The individual time trial of the Tour de France has long been a fixture of the race, and a lasting legacy of the true intention of the event: to test one athlete against another over a set distance under the watchful eye of the clock.
The number of time trialling kilometres has dwindled throughout the 21st century. In 2002 for example, there was 176.5km spread over four stages. By 2012, that had dropped to 96km over three stages, and in 2020, there was just one stage covering 36km in total. With 58km worth in the 2021 Tour de France route, the individual time trial has seen a small resurgence, but despite the still relatively minimal distance, it remains as crucial as ever to the GC battle.
In the ’70s and ’80s, technology played only a minor role in the individual time trial, but as time has progressed, our collective understanding of the importance of aerodynamics has grown. As a result, riders have turned to new – and sometimes radical – equipment to get faster, while the equipment itself has improved with each iteration.
Time triallists will go to extreme lengths for free speed. Some of which thankfully didn’t catch on, such as hooded full-body speed suits and shaving strips into leg hairs, but many, such as TT extensions, aero tube shapes and disc wheels have become part and parcel of the contemporary concept.
One of the early high-profile examples of this came in the 1989 Tour de France, when Greg LeMond famously added handlebar extensions to his bike, helping him to put 58 seconds into Laurent Fignon on the streets of Paris to win the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds.
But that’s not the first instance where riders aimed to cheat the wind in a time trial. Prior to LeMond, riders wore aero shells on their heads to improve their aerodynamics, as Bernard Hinault did in 1985, and used disc wheels to cut down on drag. The latter increased in popularity after the Olympic Games and Francesco Moser’s successful hour record attempt in 1984. The disc wheel first appeared en masse at the Tour de France in 1986, and are a staple inclusion on a time trial bike today, but the smaller front wheel used by Moser was eventually outlawed by the UCI.
With the advent of carbon fibre technology, frames not only became lighter but they also took on aerodynamic shapes, meaning round tubes could be replaced by truncated teardrops and Kamm tail designs. Indurain’s Pinarello was a radical example of this in 1995. Luckily, bike design has come a long way since 1997, when Bjarne Riis chucked his Pinarello into the verge after several technical problems in the final time trial of that year’s Tour.
Technology became more and more radical and, as a consequence, the UCI stepped in and put the brakes on secret innovations in 2000. It introduced new rules governing the design of time trial bikes to a “triangular form” and other restrictions.
Regulations have tightened further in recent years, putting various stipulations on rider position, while banning fairings and various other elements that the UCI has deemed to serve only aerodynamic purposes. Many of those decisions have profoundly impacted manufacturers. Aerocoach, for example, recently had to redesign a hub cap midway through the Giro d’Italia for Ineos Grenadiers when the UCI banned it after stage 1.
Not only improving the products themselves, brands and teams have also invested in improving their ability to test the performance of their equipment and riders. Wind tunnel testing is almost considered a prerequisite for a successful time trialist these days, CFD testing can use computing power to simulate real-world results, while supercomputers can iterate thousands of design concepts without needing to physically test a single one. Meanwhile, focus has also grown toward other factors that affect speed, such as drivetrain friction and rolling resistance.
As a result, certain theories that were once considered the gospel truth have recently been redefined or quashed altogether. For example, the idea that having a lower handlebar equals a faster rider has been replaced by the desire to balance a rider’s CdA (Coefficient of drag x area) and their power output capability. Also, the preference for higher tyre pressures has been put to bed by a better understanding of tyre rolling resistance, and that lower pressures deform to road imperfections and maintain momentum as a result.
Time trial technology has come a very long way in the past 40 years, and this special time trial gallery tells the story of the design and development of the time trial bike, equipment and accessories throughout that time.