Can You Handle the Truth?

Tackle cycling's ultimate fitness test and learn where your riding really stands

WARP SPEED: Professional triathlete Torbjörn Sindballe perfects the aerodynamic time-trial position at the San Diego Air and Space Technology Center's wind tunnel.     Photo: David Noon/San Diego Air and Space Technology Center

1) THE KEY SKILLS
RIDERS WHO AIM to excel at the time trial must first cultivate cycling's complete performance package. "It requires endurance and all types of fitness, aerobic and anaerobic," King says. "You have to be able to budget your energy expenditure and have great—incredible—mental focus. If you lose your focus for 15 seconds, it can be the difference between first and fifth place."

But fitness and focus are just the start. Successful riders also have to be on friendly terms with pain. "Time-trialists have the unique ability to push themselves to their absolute limits without any external motivation," says Jonathan Vaughters, a member of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France–winning 1999 squad, winner of Stage 5 of the Tour in 2001, and now the director of Team TIAA-CREF. "You've got to convince yourself to do something there's not a lot of immediate gratification for. I guess I'd call it the art of hurting yourself."

Finally, once you've adopted the race's masochistic mind-set, you'll need glutes and lower-back muscles more highly developed than those of your criterium-riding peers. "You've gotta have a strong ass," says Vaughters. "When riding a time trial, you're producing more of your power out of your rump than out of your quads." The best way to build those muscles? Get in the aero position and ride till you drop.

2) THE AERO POSITION
To begin training for your personal 25-mile test or for an official race, familiarize yourself with the aerodynamic riding position a time-trial bike requires: more hunched than on a standard road bike, with shoulders and back parallel to the ground, head low, and forearms together on the aero handlebars (see illustration at right). If you don't have a TT bike already gathering dust in your garage, you can always add a set of aero bars (roughly $100 for clip-ons) to your road bike and—with the help of a coach, King recommends—reconfigure the frame to approximate the lower profile of a TT model.

"You need to be comfortable in that position, not just shoehorn yourself in there," cautions Vaughters. "I've seen some riders who could get into the position but weren't comfortable, so I've told them to do a serious stretching or yoga routine. Your lower back and hamstrings have to be very flexible."

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