Words by William Fotheringham / Photo by SWpix.com
Over the years, I’ve rarely found time trials exciting to watch, so it’s always good to find new ways of looking at them. A shout out to Chris Froome, then, who enabled me to observe the time trial stage at the Volta ao Algarve with fresh eyes (at least until the latest named storm blew the satellite dish to Kingdom Come). What, I wondered, as I gazed at Remco Evenepoel, Stefan Küng and company speeding along, would this stage have looked like if it had been run as Froome would have wanted it, after his recent plea for low-profile time trial bikes to be dispensed with?
Slower was the most immediate conclusion I could come to. Well obviously, if you run a time trial using a conventional road bike, that bikes not going to go as fast as a low profile with disc wheels. But safer? Impossible to say. For sure, you see those tell-tale skitters of the back wheel when a rider over-cooks it on a corner using a low profile, we’ve all seen those (although I didn’t see one at Algarve). For sure, you watch Remco and company riding the low-pro way, with the eyes directed at just in front of the front wheel, lifting every now and then to check what’s coming, but you can dip your head using conventional drop bars as well.
Part of the point of a motion based sport such as Formula One, running, or bike racing, is that the mere mortal wants to know how fast the fastest can go. The public and media want to marvel at the speed achieved by the likes of Evenepoel or Annemiek van Vleuten in a time trial or any pursuiter or sprinter on the track. In terms of marketing sport, and certainly within cycling, deliberately dispensing with faster kit should be marketing anathema. You don’t want to be sitting on your sofa thinking, “Yup, Remco’s fast, but I wonder how much faster he’d be if he could use that fancy low pro that he isn’t allowed to?”
Since the 1990s, there’s been an increased focus on all things aero, of which the use of low profiles and discs is just one aspect. Developments at the highest end of the sport do filter down to the mere mortals who don’t ride time trials, which is why even for amateurs who can’t afford a full on smoothed out road racing bike, racing in a skinsuit or an aero jersey is de rigueur, filled in helmets (popularised by Team Sky around 2011) are the norm, and those long socks are seen all over the place. That widespread adoption of aero things – including bike fits that help drag coefficient – is one reason why race speeds in UK amateur races have gone up. And why not? This is a sport which is about getting from A to B as fast as you can.
Froome’s comments reminded me of past equipment controversies, those of the 1990s when the UCI banned Graeme Obree’s extreme tuck positions, and vetoed the “Spinaci” type bar extensions, both times on grounds of “safety”. Then, you could say there were grounds for claiming Obree’s “tuck” and “superman” were not stable (not least because Obree himself fell off now and then), but there was never any conclusive case made for getting rid of the Spinacis. Other than the fact that the then UCI president Hein Verbruggen had a definite down on strange-looking kit which made riders go faster.
If time trial bikes are unsafe, then they are only unsafe in certain situations. There have been high-profile crashes on low-profiles – Froome in 2019, Egan Bernal this year – but those have been in training. The scariest moments I can recall from actual time trials come when the weather is extreme – high wind catching disc wheels – or most memorably the massive puddles at the men’s U23 time trial World’s in Yorkshire in 2019.
Weather hazards in competition should be handled using the UCI’s extreme weather protocol. If it’s too dangerous to race, fine, and there might be a wild day here or there when it’s too tricky for time trial bikes and there’s a case for imposing the use of road bikes. But that would be truly exceptional.
It may well be dangerous to train on a time trial bike, on the grounds that riders have to cope with traffic, and other hazards while riding a bike where access to the brakes isn’t immediate and the rider tends to travel head down more of the time than on a normal road bike. But the answer there is for riders and their teams to mitigate the risk, in ways which aren’t beyond the means of any team: for example, a support car floating around to warn of hazards, or to transport a rider or their bike from a busy road environment to a quiet one.
If there is a case for abandoning time trial bikes, it comes lower down the cycling ladder. At amateur level – and possibly as low as Conti level – there’s an argument for avoiding an equipment arms race where money buys aero buys success, and where teams might end up spending money on aero kit that might be better directed at rider and staff wages, or having to spend on an extra vehicle to transport those time trial bikes. In fact, at amateur level, organisers can, and frequently do, stipulate that time trials in a stage race are to be ridden on road bikes and they are dead right to do so. But at WorldTour level, the argument simply doesn’t hold water.
For more reading from the lacourseentete.com team, why not buy our review of the 2021 season, Racing in the Time of the Super Teams, available through here.