You would be forgiven for thinking there are few useful parallels to be drawn between the Giro d’Italia and racing your bike along the A442 between Shawbirch and Hodnet but bear with me for a few minutes because there are actually some helpful take-away lessons for us mortals. Stage 1 of the Giro took place 8th May and it was particularly useful to have the input of Dan Bigham and Bradley Wiggins during the TV analysis as they offered useful insights.
The 2021 Giro started in Turin with an 8.6km prologue time trial (that’s about 5 miles in old money). Filippo Ganna of Team Ineos won it in a time of 8.47 beating his closest rival by a massive 10 seconds. My own – much less glamourous – experience of international time trialling has been riding and coaching others to compete in the World Transplant Games since 2003. Initially this was a 5k event (3 miles) where the faster riders there were around 7 mins. More latterly this was extended to 10km, which at least gave riders a chance to breathe, taking 15 mins or so. The shortest standard distance TT in the UK is 10 miles (16.2km) and forms the meat and drink of the mid-week club TT scene. Times vary from 45 mins to sub 20 mins but a mid-marking competitive male club rider on aero equipment is going to be around, say, 25mins. Terms & conditions apply of course.
So, can we learn anything from the pros and apply it to make us ride faster?
Optimize your equipment Ganna was riding the latest version of the Pinarello Bolide which is a super fast machine, but bearing in mind the drag offered up by the human sitting on top of the bike is 80% of the aerodynamic conundrum, the shape of bike frame and what it is made from, is relatively unimportant. However, the wheel and tyre combination is important from a drag, control and rolling resistance perspective. Current thinking is that clincher tyres with latex inner tubes are faster than tubulars or tubeless set ups for time trialling and it looks like Ganna was running these on a rear disc and a deep sectioned front wheels and had departed from Ineos sponsor standard Shimano offerings. Reportedly he used a Princeton Carbonworks disc on the rear with an Aerox Titan up front on Continental Grand Prix TT clincher tyres. This stuff is available to the market but, of course, at a price and bear in mind Ganna’s team will have optimized this equipment for him. Leaving helmets, skinsuit, shoes cover, chain rings and other consequential but peripheral aero aids aside, Ganna’s handlebar extensions were Pinarello’s in house ‘Most’ branded – your guess is as good as mine as to who made them – but they are non-adjustable and formed specifically for him to keep him in aero position. Some of this translates to the amateur scene, and you can get a very aero front end with a number of after market systems without going to the trouble and expense of getting your own extensions built. It is about developing a sensible compromise between cost and marginal performance gains. If, for example, you are racing week in week out, how many times can you put a pair of paper-thin clinchers around gritty roundabouts before one blows? What’s more important to you and your racing? A 90% solution that’s consistently reliable or a 95% solution that could get your that extra few seconds but might not get you there at all? Very much a personal decision dependent upon your individual attitude to your racing and riding.
Optimize your position Most of the effort you put in to pedaling goes to overcoming resistance as you push through the air, so the size and frontal shape you present is relevant to how fast you can go (see CdA or coefficient of aerodynamic drag). The gold standard approach to optimising an aero position is wind tunnel testing with a variety of positions, helmets and skinsuits until the best one crops up. Most professionals and those at the pointy end of time trialling have been through this but at 500 quid an hour, it’s not realistic for many, nor is it guaranteed to provide the best solution. I have seen a couple of riders put in to very slippy positions where they are struggling to push the pedals hard enough and have lost so much power they are slower overall. Bear in mind that young Filippo and his contemporaries could probably bend into most aero positions and adapt to pushing the pedals hard and fast whereas I can say from experience there’s only so many places a 54 year old, 78 kilo body will go before it blows a gasket - see below. It’s about finding the right compromise between an aero position and one that you can make best use of the power in your legs. The benefits of an experienced eye and some trial and error may well get you an effective usable position without a visit to Silverstone or a chiropractor.
Optimize your preparation and recovery I was interested by something that Wiggins said about the differing approaches the time trial specialists and the riders aiming for GC might take to this very short prologue. He suggested that Ganna and the other specialists in with a shout of winning would be using a 20 - 30 min structured warm up before hitting the race as hard as they can. They will have tapered their training and prepared for this level of effort. While the rest of the race is more than an afterthought, both rider and team will understand the consequences of this kind of effort and have legislated for it in their planning. Wiggins suggested the GC riders would be fitting their race effort around 2 hours of road work before, then a warm up and probably another easy hour after the prologue. It might seem counter intuitive to reduce the maximum capacity of the effort, but it makes sense within the context of a 3 week stage race. Those who have done short distance TTs know, you can really hurt yourself in a short space of time. A flat out effort of a few minutes duration will cause damage and the light riding the GC guys do before will prevent them from going as deep as they could. It’s important they don’t lose time over their rivals, but going all in at the beginning of a 3 week race could adversely affect them later. By way of example, if you’re a data driven rider, you’ll be familiar with the concept of a Training Stress Score (TSS). Training Peaks data analysis works on the basis that an hour at FTP equals 100 TSS points. So, a 10 mile time trial will register say 45 TSS points and a 3.5 hour Z2 ride at something like 200TSS. Try doing four 10 mile time trials in a week and see how you feel against a single 3.5 hour ride – actually don’t – but you see the point. Short intense efforts inflict damage and the consequences of this need to be explicitly built into your preparation, rest and recovery whether you’re in the Giro or racing down the A442 if you want to perform at your best.
Optimize your ‘threshold’ - You’ll hear commentators say, ‘he’s going in to the red’ and ‘he’s over threshold here’ coupled with helpful red/green graphics on the screen. However, there are so many different casual definitions of ‘threshold’ it can become misleading. Probably the most usable and widely understood definition of threshold is Functional Threshold Power (FTP), an estimate of the maximum power you can hold for 60 mins. So, would Ganna be ‘in the red’ and ‘over threshold’ for the prologue using this definition? Yes, if he’d ridden at his FTP, he’d have finished 2 minutes behind his mates. Would he be ‘in the red’ if he’d been riding at his threshold for an 8.47 min burn time? No, by definition he’d have been bang on it because his ‘threshold’ for 9 mins is about 550w, that’s why he won. If he'd set out to hold 650w then he'd have been in the red and would have blown his chances. For us mortals, whilst everybody’s physiology is different, your threshold for a 10 mile time trial is going to be around the top of Z4 (using Coggan’s 6 zones), if it isn’t, either you’re not trying hard enough or, more likely, your FTP settings are wrong, either way it’s unfortunately not likely to be a Ganna sized wattage.
Optimize your mental preparation - Ganna was targeting the prologue. He’s an Italian, riding in his hometown, wearing the rainbow stripes of the world champion, I think it’s fair to say he was motivated to go all out to win. He also had something to prove after some less than stella performances (is his terms) because his previous results show he wasn’t quite at 100%. Us amateurs may not have the sunlit streets of Turin, rainbow stripes and cheering crowds to push us on but it’s important to look for what does give us that extra psychological push when approaching target events. How do you frame that feeling before an event, it is nerves or excitement? Chemically it’s the same thing in your brain, it’s down to you whether you chose to interpret that as a positive push or an anxious block.
Balance your approach to risk - Ganna bent that bike into every corner – he was going all out to win and everything, including his approach to risk, was turned up to 11 because nobody really cares who finishes second in something like this. Just like adopting a compromise that suits you with equipment, position and training it’s important to reach a spot on your personal risk register that comfortably accommodates your approach to riding and racing. Amateur time trialling takes place on open roads and the consequences of a head down position that inhibits vision or a rush to get on to a roundabout trying to gain an extra few seconds can be serious. Adopt a balance that suits you.
Enough optimizing and balancing already, there’s another TT in the Giro to come! Get in touch if I can help.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...