Comparing the Incomparable

Standard distance courses measured in miles, (a unit rarely used by cyclists worldwide), on flat roads (a road type rarely found in Scotland), using expensive special time trial bikes (a steed rarely found in the stable of anything other than a ‘tester’ or a tri-antelope). Time trials, how did we get here & how do we deal with it?

(I wrote a piece on how we can go about modernising TT’s & moving them into a lower age bracket ‘A Demographic Time Trial‘, this blog is some explanation as to how I came to that conclusion.)


Time trialling should be an ideal entry platform to the sport, theoretically it’s a simple concept, ride a certain course as fast as you can, anybody can do that on any old bike, yes? This perhaps was what happened in the past, I’d venture to put a specific date on when things changed, pre-1989. We saw Greg LeMond win the Tour by 8 seconds in 1989, his eight second advantage over Laurent Fignon was mainly due to some aerodynamic technological advances. From that point on, your club rider realised that by simply purchasing a pair of funny handlebars, they could gain a good advantage over their former self. Previously we’d seen some glimpses of the future, with riders like Francesco Moser used aerodynamic technology (among other things) to gain ‘free speed’, but those technologies were mostly out of reach to anybody else, tri-bars were so much cheaper than a ridiculously large disc wheel & gave a much bigger speed advantage. In previous times the fashion had been to drill holes in everything, resulting is presumably much more turbulence & churning of the air over components with non smooth surfaces, but as of the 1989 Tour, we had now entered the ‘Aero-Era’, smooth surfaces & more emphasis on making the human body create less drag rather than look at individual components.

Time trialling in the UK was still mostly on spoked wheels & drop bars pre-90, the more advanced had ‘lo-pro’ bikes, with a normal sized back wheel & a 26″ or even 24″ front wheel & cowhorn handlebars. Some riders were mounting the front brake on the back of the forks, running bladed spokes on as light a wheel as possible. Had they had wind tunnels back then, you’d have seen riders not going so low, but being more stretched out. Lo-pro’s disappeared after the rules changed, where both wheels had to be the same size, so most frames stayed as 700c (27″) front & rear, with only some triathlon specific bikes adopting 650c (26″) front & rear, but those are rarely seen in time trialling.
Such has the sport changed since 1990, that it has become an aero arms race, with riders deeming it necessary to spend much more £ on a time trial bike than a road racer would on their race bike. Aero frames, deep section carbon front wheels, carbon disc rear wheels, carbon aero seat pins, bars with teardrop profiles, aero helmets etc, the list is endless.
The mould breaker, who influenced things even further was Graeme Obree, I don’t think we fully appreciate the impact he really had on the ‘Aero-Era’, he went against common perception & developed the two fastest positions in history, like many musicians are influenced by certain artists, Obree was the artist who influenced pro riders & helped develop an industry. He demonstrated some of the advantages that somebody with modest means could obtain to make themselves faster, so much so that most things he did were banned & it’s likely that he sparked the UCI’s current obsession with conformity & stickers, reducing innovation & increasing the likelihood that most race bikes look more or less the same. Robert Millar’s latest article which appears in Rouleur issue 41 takes a shot at the standard conformist black carbon bike.

A Changing Sport

The ‘Aero Era’ changed time trialling, it became an arms race, an expensive side of the sport if you wanted to be competing at the sharp end of the results. Previously (pre ’90) you could have competed perfectly well on your road bike, now you needed a specific TT bike. This is where things started getting distorted & time trialling became something that roadmen didn’t venture into as much as they used to, the usefulness of TT’s became less as you were in a different position to the drop bar style you would adopt for a breakaway. The two disciplines began moving further away from each other. The past had seen some of our best roadmen regularly taking part in time trials, this rarely happens now, our Elite, 1st or 2nd category riders are a breed rarely seen at a domestic TT. This needn’t be the case, but having more courses & ‘rules’ suitable to a crossover market would make a difference, i.e. non aero-bar TT’s, on road bikes, also encouraging the sportive type rider too.

The PB

Personal bests are really a very odd thing for me to comprehend, the variables are so great, getting a PB has a huge element of luck about it, rather than necessarily your best performance.

For example, one twitter user who has been riding some 10’s recently is @MaKluskie, he tweeted: “Best ever average power output for a 10 today @338W but didn’t translate to PB. A minute slower than last week #windy windy.”

This shows that huge differences, such as a full minute time loss, even though your body performed better, result in a slower time, the PB is a moving target, it’s value is very limited if it exists at all. We really are comparing the incomparable when we look at times on different courses, or even the same courses in slightly different conditions, with the widespread use of power meters, we can prove that you did more work but you come away with a slower time. So next time somebody who you consider your equal tells you that their best time is a minute quicker than yours, they may just have had a favourable ‘float day’ on a certain course. PB’s are not an absolute, they are a mix of luck with the weather, sometimes even dubious ‘luck’ with high traffic volumes on a dragstrip course. As an example, I reduced my PB by nearly 1min 30s over 10 miles by riding a course down south, which was probably my last flat TT, as the experience put me off them for life, it was a virtual motorway, not somewhere I’d ever like to ride my bike again, especially when I saw some older plump gentlemen putting out times that would have won races north of the border, the reality of the post ’90 TT scene was clearly evident, an aero arms race & ever more traffic heavy courses.

Placings by Omnium

If PB’s are something that we know are based on favourable weather & how much traffic flow is on a course, how do we, or should we, compare performances? One of the main draws of TT’s to some riders is the PB chasing, which although false, gives some kind of carrot, but may incentivize something which doesn’t result in a progressive & inclusive area of the sport. Surely there is another way?

One method I could throw out there is to take an idea from track racing, the omnium, and use it to give an indication of TT performances. In the omnium the winner gets one point, the second placed rider gets 2 points, third 3 points etc. So in TT’s, we could allocate season long points, then divide that number by the amount of events that are ridden. It’s not particularly complicated compared to vets standard times, BAR averages of averages & such things that are currently used, so we’d be simplifying time trials, along with adopting the UCI masters designations, so we’d effectively have 5 year age groups too for everybody above 30 (or is it 35 now?).

With the TT omnium system, we’d directly compare performances against other riders, rather than hoping that you’ve chosen to enter the correct course on the correct night. So lets take the scenario of 2 fast riders, who are battling against each other every week. So if we take the omnium points & divide them by the events ridden, we get an effective average placing, so the lower the number, the higher the ranking. If a rider only enters one event per season & wins that, obviously their average omnium score is 1, so we’d probably start scoring at, say 4 events, to make sure there’s some consistancy.We could develop a system where we get an average placing, rather than chasing a PB. This would equate to all courses, so you wouldn’t have to stick to one type of event, you could improve your average omnium placing across several different events, or different types of event. This may result in a national ranking system based on TT performances across all types of course, perhaps removing the need for dragstrip courses on roads you’d not normally want to ride your bike on? At the end of the year, we’d have a national TT omnium champion, who has consistently performed against their rivals, rather than the current BAR system, which is completely out of date with the reality of what TT’s people are actually riding.

Opening Up The Sport

An omnium scored ranking would allow different types of event to take place, such an non-aero retro time trials, without tri-bars & disc wheels. This would allow riders who hadn’t invested large amounts of money in ‘fast’ kit to score low points on their road bike, road riders could enter these time trials & also get a relative TT ranking. Could this possibly make TT’s more popular? I’m not against TT’s, but I’m not comfortable with them in their current format, we could really open up their appeal & a relative ranking system such as this removes the need for incredibly fast average speed courses, we’re measuring performances against performances. The older rider can use the UCI masters system to rank their performances against their peers too, so we could have each age category battling against each other in omnium ranking, rather than outright time. Team performances could also be measured with this system, so a team of three in a championship would be ranked by the lowest combined score of their placings in an event, rather than combined time, again comparing performances rather than one outstanding time. After all, if you’re beaten by one place in a time trial, does it really matter if that was by one second, or sixty.

Maybe it’s time to rethink things & allow this area of the sport to develop & evolve as it decides, rather than searching out courses that are getting driven more & more towards high volume traffic semi-motorways. It could be time to find a better comparative measure of performance, this is just one way of doing it, but it could be one solution for time trialling in a modern world & make it more attractive to all riders, not just those with TT rigs & funny hats. Keeping TT’s in Scotland under the British Cycling insurance blanket could result in a very different & varied TT scene to that which exists south of the border outside UCI rules, but with their own even stranger ones, I know which I’d prefer.

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  1. The idea of relative positions is a good one. I did some analysis a few years ago looking at relative times in the fife TT series. It took a bit of computing but you could clearly see who was on a relatively good day and who was not, who liked the wind and who didn’t.

    Moving to non-standard distances and courses you’d be happier to race on is a good idea.

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