Inside the weird and wonderful world of the British time trial
Joe Laverick is a 19-year-old on AG2R’s feeder team in France. He’s living the life of an aspiring pro, trying to make it into the WorldTour, and so we asked him to tell us what it’s like. With no racing going on at the moment, he filed this piece on the origins of his own love of racing: the British time trial scene. Keep an eye out for more from Joe as the year progresses.
R25/3H. V718. E2/10. To most of you, these will mean nothing. The other 2%, I’d be willing to gamble, are British time-trialists. Don’t be ashamed if you have no idea what these codes mean, they were designed that way.
When the British government imposed a road-racing ban in the 1890s, British cyclists had to get inventive. The time-trial was born. It allowed cyclists to race but under the nose of the authorities. Going off at one-minute intervals, it was impossible for the authorities to prove that they were racing.
The codes indicate the course location, and they’re difficult to crack.
Since its early scofflaw days, the British time-trialling scene has developed into a niche the likes of which is only found in Britain. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain.
If you happen to stumble across a rural village hall and see hundreds of people with tight-fitting lycra and funny shaped helmets, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Star Wars convention. You’d be wrong. We have a special relationship with time trials in Britain — in a way, they’re as quintessentially British as a cup of tea. I believe we’re the only country in the world with a governing body dedicated to TTs. We’ve refused to let British Cycling get in on the act – Cycling Time Trials (CTT) is a strong and independent governing body.
The most popular forms of TTs in Britain are without doubt the ‘10’ and ‘25’. Of course, we’re working in miles for these distances; we’ll be dragged into the metric, modern world kicking and screaming.
All courses are out-and-back, so you can’t simply find a 10-mile stretch with a tailwind, but some are certainly faster than others. Riders travel up and down the country in search of ‘fast’ courses.
These are usually dual carriageways with plenty of cars to give you a good draft. I did my best ever time when I was 16. I’ve got 40 more watts now, but I can’t come close to my PB. It’s all about the course, and that course was banned for being too busy with cars — spoil sports. The current record for a ‘10’ is 16:35. Yup, 16 minutes and 35 seconds to ride a bicycle 10-miles (16 km). That’s an average speed of around 36.2 mph (58.2 kph). The ‘25’ record is just as impressive, currently standing at 42:58 — a 34.9 mph (56.17 kph) average.
It’s clear to see we’re not messing around with our time-trialling. Marcin Bialoblocki is the man who holds both of these records. If you look at a list of former holders there’s names like Dowsett, Yates, Boardman, Obree and Wiggins. It’s a who’s who of British cycling history. The CTT also offers distances such as a 50-mile, 100-mile, 12 hours and 24 hours. While these are less popular, there’s a collection of nutters who absolutely love them.
Race HQ is almost always a village hall. When it’s not a village hall, it’s a pub car park. Once you arrive, you sign next to your name and receive your number.
The car park is a sight itself. For bike geeks far and wide, don’t bother going to the next trade show; come to a British club TT. There’ll be enough bike porn to last a lifetime. The carpark is dripping with TT machines which most WorldTour riders would be envious of; club riders aren’t governed by pesky UCI regulations or team sponsors, you see.
Once you’ve eyed your dream bike, it’s time to play ‘spot-a-pro’. Club time-trials gives pros an opportunity to simulate a race day and get a really good workout without the risk of a pesky office-worker crashing them out.
In 2015, Bradley Wiggins turned up to an ‘Open 10’. The world TT champ at the time, he rolled up with a full rainbow skinsuit, and a golden helmet in honour of his Olympic title. His minute man? Andy Birdsall, a full-time sales representative for an electronics company. Birdsall set a time of 24:52, Wiggins, 17:58.
For professionals and amateurs, the club TT is a place of pain and self-development. On any given Tuesday evening in summer you can have a schoolboy, a teacher, a retired firefighter and a WorldTour professional in the same race. The current British national TT champion, Alex Dowsett, started his career on the club TT scene. You’ll often see him tweeting about his local course, the Maldon 10.
“It’s a place where everyone is going through the exact same battle against the clock,” he said of his favorite races. “Young or old, male or female, rich or poor, it doesn’t differentiate. This became particularly apparent when, after clocking a fast time, I chatted with a 50-something-year-old lady about how our respective races had gone. She quoted ‘I really struggled in the sector after the petrol station.’ I replied, ‘Yeah, me too, that was grippy’.
“She just gave me a confused look and a remark that given my time I’d have barely felt it. That was the thing. We all endure the same battle with the course and clock as each other, just at different speeds.”
The paradoxical nature of the TT scene is what I love most. It’s a chasm between technology and retroness. Obsessiveness and friendliness. On one hand, you have space-age kit. There’s 3D-printed handlebars and custom-made fairings on helmets. Amateurs regularly visit wind tunnels and the talk of the carpark is watts and CdA.
But it’s a simple sport. You can do it on a borrowed bike, or you can spend twenty grand. There’s not a timing chip in sight and you can still sign up for races by postal entry.
Thinking about it, there’s rarely a start line, definitely not a start ramp that you see in the WorldTour. Each rider is timed with a simple stopwatch and your number dictates the order you start in. To find the start line, there’s niche instructions like: ‘The start is in the layby after the third lamppost, north-east of village X’.
While some ‘pure racers’ give time-triallists a bit of friendly abuse, I feel they envy the community spirit of our niche discipline. For many, it’s ideal: you can work a full-time job, have a family, train eight hours a week and still be competitive. It’s virtually impossible to be wiped out by another rider, so it’s safer as well. Plus, once you’ve returned your number at the end of the race and received a free cup of tea in return, everyone’s your friend.
This is what separates us from out and out road racers: everyone’s complimentary. Sipping their tea, everyone huddles around the noticeboard waiting for the organiser to write each person’s time.
Once the results are up, it’s time to go through the book of excuses. The weather is a good one, pacing another, or the classic ‘I got held up at the roundabout’. We’re on open roads remember. But that’s the thing, your time is your time. You may have had a good day, or a bad day, but there’s always a fellow TTer to pat you on the back and say, ‘good ride lad’. As Dowsett says, professional or amateur, everyone has the same struggles in a TT, just at different speeds.
On a personal level, I’m a young and aspiring professional. My ‘race career’ started at the humble club TT on an eight-speed road bike with a flappy jersey. These days it’s more aero but it’s still the same process. I’ve embraced the TT scene – one could say I identify as a time-trialist. I love how one weekend I can be racing a UCI event in Europe with WorldTour teams, then the next week I can be getting ready out the back of my Dad’s car in a pub carpark.
It doesn’t matter who you are, or what level you ride at, everyone’s equal. Everyone wants to help. Time-trialists are nutjobs, and I’m one of those nutjobs. I spend hours fawning over watt-saving quick-release skewers and taping up parts of my bike to ‘aid air flow’ that probably save half a watt. Once I’ve saved my half-watt, I’ll smash myself to pieces for 10 miles just for the fun of it.
And what about R25/3H, V718, and E2/10? Well, V718 is a 10-mile TT near Hull, North England. R25/2H is a 25-mile TT in South Wales. I can’t tell you what E2/10 is. It’s top secret.
Feature image from @C_Lawrence_Photography.