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Time trials of the Grand Tours: the polychotomy of three-week races, the art of being fast.

"Man measures time, and time measures man. – Italian proverb"

A Grand Tour is a unique beast within the world of bike racing. For three weeks the clock is ticking, counting the seconds as the peloton do battle over long, drawn-out flat stages, mountain passes and time trials. The latter of these three arenas being one of the key moments for any rider who has their sights set on the overall victory. Time trials are often a true show of form, where fitness, pacing and aerodynamics affect the riders’ speed, and ultimately their performance against the watch.

Poised in the start house of a Grand Tour time trial, a bike racer is never more aware of the severity of time; what awaits is the race of truth, a battle against the watch where every fraction of a second counts towards their standing. There are no hiding places in time trials, no wheels to follow, or teammates to call upon for assistance. It’s just the rider, their bike and the watch, where Grand Tours are won and lost.

There is an interesting polychotomy of mindsets present in the start house of a time trail. The climbers aiming for the overall anticipate a stellar ride, doing the utmost to limit their losses and eager to see if the advances made in the mountains are enough to see them hold their general classification position. There are the teammates with a focus somewhat averted from the general classification, whose aim is to expend as little energy as possible without missing the time cut. And then there are the time trial specialists, a rare breed that can be classified into those blessed with the right genes that are able to target the overall classification as well as the others in this subset, whose team worth is measured in their prowess against the watch.

Time will measure all of these riders, a clinically efficient standard to which no rider is immune. Lungs burning, legs screaming and mind attempting to shut it all out, time trials imprison the riders in a demonstration of pain, where focus is demanded to leave everything out on the road. Watts and position are crucial and there is something distinctly satisfying as you manoeuvre into your time trial setup. The snugness of the form-fitting skinsuit makes you feel somewhat like a super hero. The achingly efficient aerodynamics of your time trial bike kindle your motivation to push harder on the pedals, while the hum of the disc wheel, the backing chorus to your suffering, is a melodic bass line that follows you down the road as you fly along.

The irony is that the overall classification usually favours the fastest riders against the clock, rather than the uphill specialists desperately trying to appease the clock–even in the Giro d’Italia, a race synonymous with eye-watering mountain stages. Take Tom Dumoulin in the momentous 100th edition in 2017. His overall victory, confirmed by a superlative final time trial, proved that time trial specialists can adapt their riding and physique in order to limit losses in the mountains so that gains in a time trial come to the fore. Such a chameleon approach is no mean feat. While a more complex evolution than a climber simply improving their time trialling, Dumoulin demonstrated a deftness of versatility to improve his performance on the climbs without having any detriment to his speed against the watch.

Is this solely down to training and investing more hours on the bike? Is it from strategic weight loss? An analytic approach towards bringing the climbs and the clock into balance?  There’s certainly a determined focus at Sunweb to improve on the longest and hardest climbs–by all means Dumoulin was formerly somewhat challenged on the slopes in previous years. Growing up as a time trial specialist, you’re fixated on looking at the details in the pursuit of minimizing drag. But when you’re riding 20 km/h uphill, those gains are minimal and your fabled power-to-weight ratio comes at your detriment. So just how did Dumoulin align the scales? A holistic approach is the answer. Through not only the team’s focus on improving his climbs, but learning by rote how to climb faster and knowing when and when not to panic (toilet-gate isn't an experience one would like to repeat at such a pivotal moment in a Grand Tour).

So the final question from us is, are you a climber or a time triallist? Recent history has shown that if you want a safer bet for the overall win then aim to be fast against the watch whilst limiting losses on the mountain roads. Personally, we love watching the flare and prowess of the mountain goats as they dance up the steepest climbs just as much as we love the strength and power of the strong riders against the watch. Fortunately our sport needs both, because without the age-old climber vs time triallist battle, these Grand Tours could become a good excuse for an afternoon nap in front of the TV.  Irrespective of your strengths and weaknesses, the clock measures everyone in the end.