Technique – Time trial skills school

Time trialling is a technical art form, where vast improvements can be made by attention to detail. Commonwealth Games time trial champion Nathan O'Neill tells us how....


As British as cricket and cream teas, time trialling is, for most young riders in this country, still their introduction to cycle racing. Even so, time trialling was long seen as something of a closet sport. Now though it’s an Olympic discipline, as well as a major factor in all leading stage races. Everybody’s doing it, and great leaps and bounds have been made in the sport, particularly the technical aspects of time trialling.


When it comes to racing against the clock brute strength and mental oblivion often spring to mind as the prime components in performing well, and sure enough they are key factors in the process of pushing yourself to the limit in the race of truth’.

But there are other factors to consider when you want to go faster. There are factors and areas in which you can improve your game and shave off seconds with every kilometre for free. Okay, not for nothing free, but by taking time out to consider how you fight your biggest enemy you can refine and redefine you and your bike to go faster without extra physical effort.

Your biggest enemy?

The biggest enemy of all cyclists, particularly time triallists, is the wind – Mother Nature’s slap to cyclists. The whole aerodynamic cycling revolution came around thanks in part to triathletes, but it didn’t really break into the old-school of cycling until the late ’80s, when Greg LeMond adopted tri bars to win the Tour de France in that famous last day show down in Paris. He famously defeated Laurent Fignion on the Champs Elysées to take the closest ever Tour victory. Since then things have moved on apace, and riders go faster still because of these evolving developments.

Very few of us have the means to do wind tunnel research as the leading pro teams do, but their results and findings can help us all, as Nathan will explain. You could also be fooled into thinking that throwing money at fast equipment is the key to cutting through the wind. Sure enough certain equipment will help in the process, but the overall key to acheiving good aerodynamics lies in cutting down your frontal area and streamlining the wind flow from there on backwards, and then balancing all of this with efficiency.


A key factor in time trialling is to know what level you can effectively ride at for the set distance, because if you overcook it and blow you’ll lose a load of time. The only way to learn this is by testing in training at race pace level, and then trying it in events. A lot of people use heart rate monitors to judge this level, but in recent years I’ve combined this with power cranks to get a more accurate reading.


Before a big time trial I usually take a very easy day two days before, and then the day before I ride for maybe 1.5 hours or so, on the course if possible, and always do a number of race pace efforts. It’s important to open yourself up to this level; otherwise your system forgets and struggles to get back into action.

Before an event I may ride on the road, and then do a final warm up on a trainer, going up to race pace again. At this time I go in to the zone’ I focus purely on the job in hand, create a virtual shield around me. For those final few minutes I see almost nothing else around me. I usually listen to music to help with this process.


I always used to go out fast and fade, but with experience I’ve learned to start easier and build up, and not to risk blowing. This is where it becomes important to know and monitor your levels. I may start at 170 bpm, and then if all goes well build to 180 bpm for the last part of the event. I’ll know how I’m feeling too, but will always try to ride at that level, even if I’m down on rivals or time. If things are okay in the last part of the event and I’m down I’ll up it some more and take the risk.


Needless to say an all in one skin suit is important, but attention needs to be paid to seams and zips. The way that wind cuts to your body means that it swirls around and flows off your back, so that area really needs to be fluid – seams and zips need to be minimal and should not be horizontal, and a close fit is crucial. And of course your race number needs to be as flush as possible – maybe even taped down. As for footwear – I always use overshoes – buckles and straps cutting around and flapping in the wind at speed are a real no no.

Front end

The front end of your bike is the most important mechanical component in the aerodynamic process, which means that it needs to be clean and minimal. You need to make sure that your head tube isn’t too big, and that your forks are oval/aero. When it comes to the bars fl at aero bars are ideal, but you really need to keep things as smooth as possible; keep cables to a minimum and try to find the smallest brake levers you can.

Head gear

Your head is the biggest thing to hit and break the wind, and therefore one of the prime considerations in aerodynamics. Being the first thing to effectively crack the wind means that your head will determine where the wind goes from there. So the main principle is to integrate your head as smoothly as possible with your shoulders and body to allow the wind to flow freely over and around you.

The most important component here is a helmet. I’ve tested many brands and models over the years; your helmet needs to be flush, and to flow cleanly at the back so as to allow the air to flow smoothly over your back. You also have to pay attention to how you wear your helmet, the tail should be as flush as possible with your back, as a big gap will cause turbulence, which is not good. If you get your helmet right it means around 1 second per kilometre. The only time I don’t wear a helmet is when it’s very hot and hilly, which means that the speed will be down, and then it won’t make much of a difference – but that’s not too often.

Position on the bike

There are some basic considerations when it comes to positioning, although since everyone is different in shape it means that compromises need to be made to get the best overall position. Your front end needs to be minimal, and you need to be low, but not to the extent of losing power. My time trial bikes are always 2-3 cm shorter than my road bikes, which helps me stretch out and sit further forward. Sitting slightly further forward allows me to put more power down, although I don’t sit as far forward as some riders. At the front end I like to have my shoulders behind my elbow pads – testing has shown that longer is more efficient for me, and any lower makes me lose power.


I nearly always use a rear disc wheel, unless there’s a howling wind, and a front tri spoke wheel. In testing and practice this has proven the most efficient combination. The depth of the front rim is very important, it needs to be at least 3 times the depth of the tyre used to be aerodynamically efficient. Another important factor is the width of the tyres and rim – they need to be the same. I always use 20mm tyres, as most rims are 20mm wide – a 23mm tyre would kill the aero factor, but you’d be surprised how many people still use them. As for tyres, it’s always tubulars for me, preferably lightweight silks.

Getting into position

You can’t simply just get straight on to a time trail bike and expect to be aerodynamic and effi cient, it takes a lot of getting used to. Even top riders have to train specifically to be able to ride efficiently in an aerodynamic position. You use a lot of different muscles, and they need working on, and you also need to be flexible enough to get in to and hold the position. Before a major time trial I train on my time trial bike at least three times a week for about three weeks before, just to get my body accustomed to it

Head on body dynamics

Some riders can go really narrow at the front end, but it doesn’t suit me – elbow width is important to get right. Your elbow pads need to be set at, or just under the width of your hips, as they then break the wind and allow it to flow around them, and effectively hide your knees from the wind when they are at the top of the pedal stroke. Your knees and pedalling style need to be paid some attention too. As they can revolve at around 100 rpm, at over 50 kph they become quite a drag inducer. I had it drilled in to me as a youngster, so it’s now second nature to keep my knees in. I almost brush the top tube on each pedal stroke. If they were flapping out it would make quite a difference.


A great way to check out your position is to get against a plain wall on a trainer and get someone to take pictures of you, particularly head on so that you get the front end width right. My front-end height is set at what has shown to be optimum for me, to some it may not look excessively aerodynamic, but the combination of my physique and balancing power output against aerodynamics has produced this basic position. If a course is hilly I will raise my bars by 5 mm. It doesn’t sound like much but it gives me that extra ounce of power when I have to get out of the saddle on the hills.

Nathan O’Neill
For many years Australian Nathan O’Neill has been one of the fastest time triallists around. After several seasons spent racing in Italy, where he won numerous quality time trials in leading stage races, Nathan switched his attentions to the US, where he currently races with the leading Health Net team. As well as notching up numerous time trial victories during the past few years he also returned from near fatal injury to win the Commonwealth games time trial title in 2006.