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Whether it’s a short prologue, a national time trial championship or the Olympic team pursuit race, the “race against the clock” is one of the hardest and most beautiful races in the sport of cycling.
There’s no jostling for position in a peloton, no duking it out in the final sprint, no hiding. It’s just pure speed, endurance and the ability to suffer as the seconds tick away.
To help you get ready for your next event and to give you some insight in how one of the world’s best does it, former time trial world champion Ellen van Dijk was kind enough to share her routine and preparations with us.
Standing tall at 1.82 meters, van Dijk is an absolute powerhouse and a four-time world champion: twice as part of the Specialized-Lululemon team time trial squad, once in the individual time trial and once on the track in the scratch race.
Crediting her physiology and her background as a speedskater for gravitating toward becoming a time trial specialist, van Dijk said she has always been, naturally, good at time trials. But that doesn’t mean that being a good time trialist is purely genetic.
“I like the challenge of trying to push my limits again and again. I’m not saying that I enjoy suffering, but it can be extremely rewarding. Knowing that my natural abilities suit time trialing, I of course started investing even more time and energy in that discipline and that definitely helps, too,” said van Dijk.
When winning comes down to fractions of second, having the right gear certainly helps. But ultimately, it still comes down to the rider.
“The victory of a time trial is great. You know that you really were the strongest that day and that’s a real kick. Or, if you weren’t the strongest, than you can blame no one but yourself. Times do not lie, [time trialing] is a very pure discipline and that’s why I find it so beautiful. There’s no hiding in time trialing!” said van Dijk.
First things first: you have to spend time in the time trial position
“The best time trial training is to do it,” said van Dijk. “I train regularly on my time trial bike and usually do blocks of competition intensity. I also try to regularly do a time trial as training. That way you practice not only the intensity of a time trial but also the warm-up and everything around it.
“I try to ride my TT bike once a week. Leading up to an important competition, I will spend around two to three times a week on the time trial bike.”
Think about anything but the pain
“It is difficult to train the mental aspect [of time trialing],” said van Dijk. “But again, train by doing. Thoughts are difficult to control and some days you might be more positive than others.”
“I tend to look for all possible diversion to not think about the pain in my legs. Task-oriented thinking works well. Think about the course, breathing, cadence, things like that. Unfortunately, I don’t always succeed at remaining 100 percent focused either.”
Familiarize yourself with the course
“I always make sure that I have closely studied and pre-ridden the course,” said van Dijk.
Warm-up before the race
Van Dijk’s warm-up routine is intended to wake up and activate every muscle group.
“I always do a warm-up program of about 30 minutes on the trainer. In those 30 minutes, I activate my entire system,” said van Dijk, adding that every single minute of those 30 minutes has a specific purpose.
“And, if the race is in the evening, I will also ride for a short hour in the morning.”
“Before a time trial, I eat a lot of carbohydrates, some protein, few fibers and fats,” Van Dijk said. “For example, I will eat oatmeal with banana, raisins and cinnamon. Or, depending on the time of the race, I will eat rice with chicken.”
Nerves are completely normal!
Even after all her experience and successes, van Dijk said she still gets nervous, especially before a team time trial.
“I’m usually more nervous for a team time trial than for an individual time trial. The idea that I am not only responsible for my own performance but that of the whole team makes me extra nervous,” she said. “But I do think it’s a wonderful discipline, and the euphoria afterwards when you perform together is fantastic. It is something very special.”