Technique – How much is that time trial bike worth?

Time trialling. It's one of the easiest ways to get into competitive cycling and for a number of road riders - especially British ones - it's the only thing they ever do.

Time trialling. It’s one of the easiest ways to get into competitive cycling and for a number of road riders – especially British ones – it’s the only thing they ever do.


But like many aspects of cycling, the sight of all that expensive-looking kit can be intimidating for a newbie. Do I really need an aero machine to compete? How much time will it save me? What’ll it cost? Didn’t someone say it’s not about the bike? These are just a few of the questions commonly asked.

Before answering I will point out that it certainly will cost you some cash, and you will probably never come close to recouping your outlay unless you win some very lucrative events. But bike racing – and many sports – is like this. You do it for the enjoyment, the buzz, the speed and of course the chance to invest in some serious gear porn. Of course, the key word is ‘invest’, not ‘waste money’.

To compete, you don’t need anything other than a bike. It could be a mountain bike, a commuter with mudguards, a top-end racing machine – whatever you want. Yes, you are racing against others in an individual time trial, but first and foremost it’s a race against the clock and by extension, yourself. You can easily measure changes in your fitness by using the same equipment on the same course, with a bit of wiggle room for weather conditions.

First and foremost it’s a race against the clock and by extension, yourself

But cycling is a great ‘what if?’ sport and it sucks you in. You become curious about the effect that all that fancy-looking kit would have on your speed. This is easily explained by science: if your curiosity is greater than your resistance to wasting investing money, then you will buy those clip-on bars, shoe covers, skinsuit, aero helmet, aero bottle cage, deep dish wheels, disk wheel, time trial frame, and so on. And scientifically controlled tests have shown that your resistance to spending money on this tends to decrease over time, even taking confounding factors (partner/kids/mortgage/car/food) into account.

Now, I’ve always been fascinated by the difference the equipment makes, but never to the point of actually buying a whole TT bike. Clip-on tri-bars and borrowed aero wheels are as close as I got. After moving to the time trialling heartland that is the UK and doing some evening 10s, I recently got hold of a Planet-X Stealth Carbon Pro to test (a review of that will follow on BikeRadar). Lucky me, you might say. However, I can already see that this could be the catalyst to me shelling out a lot of money.

My two set ups: Planet-X time trial machine (top) and Ridley Noah road machine (bottom)

So how much speed can you gain by changing from a normal road bike to a TT machine?

Here’s a simple and fairly unscientific test. I took the Planet-X up to my local ’10’ course, tweaked the position, and rode it around at the same pace as I did for my personal best. I ended up knocking three seconds off that, which was nice.

The conditions were the same for both rides, as was my clothing, helmet and front wheel, and level of fitness. What was different? The TT-specific frame, bars and the rear wheel. I used a Pro Carbon 101, which has a very deep dish, on the back.

I wasn’t able to directly compare power outputs for both rides but I could look at the average heart rates. My previous PB was done at 180bpm, my usual time trial pace. My new one was done at 165bpm, a comfortably hard cruising speed.

That’s a whopping difference.

With the aid of a power output test I did last year, I guesstimated that the new position was saving me between 40 and 60 Watts. In a 10 mile time trial, that will carve 1’00-1’15 off my time at 25mph. I’m looking forward to testing this machine in a proper race.

At an even more unscientific level, being on the TT bars simply felt fast. How nice it was to be able to actually pedal a 53×11 on a slight downhill and not blow up my knees. And when I sat up on the cow horns, I immediately felt the effects of the air slowing me down. It’s quite a different feel compared with going from the drops to the hoods on a standard road bike.

Fortunately, dear consumer, there are ways to build up a cheap time trial bike, and there are also some very competitively priced complete builds available. The question is: how much is it worth to you?


© BikeRadar 2007