Secrets of the time trial: how riders are constantly getting faster

The Giro’s race-defining time trial takes place around the streets of Verona on Sunday (May 29). We caught up with time trial legend Marco Pinotti to delve deep into TT tech

The time trial. The race of truth. The pit of pain… Whatever you call it, rider and machine against the elements – and the clock – can make or break a Grand Tour. Seconds lost over many stages can be easily wiped out with a strong TT. On the other side of the coin, a poor TT can see the chance of an overall win disappear in up the road ahead. See Primož Roglič’s penultimate-stage 2020 Tour for recent evidence.

One rider whose TT has evolved beyond comparison over the years is Simon Yates. The 29-year-old Team BikeExchange-Jayco rider won his first Grand Tour time-trial on stage two of the Giro d’Italia before retiring later in the race. “I just tried to go as fast as possible,” the Brit said after his 11:50min ride around the 5.7-mile Budapest course. “We’ve put a lot of work into our equipment this year and, of course, it’s paying off.”

That collective recognition includes arguably Yates’ and the team’s trump card: Marco Pinotti. The 46-year-old Italian is BikeExchange’s performance coach and he specialises in the TT. As a rider he won four stages of the Giro d’Italia – two as an individual and two in the team TT – and garnered the nicknames ‘The Professor’ and ‘The Engineer’ for his positional and equipment attention to detail. Ahead of Sunday’s final stage of the 2022 Giro d’Italia, where the riders face 17.4km around Verona, we caught up with Pinotti to talk all things TT…

We note you have a link with UK company Vorteq. Tell us more, please…

Yes, the team has a partnership with Vorteq – an aerodynamic company based at Silverstone. In November last year, we flew over with Yates and Matteo Sobrello [2021 Italian time-trial champion] and enjoyed time in the wind-tunnel. The major aim was to play around with positions, albeit with Simon we’ve been to the tunnel so many times now that, if we do make changes, they’re always really small. 

It was the same with Sobrello. We played around with positions but didn’t really gain anything regarding CdA [co-efficient of drag, a dimensionless number that’s the result of a body and bike’s drag size, shape and surface texture]. I think it’s because Sobrello has time trial in his blood. Over the years he’s reached his optimum position through trial-and-error. He’s efficient and fast. 

We were with Sobrello for over two hours, playing around with things like elbow position, and didn’t change a thing. That’s good news because he’s already in a good position but bad news because there are no gains to be had.

Is modern-day time trial different to when you raced?

The time trial position has changed over the years. When I was racing in the 2000s, it was all about going as low as possible. Then many riders moved to much higher arms. I remember Floyd Landis winning the Tour of California in 2006 and his hands were very high. In fact, his position’s probably illegal now as his hands looked to be 10cm higher than his elbow. [UCI rules state that the height difference between the arm rests and the highest and lowest points of the handlebar extensions must be less than 10cm.] Now, I’d say the trend is to tilt the bars up around 10° and keep your hands close into the chin. 

How commonplace is aerodynamic testing away from the wind-tunnel?

Last year I tested 15 riders on the track and used aero sensors. It’s a cost-efficient way to analyse the aerodynamic capacity of a rider because it’s much cheaper than putting individual riders through the wind-tunnel. The problem is that some riders aren’t as relaxed around an outdoor velodrome compared to the road. They might struggle with the bends, meaning they’re not putting out the power they can, which impacts the results.

Then again, there are downsides of the wind-tunnel, too. You might be pushing power but the bike’s clearly not moving, so whether you can sustain that position on the road remains to be seen.

How accurate are aerodynamic sensors?

Sensors are improving thanks to the likes of AeroLab and Notio. But there are still gaps. Firstly, they’re not overly user-friendly so they’re not great for the recreational rider as you need a coach to interpret the results. Also, unlike the wind-tunnel, conditions in the real world are always changing. When you test the aerodynamics of an object, you want to standardise variables so you can isolate specific parts. You want to change one thing at a time, whether that’s moving the hands higher or lower, changing the front wheel, using a different tyre… But when you test outdoors, the wind might be blowing in one direction and then, when you repeat the test half an hour later, it might be blowing in a different direction. That change of yaw angle affects a rider’s CdA, making the results pretty meaningless.

There’s also the issue of space, certainly where I live. If you’re not using a sensor on an outdoor track, you’ll need a long enough stretch of quiet road with no traffic. Using these devices in northern Italy – finding 1km of straight, smooth roads with no cars – it’s not possible. You’d need to buy a road closure – and then it’d be more expensive than going to the wind-tunnel!

Finally, what aspect of TT technology has surprised you in recent times? 

Tyre choice is a big thing now. It used to be that narrower was better. Over the past couple of years, things have gone the other way with some riders even using 28mm. And riders will often use lower tyre pressures – even down to around 80-85psi. It can feel like you have a flat but you still cover the road quickly. It helps aerodynamics, too, improving the airflow where the wheel meets the tyre. Ultimately, the ride is smoother and faster.

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