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  • Writer's pictureMatt Fisher

Triathletes can't Time Trial?

You’d think that triathletes would make good time trialists. After all, new rules for sprint races aside, we’re pretty used to time trialing our way through the bike section of a triathlon. We use kit that looks (is) remarkably similar to what you see most time trialists using, we’re not supposed to draft or ride in bunches and we have to pace the effort according to the distance of the bike leg (and with enough in the tank for the run after!).

But that extra 5, 10, 15, 20 per cent effort that it takes to get to the end of the bike leg with nothing left in the tank is a bigger difference than you might imagine.

Or at least, that’s been my experience as a triathlete who has masqueraded as a part-time time trialist over the last few years. It’s not just a matter of effort, there’s also a lot of technique involved in time trialing that I’m really only just beginning to fully appreciate.

Having turned my back on middle distance racing in favour of short course for 2018 (work pressures, travel, you know the story), I found myself missing the challenge of longer bike courses. So, I recently took the decision to put a peg in the ground and enter a 50-mile time trial on the H50/17 course in Oxfordshire.

If you’ve read my recent blogs, you’ll know that I’ve had a pretty good run in time trials so far in 2018, setting significant PBs in both 10 and 25-mile time trials. This morning I had the chance to see if I could add a 50-mile PB to the list.

Not that there was much to beat. My last dedicated 50-mile TT (i.e. a bike race without a run after it!) was on the P885/50 course in Hampshire way back in June 2015. On that occasion, my left Garmin Vector mk1 pedal decided to part company with the Shiv’s oversized crank at about 33km into the race. I managed to get it back on (twice!) and finally finished in just over 1hr 59 minutes (1:57:39 moving time according to my Garmin file from the day).

On paper, the H50/17 course has less climbing (358m) than P885/50 (492m) but looking at various results sheets, it does look like P885/50 is generally the ‘faster’ course.

Nevertheless, my target for H50/17 was a sub-1:55:xx. I figured that was a reasonable target given the recent 25 and 10-mile TT performances, accepting that I’m not training for anything longer than 25-miles at the moment.

There was also the small matter of a business trip to Austin, Texas. Departing the day after last weekend’s Lake 62 triathlon and returning on Thursday morning, it wasn’t the best preparation for a two-hour cycling race. In my training runs on Thursday and Saturday, my heart rate was all over the place, much higher for the given output than it usually would be. I wasn’t sure whether to put this down to jetlag, dehydration, a bug or a combination of all three. There was probably the small matter of eating American restaurant and airplane food for four days…

After yet another puncture at the Lake 62 triathlon, I took some advice from friends and swapped the Vittoria Corsa clincher tyre on my rear Parcours disc for a Specialized turbo cotton one (26c). I also had a bit of a nightmare with my new Drag2Zero cockpit, which decided to loosen several bolts, including the one holding the Di2 tribar shifter in place. It felt more like open heart surgery than bike mechanics to dismantle the components and get them back together, but eventually I got there and on race morning, it all looked okay and ready to go.

I’d also asked ex-multisporter and now rather good time trialist, Alan Murchison, for his advice on in-race nutrition. I’m conscious that I have a history of not taking on enough calories during a race. That’s not really a problem in a sprint triathlon or a 25-mile TT, but in longer races it can make a difference. What Alan suggested (and I’ve no doubt he’s right) seemed too much for a two-hour race, so I settled on a regime that was as close to his suggestion as I thought my over-sensitive stomach could handle (there’s a good lesson to learn here, see below).

And so the 4am alarm clock sounded (and I thought it was just triathletes that had stupid early starts!) signaling the start of the day. I was at the Race HQ near Kingston Bagpuize by 6am, ready to register and warm up before my 7:21am start time.

I was conscious not to go off too hard; just get up to speed and then rein it back in. I’d already decided a power figure in my head that I wanted to keep to and my plan was to allow myself to push a little harder on the inclines in return for taking some respite when my speed was significantly above average on the flat or downhill.

This seemed to be going pretty well as I reached the 10-mile mark. I certainly had more in the tank and I’d been disciplined about drinking from the Giant Trinity’s front aero bottle.

What I hadn’t done was take a gel. Which I should have done by now, according to Alan. I could also see from my shadow on the road that my Bell Javelin aero lid wasn’t quite sitting flush with my back, suggesting I wasn’t sitting quite right on the bike.

As we turned at about 12.5 miles, ready to head back towards Oxford, I was looking forward to a tailwind. Which didn’t materialize! Instead, I found it rather slow-going. On the whole, the road surface was pretty good, but I found the inclines were ‘draggy’ (highly technical term, I know) and long. I decided to ride these to power, rather than really attacking them. I’m not sure if that was the right plan or not, but I was worried about blowing up if I attacked the inclines (I’m reluctant to call them climbs, as they weren’t so bad in all honest).

I finally took on a gel on a straight piece of dual carriageway at about 20 miles or so. Probably already too late, in hindsight. I made the turn at just shy of 25 miles and settled back in for the now-familiar run to Watchfield and back. The wind felt a little different (faster in some places, slower in others) but overall, I was just mindful of the fatigue beginning to set-in. I had to concentrate to keep my breathing controlled and I knew I really should get another gel down me. At least I was still drinking regularly.

I was catching a fair few riders, but the numbers were all over the place – 5, 12, 20, 3, 9 (I was 21). I was kind of hoping to see 19 or 18, but never did.

Into the last ten miles and my right hip was beginning to cramp badly. Sufficiently so that I had to stand on a couple of occasions to stretch it out. I was also conscious that I was increasingly allowing my head to come out of the ‘turtle neck’ position and stick itself more proudly into the airflow in a kind of ‘meerkat’ pose. Not good. I think it was probably a combination of lack of focus, lack of familiarity with the road and plain fatigue that was causing this.

One of the good things about H50/17 is that you can stay in the aero tuck for something like 99% of the whole course. The bad side of this is that, if like me you’re not used to holding a tight aero tuck for two hours, this leads to discomfort not only in the neck, but also shoulders and triceps. Oh, and I have I mentioned the chafing in the nether regions?Enough with the excuses.

With one eye on the time and another on distance, I could see that I was into the last 5km of the course and (by my reckoning) I had a fair chance of beating my 1:55:xx target.

Except there was a flaw in my logic. For whatever reason, I had calculated that 25 miles equals 40.1km. Ergo, 50 miles would be 80.2km. Except it isn’t; 50 miles is 80.47km. As I passed 80.2km (to be honest, I think I had just missed my target by this point), I started to question whether I’d missed the finish! This played with my head while I was simultaneously trying to push as hard as I could to the line. Eventually at 80.6km (by my Garmin), I saw and passed the finish line. Stop the Garmin and the readout said 1:55:30. Dammit.

That’s a long write-up for a two-hour race, but really I did it because it hopefully puts into context some of the lessons learned from today’s race:

1. Practice your race nutrition – I know we all read this all the time, but I suspect I’m not the only one that’s bad at it. I need to have at least a couple of sessions each week where I practice my in-race nutrition strategy (rather than using the ride as an excuse to replace my calorie deficit with pizza later…). That means not only ingesting the gels etc. but also doing it at race pace, at full chat, in the aero position…

2. Spend more time in the aero position – less time mucking about on road or cross bikes and more time adapting to holding the aero position for long periods of time. This might even mean taking the aero lid out on some training rides, which no doubt will amuse the local drivers.

3. ‘Meerkat’ is not aero – I have to admit that I cringe when I see photos of some triathletes in an ‘aero’ tuck. Yes, I know that triathletes have to run and so that can alter their bike position, but there’s no good excuse to ride around with your head stuck into the wind like a speed brake (not that I advocate ‘head down’ racing either, there’s a balance).

4. Stretching – this might seem like a weird one to include, but I think half the problem with my hip cramps was to do with not stretching regularly.

Another thing I noticed after the race was just how wrecked my glutes were! This was surprising as it’s not something I usually suffer from – largely because I’m pretty sure they never do any work! But having had some massages recently to try to free up my back, I wonder if one of the knock-on effects of these treatments is that my glutes are now able (or forced!) to do some of the work. Either way, I’ve never had such painful glutes after a race of any kind! I’m guessing tomorrow could be even worse as the DOMS kick in properly!

So… I missed my target, but not by much. I’ll take it as a benchmark and something that I can work on ahead of 2019. In the meantime, there’s still a few more races left in 2018 before winter settles in.

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