Sunday, October 10, 2010

Faster Time Trial Tips

If you're a podium-prancing, trophy-winning bike racer, you don't need to read any of these "tips" on how to race a faster time trial. Go wash down a layer cake with a case of beer before your next race so us slower guys get a chance at a stitch of glory. If you're a slow bike racer like me, you're probably still searching for tips on how to get faster. Since I just scored a new PR (personal record) of 29:06 over a 20-kilometer race this morning in the Fiesta Island Time Trial Series (run by SDBC and sponsored by Moment Cycle Sport), I thought I'd share my tips while I'm feeling pumped up about my modest accomplishment at age 52.

I don't care if you use these tips to beat me. This "race of truth" is between me and the clock. As long as other guys in the 50+ age group continue to scorch me by a couple minutes, I don't need to worry about approaching the podium any time soon.

Here we go…the list of time-tweaking tips below is in order "perceived impact" on my new result.

  1. Training & Tapering – I took notice last year when my 71-year-old riding buddy improved his TT results by a couple minutes. All he did was step up the TT-specific training then REALLY, DRAMATICALLY tapered. He stayed off the bike for a couple weeks, which you won't see in any coach's training manual. Five weeks before this race, I started two weeks of intense, TT-specific training with lots of intervals. I also rode the High Sierra Century, but that wasn't really part of the training plan. Then I barely rode for the week before the race. I find it's easier to "barely ride" by training on the stationary bike when tapering. That way I don't get tempted to "kill it" in my training like I do out on the road. Last spring I did a TT when I thought I was in decent shape. I was in decent hill-climbing shape but not decent TT shape. (It was my second-worst TT result ever. The only worse time was my first TT which I did without aero bars.) Given the different position and different muscles used, it's worth doing lots of training in the aero position if you want to improve your TT result. The full week of tapering helped my legs feel really fresh even after the first lap on the TT course.
  2. Reverse Splits – I've tried and tried to do a reverse split in previous TT attempts. (This TT is 3 laps; a reverse split means I would do the 3rd lap faster than the first one.) Today I used a bike about 25 meters in front of me as a "governor" of my first-lap effort. Instead of following my old instincts to attack and pass them (it was a tandem), I told myself to chill and stay fresh on the first lap. I got nervous towards the end of the first lap that I was losing precious time by not attacking, but based upon my final result I now know that the self-restraint really paid off on laps 2 and 3. I've read about reverse splits so many times but I don't think I ever got it right before today.
  3. Focus & "Rabbits" – I've always known that a "rabbit" (a closely matched racer 10 or 20 bike lengths ahead of me) works really well to motivate me to go faster. That competitive killer instinct blocks the pain when in pursuit, potentially sending my heart rate way into the anaerobic zone but also helping me go faster. I'm not always lucky enough to have rabbits on the race course. I had a few rabbits on the course on laps 2 & 3 today. I reeled them in slowly, not noticing the pain in my legs and lungs while I stayed focused on the hunt. You can't draft in a TT so you need to steer to the side of them when you get to about 5 bike lengths, but the motivation to catch them helps you focus and go faster if you don't go too far into your red zone in the process. If you don't feel like you're about to throw up at some point during the race you're probably not focusing and pushing as much as you could. If you don't have rabbits ahead of you, pick a point on the course (e.g. a post or sign) and reel it in like a finish line, then find another similar focal point ahead of you again.
  4. Warm-Up – Of course we all know we need to warm up before a race. Previously, I warmed up on the TT bike out on the road. The change today was that I had a stationary bike inside my humongous Sprinter van so I could warm up at a pace that that felt just right without any coasting, stopping or road distractions. I did two very short, intense bursts (enough to really feel it!) during my fairly gentle 50-minute warm-up so the legs could do their complaining before I started the race rather than during the race. This is typical protocol, but it felt better not having to focus on the road. I could just focus on my pedal strokes and breathing.
  5. Equipment – OK, I switched from an aluminum TT bike to a carbon one. Maybe that helped, but since it's a flat course, I'm not too sure that was a big factor. There are two other changes that I think had a bigger impact on my speed:
    1. Carbon wheels with tubular "sew up" tires. I've been into bikes since I was a teenager, so obviously I've known about sew-ups for a long time. The inconvenience of dealing with flats on tubular tires has steered me toward clinchers for decades. Well, when I bought my new bike I took the plunge to all-carbon, tubular wheels. I LOVE them!!!!! I feel like an electric train on smooth rails. And since I've never had a flat on Fiesta Island, I figured I'd deal with the potential hassles of tire repair for my TT bike. Despite the flat course, my GPS record shows notable variations in speed. Lighter wheels/tires makes any acceleration easier. The biggest motivation for my wheel change was that I didn't want to catch another cat in my HED tri-spoke wheels. That freak accident was years ago, but I don't want to be the guy who amazingly had such bad luck twice.
    2. "Straight block" cassette. This is a biggie for a flat TT!! Everyone doing Fiesta Island at any decent speed should run a rear cassette with gears that are just one tooth apart from each other (or as close as possible to this). This may be a special order item (Shimano only has the Dura Ace with this gearing). It is SO nice to have such slight adjustments of your cadence available when you hit a slight headwind or change gradients slightly. When you succumb to downshifting as your legs burn, you won't be giving up as much speed if it's only a SLIGHTLY lower gear. It took me a long time to discover this slight advantage, and now you know, too. Of course, if you do hilly time trials, you'll need to put a standard cluster back on your bike.
  6. Nutritional Supplements – I'm an old fart. Some mornings I feel like I can barely stand up, much less race a bicycle. I'm sleepy before my first cup of coffee and my legs don't feel very athletic. I've found three things that I think really help me get pumped up for a race while I warm up on the stationary bike/trainer:
    1. T-minus 45 minutes: Sportlegs. They do seem to take the sting out of the lactic acid burn early in the race. Maybe it's my imagination. If so, these are better-than-average placebos!
    2. T-minus 30 minutes: Ibuprofen (any brand). Between my deteriorating disks, spinal stenosis, burning thigh muscles and general decrepitness, I can find all kinds of pain in competitive and long-distance cycling. This takes the edge off the pain to help me stay focused.
    3. T-minus 15 minutes: Nodoz (caffeine pill). Caffeine is the most widely used legal stimulant in sports. (There are NCAA and Olympic limits on how much can be in the bloodstream.) I take one tablet to take advantage of any sports performance-enhancing benefits and to make sure I'm fully awake and alert. According to Lance Armstrong (the famous supplement expert) this is the best thing you can do to help your race or century finish faster.
  7. Sleep – I finally went to bed really early so I'd get a full night's sleep before the race. Yea! It feels nice to prepare for a race without the strong desire to crawl back into bed. As you may know, sleep is the greatest legal means of getting faster. You produce human growth hormone while sleeping and naps really help in this regard. Maybe if I can get myself into a napping habit I'll be even faster next season. Maybe not.
  8. No Pressure – With such a horrible TT result last spring, I wasn't thinking in terms of setting a new PR. I was thinking it would be easy to beat my last result. So I wasn't feeling any pressure. I knew that my recent training (back to item #1 above) would improve upon that result. You'll naturally have enough adrenaline at race time. I think extra anxiety doesn't make me go any faster. It just takes away from the positive energy that needs to find its way to the pedals.
  9. Mustache – I'm five years older than I was when I raced my first time trial. But at that time I didn't have a TT bike or a mustache. Dave Zabriskie has demonstrated the importance of having the most aerodynamic facial hair possible. (It must have the same effect that those "dimples" have on golf balls and overpriced Zipp wheels.) Once in a while Z shaves off his mustache and his times get worse. His wife probably complained…like mine has recently. My mustache has been growing for only about 4 weeks. With a new PR under my belt it's going to take a LOT of complaining to get me to shave this "Lucky Caterpillar" off my face.
Despite all this "expertise," I'm still not one of the fastest guys out there. I'm not one of the slowest, but I sure would like to improve. One thing I need to do this winter is weight training. I simply need to get more power into these old legs. (Do I hear Father Time whispering, "Not a chance"?) All I can do is try…and get feedback from my friends in cycling.

In case you're a fan of the Fiesta Island Series, I have one final tip for you. Stick around for the awards ceremonies. One racer broke the course record this morning, but because he didn't stick around after the race, he didn't get the $150 cash prize awarded to new record-setters. (The good news is he's racing for SDBC in 2011!) Also, since we're sponsored by Karl Strauss, even slackers like me can walk off with tasty prizes. Jon Benson had a couple six-packs left over at the end of the awards ceremony, so my proximity to the prize table paid off even more than my racing efforts did.

Footnote: Sometimes the race of truth seems like it's between me and the wind. Fortunately it was calm this morning, which probably helped a few people achieve a new PR today. I didn't bother including "race on a calm day" to my list of tips above since you don't have control over mother nature.

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