Love Your TT Bike: Train Like a Triathlete, Not a Roadie

By Mark Deterline
Triathlete magazine
Originally posted in

An accomplished age-grouper recently told me that over the past year he has ridden his TT bike only a handful of times, primarily at races. He was sheepish about it, explaining that his road rig is "just so nice" and had proved too enticing whenever his training schedule called for time on the bike.

You often hear people talk about their bittersweet relationship with TT bikes: They love the technology and the feeling of being aerodynamic, but they can't seem to get comfortable on one or ride one for more than 60 to 90 minutes at a time.

The wonderful thing about showing up on a TT superbike is that it almost forces you to prove your worth.

Forming a bond with an aero bike is like any other worthwhile relationship: At times it may be a lot of work, but it shouldn't be a chore. It should ultimately be a positive experience, even when it's a challenge. In fact, I think there should be at least a small hint of romance.

When I first saw a picture of my current TT bike—a catalog photo of a final prototype not yet in commercial production—I was smitten. Thus began a relationship that resulted in a significant investment of money, time and attention but has paid off in a great way. It's made me a happier, more confident time trialist, but perhaps even more importantly, I've become a better cyclist and a stronger all-around athlete.

I'm a road racer who has made time trials an important part of weekly training over the past few years, though I've never made it a big focus for formal events. I've entertained the thought of getting more serious about it, but for me it has always represented more of a fun and fast alternative to the road bike, the same way mountain biking has provided an enjoyable change of technique, terrain and scenery. So I'm writing this perhaps as an outsider looking in, as one who hasn't taken up time trialing because my discipline requires it (though stage races sometimes do).

In the past, teammates and group ride companions would see me on my old, inexpensive TT bike and ask me if I was preparing for a specific event. Why else would I be on it after all? "Nope," I would respond, "I'm just trying to stay flexible and familiar enough with my aero bike and position so as not to hate time trials when opportunities present themselves."

Even more importantly, I've always appreciated the way a TT bike works the glutes and hamstrings, compelling me to pull through more efficiently at the bottom of my pedal stroke. It's also a great way for a roadie to develop power for seated efforts, especially one who tends to come out of the saddle when the pace picks up, which isn't always the most efficient way to deal with changes in tempo.

Riding the Superbike

After purchasing the new, aero superbike, and customizing it to my personal taste, including swapping out the clip-on extensions for more comfortable ones so as to completely relax my wrists and upper body, I took it out for a number of long rides. Once I felt comfortable astride it, I began showing up at one of the weekly training rides well-attended by triathletes, including super-biker Chris Lieto.

Each week, I spent more and more time at the front until I was taking longer pulls alongside or in rotations with the tri-guys. It was the middle of the road race season, and I was finally beginning to find my form. I had nailed the position pretty closely right off the bat, due to the time I had spent fooling around with that first, less-expensive aero bike. I had done some road racing with Chris Lieto, who I think was a bit surprised that someone he had never before seen on a TT bike looked so comfortable.

I felt great on this new rig and was really enjoying riding it hard. People noticed the bike; it was one of the first of its kind in the area. It was unique looking—curvaceous and sexy—designed by one of the foremost aerodynamics researchers in the industry. Fellow riders commented on how good it looked and how at-home I looked on it. It was already money well spent.

I'm not trying to toot my own horn here. If this isn't also the first chapter of your TT bike story, it should be. As a triathlete, this is your destiny.

Prove Your Worth

Fast forward to a month later, after I had done this group ride several times. At the bottom of what had become the long TT bike drag race—a gradual, rolling climb up a well-known canyon about five miles long—Lieto and others were ready to "throw down." And so was I.

One of the young, up-and-coming triathletes, sporting his USAT jersey, attacked the course at the bottom. He had come out of his saddle and was pounding a good-sized gear, quickly opening up a sizeable gap. I was the only other rider on a time trial bike that day, as Lieto was on his road bike because he was training for the Tour of Utah. It was up to me to either chase the young gun or let him go.

The wonderful thing about showing up on a TT superbike is that it almost forces you to prove your worth. That doesn't mean you need to go hard whenever you ride it, but if you have the audacity to go to the front of a group of strong riders, you had better be ready to git 'er done.

Our young escapee wasn't a rabbit that day; he was bigger prey, and Lieto and I were the predators. We settled into a strong, steady rhythm, sharing the load pull for pull. When we saw we weren't yet gaining on him, we slowly increased the pace.

Since I was on my TT bike, I took on the lion's share of the work. I was turning the biggest gear I dared, careful not to be so ambitious as to get in my own way. I was pushing myself to my very limits, with the same frame of mind you sometimes need to employ in competition: I was willing to risk losing in order to win. That day, winning meant holding my own against a feisty up-and-comer and one of triathlon's fastest cyclists.

I guided my bike by its aero extensions as if they were flight controls, aiming the bar end shifters like crosshairs squarely at the young rider's backside. There he was, dangling out in front of us in a furious effort to stay away. But we were now reeling him in.

We would hold our momentum up a riser, then plunk the chain a couple of cogs down after cresting it, settling back into a lower, efficient, big-gear cadence. The pace was unrelenting.

Lieto and I had now dropped all but one strong rider, the pack having melted away under the heat of our combined effort. The three of us caught the buck and he integrated himself into our paceline, his face betraying the full extent of his exertion.

As we approached the final hill, I continued to drive the pace. I was on the front as the road inclined more steeply. I now anticipated the others coming around me in an effort to be the first to the top, with my steady pulls having served as the perfect leadout.

Even so, I wasn't ready to yield. I dropped into my small chainring, but I was still in a good-sized gear. I knew they would fly by me any second. I came out of the saddle, willing to leave whatever I had left right there on that final slope.

But no one passed me; I was alone. I looked back as I continued pulling against my base bars to counter the force I was pouring onto the pedals. Lieto had eased up, shaking his head. At the top, he rolled up, giving me an inquisitive glance. He asked me, "Dude, do you peak for these rides, or what?"

We relaxed for a few minutes, taking long drinks from our water bottles while we waited for the others to arrive. It was quiet; the dust of our effort was still settling. Once everyone had regrouped, we set off again. A couple miles later, the drag racing resumed. I was right there in the middle of it, loving every minute.

For now, that was my greatest day on a TT bike, but I've had countless memorable days on that sexy thing. And I want more.

The Beauty of the Time Trial Bike

The ability to rock an aero bike at whatever level you recreate, train or race at will make you stronger and could even set you apart from the crowd. At first, many of your riding companions will be skeptical of your ability to ride it safely. Come prepared to show them that you can. The safety of other riders should always be your first priority, but then, after you prove you can handle a TT rig, show them you can ride it fast.

There will always be somebody who is stronger, more experienced and more accomplished than you are. But technology and speed belong to no one individual. Take whatever you have or whatever you can afford and figure out how to optimize it. Dial in your position and your technique, and then get comfortable on one of the most important pieces of equipment you will ever own.

Like love, time trialing needs no reason. In the end, it's just you and your machine, whether you're up against a group of riders, a nasty set of rollers or a relentless wind. Find that gear you can barely tick over smoothly. Get on top of it, but don't get cocky. Respect it.

Pace yourself, but push yourself to the limit of your ability and fitness. You have to be willing to blow up in order to break through.

Alone you are an athlete, but on your bike, you are a rocket.