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Time Trials: Cycling Against the Clock

By Sheila Ascroft  


OBC women's time trial. Photo by Benoit Deshaies

Ten seconds to my turn. My heart rate is already up in anticipation. I’m clipped into my pedals, waiting, balanced on my bike by the strong hands of a volunteer grasping the back of my saddle. I hear the timer call, “Three, two, one.” I push down hard on my top pedal as I feel the bike release from behind. I’m off and racing! It’s a 15 km (9.25 mile) out-and-back loop on the shoulder of a low-traffic parkway. 

I pedal hard and fast for a few minutes, and then try to settle into a rhythm. It’s a fine line between giving your all and holding back enough. Too hard and I’ll sputter out before the finish; too easy and my time will be slow—again.  

Already, I can hear my heavy breathing. I lean forward and rest my forearms on the aerobars. They are temporarily attached to my road bike to help cut the wind resistance (the faster you go, the greater the resistance). I don’t compete enough to buy a specifically designed time-trial bike, which has an aerodynamic frame and permanent aerobars.  

I sit up for a quick slurp of water and see the cyclist who started 30 seconds before me. There’s a good chunk of distance between us. No close-quarters racing here. No elbows being thrown like in a criterium or mass sprint. Time trials put the individual cyclist against the clock. The winner is whoever finishes the fastest. Simple but hard to do.  

I return to the aerobars and immediately feel less wind hitting me. They really do work as Greg LeMond found out when he won the 1989 Tour de France. He was the first to use them and won by a mere eight seconds after three weeks of racing!  

I try to keep a steady but quick pedalling cadence. I try to not just mash the pedals down but remember to pull up and pedal in circles. It’s hard to stay efficient and calm when literally every second counts. Then I hear what every time trialist dreads the whir of wheels approaching from behind. Damn. It’s the cyclist who started 30 seconds after me. She’s already made up the interval. Whizzing by me like I’m stuck in mud, I see that she is young, fit and deep into an aero tuck. And very fast. 

“You go girl,” I shout in encouragement. This is a friendly “women-only” competition run weekly by my club, the Ottawa Bicycle Club. While it also offers a weekly time trial series for both men and women (most clubs do), the club decided to encourage more women by providing a supportive and separate series. Participants range from serious racers to recreational riders so abilities vary widely. The only thing that matters is trying your best. With staggered starts and the slow cyclists going first, no one is left alone on the course while others celebrate at the finish.  

Although first place goes to the fastest, there are also race categories based on age. So even if I’m not competitive overall, there is still an incentive to be the fastest in my age group, the 60-69 year-olds. At the end of the season, there are a bunch of awards; one for overall fastest rider and my favourite, one for most improved rider. This series is run by club volunteers including men, who often help out holding bikes at the starting line.  

My instinct was to chase after the woman who passed me, but she’s too swift. Plus, there is one rule in time trials: you cannot “draft” (sit tucked in behind another rider). This would give you an unfair advantage as you would be protected from the wind by the cyclist in front. We don’t cheat here.  

Pedalling against time

At the turn around, I spot my “30-second cyclist” ahead. She seems to be slowing just a touch. It gives me the incentive to chase. I know I’m pushing my body. My mind wants to go faster but my breathing is laboured and my legs just can’t move any quicker. It’s becoming harder to stay down on the aerobars. I breathe better sitting up with my hands on the drops (bottom part of my curved handlebar). The wind hits me hard. I slip back into my tuck and pedal. I will my mind to just ride, not think. I will my lungs to move in and out.  

When I do look up, the rider ahead is closer. So is the finish line. No more holding back. I allow my mind force my body to work harder. I can barely take in any air I’m puffing so hard. My pulse is pounding in my ears. It’s going to be close. I want to back off. I want to stop. I hear someone off to the side yell, “don’t quit now,” and I don’t. But I miss her at the line. Damn. Then I coast. Once my heart and lungs calm down a bit, I pedal oh-so-slowly to recover.  

The results are read out in the parking lot before the bikes are packed away and we head off for the local pub. The fastest time is 20:23. Wow. The slowest is 28:56. Mine. Damn. Last again. Fourth out of four in my age group. Wait. I’ve broken 30 minutes! This is a personal best.  

“Nice ride,” someone says.  

 “Thanks. See you next Tuesday.” 

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