Olympics 2012: A beginner’s guide to the Cycling Road Race Time Trial

As Bradley Wiggins and Emma Pooley chase GB medals, Jamie Ewbank examines the kit, the tactics, the contenders and the course

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The Olympic Time Trials start and end at Hampton Court on Wednesday and are known in cycling as the “race of truth”. The Time Trial sees each competitor riding a lonely solo race against the clock. In this race, there is nowhere to hide.

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The course

The time trial course leaves Hampton Court and heads over the Thames and south towards Byfleet, looping Walton Common and dashing north through Esher and Kingston on the homeward leg. The early part of the course is considered “technical”, as there’s much for the rider to do to negotiate twists and turns. The latter part is much straighter and favours riders who specialise in pure power.

The kit and the tactics

In many ways, the kit is the tactics in the Time Trial. Unlike the road race, which requires team tactics, slipstreaming and carefully-timed bursts of power, time trial competitors race alone and can’t shelter from the wind behind teammates. This means that the aerodynamic profile of rider and bicycle has a huge impact on the outcome of the race. The riders wear one-piece skinsuits that are even tighter than ordinary cycling gear, if you can believe that. The absence of creases and flaps in the fabric serve to reduce aerodynamic drag and the elongated fin on the back of the helmet acts as a fairing to smooth airflow.

The bikes themselves are similarly advanced. The tubes making up the bike have a variety of oval, square and wing-shaped profiles depending on where the air is expected to hit them. The riders will often opt for a disc wheel on the back rather than an ordinary spoked bicycle wheel because a single smoothly spinning disc creates less drag than eighteen spokes individually beating the air. Truly daring riders occasionally opt for front and rear disc wheels for added aerodynamic performance, but these make the bike almost uncontrollable if they’re hit by a sidewind, and few riders will risk it.

Some riders, such as Team GB’s Bradley Wiggins, favour an “ovalised” front chainring instead of a round one, as the extra diameter maintains power even during the weakest part of the pedal stroke. That might sound like a no-brainer, but in return for extra efficiency, the bike’s chain is constantly oscillating and sometimes falls off, which adds tension for riders and spectators alike.

Finally, the handlebars are long and narrow and stick out in front of the bike like cowhorns. This forces riders to lean far forward with elbows tucked beneath them and a very straight, flat back, something Britain’s Bradley Wiggins’ is known for. This is the most aerodynamic position allowed by the rules, but it keeps the rider’s hands away from the brakes, and means that they steer with their bodies for all but the tightest corners.

The great skill of time trialling is the ability to measure out a consistent effort over the entire course – 44 kilometres for the men’s race, 29 kilometres for the women’s. The aerodynamic body position may offer minimal wind resistance, but soon becomes uncomfortable: riders know they must ride at their limit, but can’t win if they expend all their energy early and fade later in the race. As riders become tired, the tucked-in position will become harder to maintain, and you’ll see struggling riders wriggling, fish-like, as they use their body weight to compensate for tired muscles. The wrigglier a rider, the more he’s suffering.

The riders

The favourites for the men’s time trial event are Bradley Wiggins, this year’s Tour de France winner, German Tony Martin who’s the Time Trial World Champion, and the reigning Olympic Time Trial champion from Switzerland, Fabian Cancellara (known affectionately to cyclists and fans as “Spartacus”). Martin and Cancellera would ordinarily be the favourites, but both have lost time on the bike this season due to a variety of broken bones, while Wiggins’ preparations have been perfect.

The women’s time trial is expected to be a battle between the defending champion Kristen Armstrong (racing for the USA), who has dominated events throughout the season but broke her collarbone in May, and Judith Arndt from Germany, who’s a consistently reliable performer and the current Time Trial World Champion. But Great Britain’s former world champion and Beijing silver medallist Emma Pooley is also a serious contender, despite her preference for a hilly course. 

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The women’s individual time trial starts at 12:30pm on BBC3 and BBC Olympics 3; coverage of the men’s race is from 2:15pm on BBC1 and BBC Olympics 3