Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TTT Tips

Ahhh, the cool temperatures, the polluted wind, the yellow-blue sky.  It's January in Hong Kong again.  That means its time for the Hong Kong Cycling Association's Team Time Trial.  A big kick in the legs to wake them up to some hard training after a bit of time off.

For a good summary of how the team time trial works, Bike Radar has a great article on how it all works here.  The Lost River Cycling Club has some nice descriptions of the different types of pacelines here.  Note that the direction you pull off depends on the wind.  The guys behind the lead should be sheltered, the guys pulling off from the front do so into the wind, like this:
Drawing taken from the book 
Bicycling Street Smarts by John Allen

If there is no wind, in Hong Kong (and the UK, Australia, New Zealand etc.), you pull off to the right.

Some more points: 

Be Smooth

The usual comment from many new riders to the team time trial is that the hardest part of the race is catching the train after doing a pull.  This implies that they were just pulling too hard, perhaps going well into anaerobic.

Easily the most important rule for team time trials is: DO NOT SURGE under any circumstances when taking the lead. When the front rider has finished their turn, the rider behind checks the speed on their computer and maintains that 
speed (assuming of course the road conditions remain constant).

The rider who has finished their pull moves to the windward side and decreases their speed slightly, allowing the other riders to pass. At least one member of the team will be riding near their anaerobic threshold, so if the lead rider accelerates they will be pushed so hard they may not finish. If no one is near their maximum, the team is not riding fast enough.

Stay Close!
The closer you are to the rider in front the less work you have to do. It is important to keep it tight. Don’t forget that if you are at the front you may have to gingerly pick a track around stealthy holes and obstacles. Better to do this than to point them out by taking the hands off the bars, which is rarely a good idea in an aero tuck on a TT bike. Consider calling out the really bad obstacles.

Stick Together!
We can all go out and do Lactate Threshold sessions by ourselves, and we now that some of us are fitter than others on any particular day, but it is important in the TTT to work as a TEAM.  It is important to keep the egos in check just for a few hours and work together. Some of the responsibilities the riders all have in this are: 
  1. If you are taking a pull at the front and feel strong, go ahead and  take a longer pull (say 1-2 minutes instead of the normal 30 secs); if you feel like accelerating, make sure you take a peek behind you to ensure that the train is still together, otherwise slow down;
  2. If you feel like dying and that the train is going too fast, take shorter pulls, (like 10-20 secs) and say "slow down" quietly as you drop to the back, communicate to the rest of guys that you are suffering, but DON'T just out of the blue, drop out altogether; 
  3. If you are the last guy in the train, try and help the next guy dropping in behind you.  If you feel strong, consider dropping back a tiny bit and pull the guy up (but be careful not to risk getting dropped yourself!).  If you see that the guy is suffering, communicate it up the train.
After you have taken a turn at the front, the correct protocol is:
  1. Look over your right shoulder and take a peek behind you to make sure there are no trucks/cars/other teams coming.  This is the cue to everyone behind you that you are going to drop off.  There is no need to (like some other teams do) wave your arm frantically or yell out to the guy behind you to move up.  A good team will be in tune enough to anticipate when the guy in front will drop off.
  2. Gently drift to the right (or left if the wind is strong enough from the right that the echelon is going anti-clockwise)
  3. Do not abruptly turn right when done your turn.  If you do this, and if the guy behind you's wheel is overlapping a bit, you will manage to make the entire train crash spectacularly! 
About the time at the front:
Assuming a train of 5 or more riders, the following pull times seem to work well:
- 15-30secs for uphill or into a headwind,
- 30-40secs on the flat
- 40-60secs downhill when the speed is up.
And of course, if you are dying, TAKE SHORTER PULLS! Your teammates will appreciate that much more than seeing you drop out.

About pacing strategy:
It is easy to go off fast.  The heart is pumping, the adrenaline is rushing through your system, and you are keen to get going.  However, numerous studies have shown that going off too fast usually leads to slower TT times. In fact, nearly every single running world record that has ever been set had pacing that was equal or negatively split (that is, the pace in the first half was equal to or slower than in the second half).  It is probably safe to say that this would apply to most endurance events (and the hour record splits bear this out).  Triathlon coach Joe Friel has called "Poor Ability to Pace" the number one mistake of athletes.

So what works? A "J" shape for the pace is usually ideal.  To an extent, accept that the adrenaline will keep things going at a good clip initially.  Settle in to a slower more comfortable and realistic pace, and finish off with a bang, keeping in mind that a negative split is important, as is keeping the pace of the group aerobic right until nearly the end. A good way to monitor this is with a power meter. A heart rate monitor can also be used, in conjunction with bike speed, knowing that heart rate will drift up naturally in a long event, even if perceived exertion does not.

What about hills or strong winds?
Should the pace pick up, stay the same, or slow down?  I've often wondered about this and how it would affect the outcome of a race. I finally found a solution based on scientific approach based on minimizing exposure to the hill or wind, in order to minimize the energy cost.  These guidelines are the result (based on a single rider):
  • Coast at >50km/h
  • Pedal Easy at >40km/h
  • Pedal Steady at >30km/h
  • Pedal Mod-Hard at >20km/h
  • Pedal Hard at >10km/h
So, for the faster speeds of a TTT, perhaps a 10kph adjustment might be justifiable?  Thus, if the team was on a downhill and it's speed was greater than 60kph, it would be better to just coast.  However, if the hill was so steep that the speed up the hill was below 20kph, it would make sense to go hard.

Some other useful pacing tips (from individual time trialing) can be found here and here.

About the Race Plan:
Since this is a team effort, it is important to have all the riders on the same page at all times.  One way to help achieve this is with a race plan.  Some of the things that need to be discussed before the race starts are:
  • Starting order
  • Timing – what time targets are you aiming for that negative split?
  • Speed - what speed is required to achieve planned splits?
  • Mechanical issues -what to do if someone has a flat or a mechanical problem 
  • Nutrition
  • Team members getting dropped

About the gear
Lots has been written about the cost effectiveness of TT bikes, aero accessories, bike fittings, and other aids (see here and here).   That said, it doesn't always make sense to rush out and buy aero bars.  Most people I see with tri bars on a road bike have made their bikes heavier, and made themselves slower and less powerful. This has finally been pointed out in the mainstream cycling press and will be the subject of a detailed post to come.  That said, an aero helmet is usually a worthwhile purchase. However, the best return on investment, by far, is TRAINING, and preferably focused, TT specific training at lactate threshold or just below, in the sweet spot.

Happy training!

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