How to watch a time trial: a beginner's guide


This week, the 2022 UCI Road World Championships will be on home soil for only the second time in history. So, this might well be the first time you’ve ever watched a road cycling time trial.

Lucky for you, we’ve put together this handy guide to get you up to speed on the ‘race of truth’.

Read this guide so you know what’s happening as you watch the Aussies race in Wollongong – or just to know enough to bluff your way through the water cooler conversation!

What is an individual time trial?

An individual time trial is a simple race against the clock.

You ride by yourself, aiming to cover the course as fast as you can.

Riders will tackle the course one-by-one. There’s usually a few minutes’ gap between start times to minimise the chance of riders overtaking each other.

After all the riders have finished the course, the one who set the fastest time is the winner.

Australian cyclist riding an individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships
Photo: Casey Gibson

How do I tell who’s winning?

As the day progresses, the rider who has posted the fastest time so far – the provisional leader – gets to sit in the ‘hot seat’, a designated chair in front of the TV cameras. They stay there until another rider beats their time, or (hopefully for them) until the last rider has completed the course.

Usually, there will be several intermediate time checks located throughout the course. These record the riders’ split times as they pass those checkpoints, allowing you to compare how fast each rider covered that subsection of the course.

Sometimes, the broadcaster will show live time gaps between competitors as they ride, using GPS technology to track, in real time, how two riders are faring compared to each other.

Grace Brown in the hot seat of individual time trial at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games
Grace Brown (centre) sits in the hot seat as provisional leader of the Commonwealth Games time trial.

What’s with the bikes?

Cyclists use specialised equipment to cheat the wind during time trials.

Most obviously, the handlebars have forward extensions that allow the rider to crouch down in an aerodynamic position, resting on their forearms and elbows.

Typically, riders will use a disc wheel in the rear – with a solid surface instead of spokes – which smooths out turbulence and limits drag.

The bike frames are also designed with aerodynamics in mind: through hours of testing in a wind tunnel, the carbon fiber tubes are shaped to reduce air resistance.

These time trial bikes are banned in other bike races because they’re not safe for riding in a group – for example, when crouched in an aero position, the rider can’t quickly reach their brakes. They’re also not particularly comfortable over long distances.

They are purely high-performance tools with one purpose in mind: go fast.

Australian cyclist riding an individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships
Special time trial bikes allow riders to hold a tucked-in, aerodynamic position. (Photo: Getty Images)

What happens if they crash?

Once your race begins, the clock doesn’t stop, no matter what.

If misfortune strikes, forcing the rider to stop – like a flat tyre, equipment failure, or a crash – the rider will be bleeding time against their competitors.

Each rider is followed by their team car, which will have spare bikes on the roof and a mechanic inside. If the rider needs assistance, it’s the mechanic’s job to run out of the car, give a spare bike to the athlete, and help them get going again as soon as possible.

Often, the margins between the best riders are so small that losing even a handful of seconds from an accident can be the difference between winning and losing.

Australian cyclist riding an individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships
A team car follows the rider in case they need a spare bike. (Photo: Rob Jones)

Is it just about pedalling as fast as you can?

The individual time trial is called the ‘race of truth’ because it’s a pure test of ability: there is no slipstreaming or teamwork involved – it’s just you against the clock.

Having said that, it’s not just about being the strongest at pedalling a bike. Sure, your legs need to produce high power, with great cardiovascular fitness to keep that going.

But aerodynamics are important, so riders need flexibility, core strength and a good bike fit to maintain a low position.

Also, they need handling skills to steer their twitchy time trial bikes through corners.

Finally, a good pacing strategy is essential. Start too fast, and you risk fading with fatigue for the second half of the course. Start too easily, and you might not be able to make up for lost time.

Many riders aim for a ‘negative split’: ride the first part of the course slightly below your limit, so you keep energy in reserve to ramp up the pace and finish strongly.

Australian cyclist riding an individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships
Cornering and bike handling can be important in a time trial. (Photo: Rob Jones)

What about the team time trial? And the mixed relay?

The team time trial is another type of bike race. Similar to the individual time trial, it’s about completing the course in the shortest possible time.

But, instead of riding by yourself, you race in a team (as the name suggests).

Team time trials can be contested in teams of two, three, four – sometimes up to eight riders.

No matter the number of riders, the concept is this: start together as a team, ride together, and get your riders across the finish line as quickly as you can. The team that posts the fastest time wins the race.

(Sometimes, the rules don’t require every rider in the team to finish – your time might be recorded when your fourth rider crosses the line, for example).

Australian cyclists riding a team time trial
A team time trial. (Photo: Tour de l'Avenir)

In a team time trial, you have to work together as a team. Usually, you’ll form a single-file formation called a ‘paceline’. The rider in front must pedal harder because they’re pushing against air resistance, while their teammates ride in the slipstream and recover their strength.

After a while, the first rider will peel off and rejoin at the back of the paceline while a teammate takes over at the front.

In the UCI Road World Championships, there’s a unique event called the ‘team time trial mixed relay’.

It’s contested between teams of six: three men and three women.

The men will start first, riding as a trio to complete the course as quickly as they can. As soon as they cross the finish line, the women will start and tackle the same course. The team’s final time is recorded when their third woman crosses the finish line.

How can I watch the time trials at the 2022 UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong?

Rohan Dennis Australian cyclist with rainbow jersey and gold medal in individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships
The winner of the World Championship individual time trial is awarded a rainbow jersey. (Photo: Casey Gibson)

Time trials will make up the first four days of competition at Wollongong 2022.

The courses will take place on an urban circuit that starts and finishes in central Wollongong.

You can watch the 2022 UCI Road World Championships live on Stan Sport.

Here are the times and dates to know about, including the start times for Aussie riders as they are published (all times AEST):

Elite Women – Sunday, September 18, from 9:35am

  • Grace Brown starts 10:00am
  • Georgia Baker starts 11:30am

Elite Men – Sunday, September 18, from 1:20pm

  • Lucas Plapp starts 1:46pm

Under 23 Men – Monday, September 19, from 1:20pm

Junior Women – Tuesday, September 20, from 9:30am

  • Isabelle Carnes, Bronte Stewart, Lucinda Stewart

Junior Men – Tuesday, September 20, from 1:20pm

  • Will Eaves, Hamish McKenzie, Cameron Rogers

Team Time Trial Mixed Relay – Wednesday, September 21, from 2:20pm

  • Luke Durbridge, Michael Matthews, Ben O’Connor, Lucas Plapp, Nicholas Schultz, Georgia Baker, Brodie Chapman, Alexandra Manly, Sarah Roy (final startlist to be confirmed)

To learn more about the green-and-gold campaign at Wollongong 2022, read the Australian guide to the 2022 UCI Road World Championships.

Feature photo: Casey Gibson

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