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

Can You Handle the Truth?

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

Cycling Fitness
Jim Harmon

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Cycling Fitness

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

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.

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.”

Training Plan

Cycling Fitness
Illustration by Mark Matcho adapted from Chris Carmichael's The Ultimate Ride.


Weeks 1–4:
King suggests spending 60 to 90 minutes on the time-trial bike for one casual ride a week, allowing your body to adapt to the position. Keep in mind you should integrate this program with standard road-bike training, like Chris Carmichael’s hill-climbing regimen on page 56.

Weeks 5–8:
Begin adding three or four intervals of five minutes each of hard riding followed by five to ten minutes of easy pedaling, concentrating on maintaining intensity from the beginning of the hard interval to the end. “Focus on either speed or heart rate,” King says. “At first it’ll be trial and error. Set a goal and try to improve on it.”

Weeks 9–16:
Increase the intervals to ten minutes, and over the weeks bump them up to 15 minutes, then ultimately to two hard 20-minute efforts. Every few weeks you’ll want to cover the same section of road to gauge your progress. Plan an easy day before and after each time-trial session, and throughout the progression rest at least as long in between intervals as the intervals themselves, in order to be able to give your best effort.

Week 17:
You’re ready to try the race of truth: After a 30-minute warm-up of easy riding and a few two-minute bursts to get your heart rate up, ride as fast as you can for 25 miles. Your time will vary according to terrain, but in general pros cover the distance in an hour or less. Make no mistake: The time trial will still hurt. But long after the pain fades away, the truth will remain.

1.) Riding position is aerodynamic—low and forward to reduce wind resistance.

2.) Nose of the saddle is tilted slightly down.

3.) Saddle is positioned up and forward, as compared with a standard road bike.

4.) Extensions on bars are parallel to the ground and close together.

5.) Knee angle when leg is fully extended is slightly bent, similar to road position.

6.) Shoulders and elbows are bent at about 90-degree angles.

From Outside Magazine, Jul 2006 Lead Photo: David Noon/San Diego Air and Space Technology Center