. To improve, creating a race-day plan and then reviewing how that plan went is vital. And lessons learned from one race still apply to completely different races. After reviewing the above files and talking with the athletes, they’ll be better prepared for their next race. Just hope they don’t start behind you…thanks for reading!
1 What an embarrassing oversimplification. While fitness is important, maybe the most important factor is aerodynamics. It’s a discussion for a future post…