It’s pretty common these days for a mountain bike stage race, even a marathon stage race, to include a short TT leg, usually by way of a prologue. Mountain bike TTs give riders a chance to thrash out some of their nerves, and from a race director’s perspective are useful for sorting out seeding safely, sensibly, and without controversy. But a mountain bike time trial is not necessarily about getting aero and sitting at threshold. Your race director might also take the opportunity of this short, individual stage to showcase some technical singletrack or a cross country course that sits outside the race route… Even if the high intensity of a TT stage isn’t your specialty, there are a few basic measures you can take to ensure you maintain a decent place in the GC.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
It’s a great advantage if you can get to know the course, even a little bit, in advance by riding it in the days before racing, but if this isn’t possible (and often travel gets in the way), have a chat to locals or other racers, and scrutinise the course route and profile. Reduce your chances of getting caught out by a long climb to the finish when you’ve burnt all your matches, or taking a big wrong turn!
On race day, a TT requires a bit more careful planning than your typical stage. You’ll be given a specific start time, usually down to the minute, so work backwards from there: You’ll need 5 minutes to get in the chute, 5 minutes for a final visit to the bathrooms, a minute or two to get rid of jackets or do a final chain lube. Then your warmup should finish before that. You’ll probably have an idea of a warmup that suits you, but make sure it’s about 20 minutes long and you have a couple of short efforts in there to get your legs firing. From here you can work out exactly when you’ll need to be clipping in, your arrival time, etc. Some people write it down so there’s nothing to think about on race day, just a plan to follow. Make sure you know how much fluid and food you’re taking on board the night before and have it ready. It goes without saying that your bike should be in perfect nick, too!
2. Look ahead
By far the thing we fear most in a TT is being caught by the rider behind. In mountain biking this fear can be compounded by the fact that trails loop around and around, so riders can appear closer and further away than they really are. Think too much about this and you’re going to tie yourself in knots and your riding will suffer. Riders are usually set off about a minute apart, with the top-seeded riders taking off last. Problem with this is there are faster riders behind you. Rolling down the start chute, your first task is to shake off the feeling of being prey and become the predator. Every time you’re tempted to look behind you, take it as a sign that you’re not going hard enough and put the boot in immediately! Focus on keeping smooth, and look in front of you instead of losing time looking over your shoulder. You can only control what you’re doing, and what you’re doing is going forwards, not backwards.
Likewise, if you’re riding a trail at full pelt, and one you’re not that familiar with, chances are you’re going to need all your wits about you. The harder you go, the more your IQ drops, so staying focused will take up all your mental energy. It seems an obvious thing to advise but you’d be surprised how many people forget to focus on the trail ahead when they’re suffering through a TT. Keep your chin up and look as far up the trail as you can see, making sure you keep an eye on course markings and, failing that, tyre marks from other riders. Put extra thought into choosing lines, preparing for corners and obstacles and get your weight down – not for the aerodynamics, but so your front tyre is weighted and steady. Ride smooth and you’ll save energy and go faster.
3. Don’t panic
Given that TTs are often right at the start of your stage race, there’s also a good argument for being a leeetle conservative. Big time gaps are likely to come about in longer stages, so it could be that loading your legs with lactic acid that will cripple you for the next three days is a poor strategy. Strategy aside, the slowest things you can do in any race is crash or have a mechanical. Sometimes these are unavoidable, but don’t tempt fate. Ride within your ability, stick to the trail (shortcuts won’t save you time) and don’t get flustered if you go the wrong way or dab – chances are pretty much everyone’s going through the same thing. Try to keep your thoughts calm, encouraging and positive. Your inner critic isn’t going to help you go faster in a TT.
Try to stay positive even if things aren’t going your way…
Mr inner critic will have a fiesta if you’re passed by a rider behind you. The thing to do here is to take a deep breath and get back to your mantra of looking ahead and pushing hard – there’s plenty of racing to come and anything can happen. TTs aren’t on many marathon racers’ lists of favourite things. Get your attention back to what you can control – eating, drinking, steering, pedalling, and breathing – and congratulate yourself for every good line and every effort.
MTB TT dos and don’ts
DO Eat and drink plenty, even if it’s a short stage. Think of this as an investment in the rest of your race. Any weight savings you might gain by eschewing a water bottle are far outweighed by dehydration and inadequate nutrient.
Don’t affix aero bars to your mountain bike. I repeat. Aero bars do not belong off road. Skinsuits are permissible, and encouraged.
Do use all your gears. No heroics please. Keep your cadence high and as light as possible. You’ll need your legs for the stages ahead.
Don’t ride the whole thing locked out. You might feel fast when you’re out of the saddle, but you’re tearing a billion little muscle fibres with the impact – no reason to make it harder for your body to recover!
Do take all your spares. They might seem heavy, and the stage might be short, but if you’re in a stage race you HAVE to finish if you want to start the next day, and your fellow competitors are less likely to want to stop to give you a hand!
Don’t make any big changes to your riding position or bike. MTB TTs are different from road TTs in this regard. We still need to move around and move our bikes around below us, the same traction, the same balance. Unless your TT is a 1km uphill road climb, it’s unlikely you should change anything about your setup.
Do have fun and enjoy the adrenalin!