Time Trial Bike vs. Road Bike: What is the Difference?
Often the question is posed; can someone perform in both time trials and road races and to what extent is there a trade-off between the disciplines?
Here, I will focus on one of these key differences - body position - and explain what you can do this winter to ensure you’ll hit the ground running next season, picking up where you left off in working towards that PB, regional medal or whatever goals you may have in mind.
Biomechanics and Range of Motion:
One of the most frequent complaints among cyclists is ‘tight’ hamstrings. To an extent, they are right.
When referring to tightness, they are describing a shortness of the muscle, a lack of flexibility. However, it’s important to understand that this is also a result of our bodies adapting to the demands we impose upon it - spending hours in a fixed position producing force, while our hamstrings never fully extend.
This leads our bodies to adapt, as each muscle and its antagonist develop strength and tension relationships, a theory known as biotensegrity. In turn this adaptation and others - assuming you can achieve the desired position on the bike and are injury free - will help us ride faster.
This is also a key difference for time-trialists versus road racers. In a time-trial position, we require a much longer posterior kinetic chain, forcing muscles such as the hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae into a much more extended position.
Likewise, we see muscles such as the iliopsoas in a much shorter, contracted position. This means that if you are used to riding in a more upright position on your road bike - and aren’t dialled in a time-trial tuck - you will struggle to produce the same power, as your muscles are forced outside their optimal range.
The Trade Off:
Not including the physiological elements of the puzzle, this is considered one of the key trade-offs between time trialling and road racing - a central reason for riders complaining they cannot replicate their road bike numbers on a TT rig.
Focusing on lengthening certain muscle groups solely for time trialling can take them outside the range for optimal power output in a road position and vice-versa. You cannot have both.
That’s certainly not to say that the two don’t mix. After all, if we look at some of the greatest Grand Tour winners of today and the past, it would be a stretch to say their time-trialling has been poor! Nonetheless, it’s more common for pure specialists to struggle for comparable results in road races, some of which could be owed to the strength-tension relationships of their respective muscle groups.
What can I do?
You’ll be relieved to know, there are plenty of solutions. Firstly, determine what limiting factor(s) are blocking you from achieving a slippery position on your time-trial bike (or even road bike nowadays).
Physical therapists and even bike fitters should be able to determine which muscles are short and which aren’t. Most commonly, however, short hamstrings and gluteal muscles prevent many from achieving an aerodynamic position they can actually maintain. Some basic stretches targeting those is a good place to start.
Riding your bike in the optimal position is vital. That is when you’ll train the body to produce force in a tucked position and develop the adaptations in the aforementioned relationships.
Training on the TT bike and spending five per cent of your ride in the position you race just a few weeks prior to your first event will have a limited effect. Target your sessions with specific interval sets outlined - during which your position is the main focus - and then extend the duration over time.
Work on lowering and then extending your head position, dropping between your shrugged shoulders, starting with as little as a few minutes at a time.
Note, however, any significant changes take place over months, not weeks or days. Declaring it a lost cause after a week or two will does not mean changes are not taking place.
The answer to the initial question therefore is a resounding yes. It is entirely possible to perform in both time-trials and road races, in fact the training which underpins both is mutually advantageous to the other. Balancing both will not only give more nuance to your training but more firepower to your arsenal.
Elevation Coach, Craig McAuley, is a National Time-Trial medalist and qualified Neuromuscular Therapist who can contribute to your training plan with Elevation Coaching. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how the synergy of our team can improve your performances!