Queueing, fish and chips, an obsession with the weather. Britain has a unique culture that extends to cycling; an obsession with time rialling is still strong today across the sport. Behind the obscure course codes and innovative kit lies a strong and numerous community. Almost every rider, of any ability, will have ridden a ‘Club 10’ at some point in their life, these races the heartbeat of cycling clubs across the country on summer evenings. Professional riders, veterans on vintage bikes and up and coming juniors are all equal as they take to the startline.
Time trials in Great Britain have their own governing body, CTT (Cycling Time Trials) which has roots from the time when road racing was banned in Britain and ‘secret’ point to point races would take place, riders setting off individually to appear as if they were not racing. Today the sport has evolved and remains popular, keeping some of the early traditions such as course codes as well as CTT innovating with new categories and rules to keep up with modern demands.
We have the best time trialling scene in the world, bar noneMichael Gill
“If you think of all the other nations, we have the best time trialling scene in the world, bar none. You can get your bike out and go and race a time trial against a pretty high level field pretty much any weekend from the middle of February to November,” says Michael Gill (HUUB Wattshop), a former Saint Piran and current Great Britain track rider, who was third in the National ‘10′ last year, a race that has risen to become the most prominent on the CTT calendar.
The biggest week in the CTT calendar concludes on Sunday, with the men’s National 10 Mile Championship taking place eight days after women and juniors contested the traditional blue riband 25 Mile Championship close to Dundee. George Peden (Team PB Performance) took the honours in the men’s event, while CTT specialist Kate Allan took another national title in the women’s race.
Although no jersey is on offer, winning a CTT title is a prestigious honour, riders to have done so include Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins and multiple World Champion Beryl Burton. “If you could win a time trial, other than the British Cycling National Championships, the 10 or the 25 are the ones to win,” says Gill, confirming the respect still held for these events across the country.
Both Peden and Allan will face stiffer tests this weekend however, with a stellar field to take the start in Northumberland. It represents a changing of the guard in terms of prestige of the ’10’, it is very much the Championship to win in CTT circles now, attracting talent from all corners of cycling.
If I could win one it would be the 10 up in the North East, where I started doing time trialsMichael Gill
“People talk about the 25 as being the big one, but I’ve always wanted to win the 10,” Gill states, having taken home a bronze medal in the 25. Native to the area, Sunday’s race will hold special memories for him, with his first TT on a variation of the course for the championship. “If I could win one it would be the 10 up in the North East, where I started doing time trials.
“I lived in the North East for my whole childhood. I know that course like the back of my hand, it was my local fast 10 so it would be nice to win it. I think I’m going to have to break my course record by a considerable amount to do so. It stands at 18:26, but I think a 17:xx will will win it.”
2023 sees something of a resurgence of road riders taking on the unique challenges of CTT Championship races, George Peden providing evidence over the past two weekends that it is possible to combine both disciplines to a high level, with his 9th place at the Ryedale Grasscrete Grand Prix followed up with his maiden CTT Championship. Both the women’s and men’s races look set to be showdowns between CTT specialists, road riders turning their hand to testing and the rarest of beasts, riders that can excel in both across the course of a season.
One such rider is Ollie Peckover (TrainSharp), who is looking for his maiden CTT title after skipping the 25. “I want to win. That’s what teams are looking for, people they know can win bike races.” His aim is to impress potential employers after both 2021 and 2022 ended in his UCI teams folding. However, the Salisbury-based man has no doubts about the difficulty of the task in hand given the stellar field.
Then there’s defending champion John Archibald, he’s had terrible luck this year and at some point that has to change. He’s a big pick for the number one spotOllie Peckover
“There are a lot of fast people out there though and I can’t take that away from them – Alex Dowsett for example, he’s rapid. Even someone like Joe Laverick, if he can clean the gravel out of his kit and put some long aero socks on it will be interesting! Then there’s defending champion John Archibald, he’s had terrible luck this year and at some point that has to change. He’s a big pick for the number one spot.”
Gill agrees, picking out his HUUB Wattshop team mate Archibald as overwhelming favourite, with the Scot also electing to skip the ’25’. “I’d like to beat him, but he put a fair amount of time into me last year!”
Archibald is very much a CTT specialist now, his career coming full circle after an impressive few years combining his love of racing against the clock with road racing, culminating in two years at Pro Team level with Eolo-Kometa. Former ’10’ champion Richard Bussell joins him as one of the few favourites with little road racing experience recently, the field stacked with some surprise entries from names familiar to those following road racing, including Saint Piran’s Under-23 National Time Trial Champion Josh Charlton and ROKiT-SRCT’s Tom Williams, both riders making their senior CTT Championship debuts. In the women’s race, Monica Greenwood (DAS-Handsling) brings impressive road form, including a win at the Sheffield round of the National Circuit Series to challenge the dominant Allan.
Further up the start list in the men’s event is 21 year old Joe Shillabeer, who impressed last year finishing in 11th, a result he hopes to better this year. “The 10 is a pretty big goal for me. A top ten would be nice but really I’m going for a top six, which isn’t unrealistic. That would be really good.” The 05-03 rider made the trip to Scotland for the 25 last Sunday, coming home in a solid 15th place, only one behind former AT85 recruit Stuart Balfour; a good effort coming off the back of a tough block of road races, especially as he admits he favours the shorter distance. It is testament to the field assembled that Shillabeer’s name is hardly mentioned when discussing the favourites. Having progressed over the past 12 months, he could easily have been in the hunt for a medal in other years.
Time trialling is a specialist discipline requiring a particular skill set: the ability to ride close to the limit for as long as is required, to hold the optimum position on the bike and perhaps the most important, the ability to suffer alone: cycling’s most mentally most challenging race. With very few stage races in the UK involving a Time Trial, the discipline is one that requires road riders to make the most of their training and skill set in order to compete with the specialists.
It is hard to balance, and for the time being the priority is the roadOllie Peckover
“100%,” responds Ollie Peckover emphatically when asked if it is possible to combine high-level road racing and CTT events at once, entering a road race on the afternoon of the National 10 as if to prove the point. “It is hard to balance both,” he explains, going through his busy schedule from now to the end of the season. “From the Ryedale GP, I head to Belgium, then on the road is the Beaumont Trophy and the East Cleveland Classic. Thrown in the mix with that is the 10 Champs, the Circuit TT Champs and I’ve put in an entry for Chrono des Nations in mid-October. It is hard to balance, and for the time being the priority is the road, but after Belgium I’ll focus a lot more on the Chrono des Nations.
Peckover is somewhat an enigma in the British peloton with his ability, and willing, to invest so much time into time trials and race a packed road calendar to such a high level – this year he has won National B road races, 5 CTT events and claimed an excellent 8th place in the UCI-ranked Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic.
However, the heavy schedule of racing led to Peckover taking a short mid-season break, the demands of working and racing a packed calendar leading to burnout. “I was trying to organise a house move, travel three hours to do a one hour race in the National Circuit Series. It was a stupid month I had and it was difficult not seeing the results you know you’re capable of.”
Peckover is a rider desperate to impress and knows a National title will do his chances of gaining a professional contract no harm. “I’m a rider who’s trying to make a career out of cycling and move up to the next level. Teams want to see results in national races, foreign races, they don’t really look too much at CTT races – it’s a niche thing where in the UK people are weirdly interested in time trials!”.
It explains why Peckover is placing a lot of emphasis on the season ending Chrono des Nations, a rare chance for the world’s best testers to showcase their talents outside of a stage race or championship event. The race has made a comeback in recent seasons with the trend of low amounts of TT kilometres in Grand Tours continuing, world champion Remco Evenepoel starting as favourite over the 45km course.
It’s where all the WorldTour testers come out for a bit of a play. It’s an event they can really focus on, a sort of second world championshipsOllie Peckover
“It’s where all the WorldTour testers come out for a bit of a play. It’s an event they can really focus on, a sort of second world championships,” he says, offering up that he believes a top 20 is possible based on results from last year and his ride against Josh Tarling in June’s National Time Trial Championship. “It will be really nice to line up against that level of competition and see what the legs can do.”
Michael Gill is a rider who knows all about the demands of combining a high level of road and TT racing after spending the 2022 season riding with Saint Piran, his major target the British National Time Trial Championships and a tough calendar of National A and UCI Road races. “I think they were happy for me to do them [CTT races] and were very supportive of my results. I got a lot of support for the British National Time Trial Championships,” says Gill, who unfortunately crashed out of that race, his major goal for the season. “It [CTT Time Trials] wasn’t the primary goal – the team’s aim is to do well in UCI and National Road Series races. I was quite surprised at the third place in the 10. I didn’t spend that much time riding my TT bike. I just thought it would be good fun to do it. I was very pleased with that actually.”
You could say it’s one dimensional but I think training towards TTs and those kind of efforts benefits road racing quite a lotMichael Gill
A relative latecomer to the sport, Gill spotted the opportunity to join Saint Piran whilst riding for their development team, 05-03, in 2021. Blessed with what he describes as a natural ability at TT type efforts between 4 and 50 minutes, Gill used these to great effect in his road racing that year, earning him a move to the UCI Continental Team for the following year. “You could say it’s one dimensional but I think training towards TTs and those kind of efforts benefits road racing quite a lot.
“I had a bit of a funny year last year, where I struggled to work out what I wanted to get out of the sport,” he reveals. “Something in road racing I struggled with, especially the bigger UCI ones, was learning what other people are going to do and that you can’t dictate the race yourself; it’s often dictated by someone else and you are left to work with that. It just took me a while to find my feet and I think by the time I did, it was a bit too late.”
Without a contract for 2023 Gill decided to focus on what he enjoyed and received a call up to train with the Great Britain Track squad, leading to him riding in the Team Pursuit at the Cairo and Milton World Cups after his first major goal of the season at the National Track Championships in January where he secured silver medals in the Individual and Team Pursuit.
With his major focus the pursuit events on the track this year, the Nottingham based rider spends around 50% of his time on his time trial bike, using it for three sessions a week, up from one last season.
“I tend to do specific TT training on the TT bike and longer endurance rides on the road bike. My main focus is the individual and team pursuit on the track, so training in that position is vital in order to do the high powers required. It’s all well and good being able to do it up a 5% climb, but in the TT position it’s a different game really.”
Gill’s only foray into road racing this year came in June’s Divisional Championships, the HUUB Wattshop rider claiming a silver medal in his native North East, evidence that the specific training he puts into the time trial discipline can transfer well across to the road in the right circumstances. Gill revealed that he was wanting to ride more road races in August but the CTT Championships were too much of a target to mix disciplines, the busy late season calendar not offering the correct ratio of risk to reward for him at least.
Ironically, Gill has raced fewer time trials this year than last, the 25 and 10 Mile Championships his big goals in the latter half of the season. However, he believes he heads into the championships better prepared than last year, having had a completely different build-up. “It comes hand in hand with the pursuit stuff. You spend a lot of time on the TT bike doing those kinds of specific efforts in the TT position. I like to think I’m in a better position anyway!”
A lot of my training has been around V02 max, so that will carry over nicely for the 10. I don’t have the time for specific TT training as such, but I think it carries over pretty wellJoe Shillabeer
Joe Shillabeer makes it clear that his major goal in cycling is to move up to the Saint Piran UCI Continental Squad and as such, the CTT Championships are very much a personal and secondary goal. “This year it just hasn’t been possible with the racing that I’m doing,” he says when asked about how much time trialling is part of his agenda. “I’ve ridden a couple of local TTs but it’s all been on the road bike really. After Ryedale I’m going to ride it more. A lot of my training has been around V02 max, so that will carry over nicely for the 10. I don’t have the time for specific TT training as such, but I think it carries over pretty well.”
This goes some way to explain perhaps why the ’10’ is the chosen distance of Britain’s road racing elite – a sub 20 minute effort, very much a flat out test, is not dissimilar to one of the longest climbs tackled in a typical road race. Although time on the TT bike may be scarce, it is a familiar effort nonetheless.
21-year-old Shillabeer rides to feel when racing a time trial, the power meter recording data which he chooses to ignore during the ride. “I have the time and speed showing and on the day I’ll ride on feel. I’ll take a look at the course and decide where to push on certain sections.” His approach is not unlike a road race, where it is paramount to spend energy in the best possible way.
Gill concurs, a refreshing thought for fans of the sport who may have the impression that in the precise world of time trialling every ride would be ridden to a precise formula.
It’s fairly clear from a lot of TTs that the guy who does the most power doesn’t always win, so the main metric is definitely speedMichael Gill
“It’s a combination of three things. I look at power, I look at speed and I think about sensations I’m feeling at that point in time. It’s fairly clear from a lot of TTs that the guy who does the most power doesn’t always win, so the main metric is definitely speed. You want to keep that as high as you can throughout, that’s what gets you to the finish.”
A specialist discipline
Gill’s assertion that the rider with the most power does not always win is a poignant reminder how specialised the ‘race of truth’ has become. Aerodynamics have always been an important element in racing against the clock, but now riders must engage in an increasingly costly arms race in order to remain competitive – Gill’s assessment that speed is the only metric that really counts in a race against clock takes on a whole different meaning when any ‘free speed’ aerodynamics can find is taken into account.
“I’m planning on being in the wind tunnel, trying to find some progress there before the 10,” Peckover reveals when asked about the increasing role aerodynamics plays, explaining that at the National Time Trial Championship he produced 30 watts more than Charlie Tanfield, the Saint Piran rider taking almost two minutes out of him over the 50 minute race. It is a big investment for an amateur rider, a three hour block of testing costing upwards of £1000. “It’s worth the investment. It’s not something you can just pull out of your back pocket a few times a year though,” says Peckover, who previously used time in the velodrome to test his equipment and position using a rather crude system to measure the results as opposed to the precision of the wind tunnel.
Has the sport gone too far in terms of aerodynamics? “I think the whole of cycling has gone that way.” Answers Gill. “When people can see an opportunity to improve their result and you’re committed to it, then you’re going to take those financial hits, the time hits, all of those costs involved. What is too far? I personally just think it’s a natural progression of the sport.”
It has made it into more of an arms race, but at the end of the day you can use a cheap bike and focus on the areas where it matters, like your helmet, skinsuit and positionOllie Peckover
Peckover agrees. “I want to say yes!” he jokes, noting that he believes aerodynamics have cost him previously. However, his love of technology and innovation shines through. “It’s unreal to see and I love it. I’ve always been into that side of the sport. It has made it into more of an arms race, but at the end of the day you can use a cheap bike and focus on the areas where it matters, like your helmet, skinsuit and position. You can still make it work on a cheap setup. The margins we’re trying to find, most of the time your average Joe can find it quite easily through a few tweaks. I’m looking to really fine tune that, a couple of mm here and there. Obviously, not everyone is able to have the access or financials available to do that.”
It is a view Shilabeer shares, with him using all of his own kit and spare time to work on the most efficient set up. “In some ways it’s gone too far. You have people turning up with bits of kit even WorldTour riders can’t get their hands on. But you can still have a very fast setup on a budget if you put a bit of time into it.”
The resurgence of road riders taking on the ’10’ can be somewhat attributed to the aerodynamics arms race, with all riders now aware of the difference science can make regardless of their discipline. Skinsuits and aero helmets have become standard practice for road racing, something unthinkable only 15 years ago.
CTT specialists have always been at the forefront of aerodynamics and innovation, stretching back over 50 years. Alf Engers’ ground breaking sub-50 minute 25 mile record was set on a bike with the front brake hidden behind the forks and a position ahead of its time, whilst Graeme Obree reinvented the sport several times over the course of a decade on his way to multiple titles and competition records set in different positions and on wildly different machinery. Fast forward to the new millennium and the science of aerodynamics took hold with aerodynamicists Dr Xavier Disley and later Dan Bigham bringing their expertise to the sport, the former famously trying new handmade pieces of kit every week, the latter winning the 25 Mile Championship before breaking the World Hour Record and becoming a consultant to WorldTour team Ineos Grenadiers.
If Disley brought science to CTT, Bigham took it to the masses – his influence on Peckover and other road riders is clear.”We had access to a lot of expertise from Dan Bigham through Wattshop. We even had a team group chat for those of us that were into TTs with Dan giving us advice on anything we needed,” he says of his year spent with Ribble Weldtite, where time trialling became a very serious goal for him as he surrounded himself with the knowledge to take it to the next level.
I can control all the inputs and there’s very few external factors that impact the race. I guess you could say it’s almost a science experiment. It’s quite methodicalMichael Gill
The race of truth
Although they struggle to explain it, the common denominator between Peckover, Gill and Shillabeer and their desire to devote their energy and passion into time trialling is its unique ability to deliver a fair result. Gill likens a race to a science experiment. “I quite enjoy the general process of it, it’s very much in my control. I can control all the inputs and there’s very few external factors that impact the race. I guess you could say it’s almost a science experiment. It’s quite methodical.”
“I’ve always enjoyed TTing because you can see the improvements that you’re making,” says Shillabeer, who shares the same feelings as thousands of amateur club riders every week when they better themselves in the ‘Club 10’. Time trialling is uniquely quantifiable in cycling. Even with the aerodynamic arms race, it is still the race of truth.
When telling the story of his season, Peckover laments races through the summer period where he feels his results didn’t reflect his form, often leaving him disappointed and appearing somewhat disillusioned with road racing and his pursuit back to the UCI ranks. Time trialling brings a rider a sense of comfort that their form is good, a confidence in their training and process. If European riders use a certain climb to test their fitness, the local ’10’ on a familiar course has been the British way for generations. In Peckover’s case, although he plays down their importance, it is hard to deny a rider with a CTT National Championship victory does not at least have the potential to take the sport further with their obvious ability, dedication and attention to detail, something which team managers throughout the sport must realise.
Can the resurgence counter the decline?
Despite its rich history and high profile riders again taking to the start of its flagship races, CTT, like much of the domestic race scene is facing pressure from declining participation numbers – entries in ‘open’ events dropped by 45% from 2017 to 2022.
Although the vast majority of road racers enter very few CTT races, their presence at major championships should be beneficial for participation numbers, their entries bringing more media coverage and helping to bust the myth that it is impossible to be competitive in a time trial without devoting all your time to it.
CTT’s major innovation for 2023 aimed at reversing the trend of decreasing entries, has been the introduction of the road bike category, aimed at bringing what is perceived as a niche and technical discipline back to the masses with a ‘roll up and race’ solution. Every TT now has a separate category for traditional drop handlebar bikes, although the jury is still out on if it is a success. Far from having more road racing professionals turn their hand to testing and competing against a host of enthusiastic club amateurs, a commonplace feature of time trials years ago, the category, by some accounts, has become as niche as the TT bike category to which it was juxtaposed.
It’s almost the same people, doing the same rides, on the same kit, except they don’t have TT extensionsMichael Gill
“It could be a good way of bringing people into the sport, but it just attracts the same sort of people,” says Gill, honestly. “It’s almost the same people, doing the same rides, on the same kit, except they don’t have TT extensions. The times those races are won in, you have to be doing everything someone in the TT bike category is, just on a different style of bike. I think its great people are going so fast on both types of bike, but will it achieve what it set out to? I don’t think anyone knows at this stage.”
George Fox, a third category BC license holder, made headlines when setting a blistering time of 18:41 back in May for 10 miles, a competition record for the road bike category at the time. A phenomenal performance, Fox set the record using a Triathlon frame, 62t chainring and aero helmet with his day job consisting of coaching and offering aero bike fits to riders in pursuit of speed through his own business, George Fox Cycling Solutions. It certainly backs up Gill’s observations, which were all but confirmed when his training partner Alex Pritchard, a seasoned TT specialist who was 4th in the National 25, broke Fox’s record. Pritchard said at the time he thought a top class rider could put the record out of reach, although so far no elite level road rider has taken aim at it. With the amount of quality entries on full-fledged TT machinery in the ’10’, it seems his prophecy may not come true – the gap between the categories not wide enough to encourage riders to part from their specialist machinery.
Peckover believes the category is a good innovation, but that the rules need to be changed for it to achieve its potential. “I’m all for it!” He states with his infectious enthusiasm.”At the end of the day, it was an extra bike for most people if they wanted to enter a TT, or they would have been at a huge disadvantage before the class was introduced. It does need tweaking though. For example you’re allowed a TT bike helmet, but really the rule should be uncovered ears with a normal helmet – it’s another piece of equipment to invest in if you’re looking to take it seriously. You still have to pay for the same upgrades, but on a road bike instead.”
Another reason for declining entries could be the constant longing for racing on ‘fast’ courses. Set largely on dual carriageways with few technical elements and good traffic drafting conditions, the hunt for an impressive PB leads riders to travel, hundreds of miles in some cases, in search for quicker conditions. The collective uproar when the ultra fast V718 was threatened with a police ban the only evidence needed to prove what a big issue this is amongst riders.
The safety of such courses has been called into question on numerous occasions, with some riders tempted to take risks in order to improve their performance. Marcin Bialablocki was famously disqualified after setting a staggering competition record of 42:58 for 25 miles in 2017 for dangerous riding, the Pole riding close to the centre line of the dual carriageway for maximum benefit from drafting the overtaking cars. However, with traffic surveys informing a safe start time, fast dual-carriageways are something both Gill and Peckover see as a safer alternative to rural roads with limited scope for traffic to pass safely. “The cars are still coming by at 60mph,” says Peckover recalling his experience of racing on single carriageway roads. “On a dual carriageway, there’s not only the extra lane for vehicles to overtake, but there’s less junctions and turns, you need less marshals. Most races on these courses start at 7am – it’s better to get up early and race safely than have a lay in and be absolutely petrified the whole way with lorries and cars whizzing by you.”
The course for the Championship is a classic example of those used by CTT, containing a long stretch of dual-carriageway as well as a start time early enough to be classed as the night before. It is as far removed from a typically rural afternoon National A road race on closed roads as possible, the embodiment of just how different the two branches of the same sport are.
CTT introduced a Classic Series and National Ranking system to try and counteract the demand for only racing on the fastest of courses. The Classic Series aimed to take time trialling back to it’s roots with rural, sporting courses around a loop, although it has failed to ignite the imagination of the top riders; Scot John Archibald choosing to focus his attention on it, utterly dominating the four rounds he has entered. Archibald also leads the 12-month rolling National Ranking, although having only raced four times this season, it is questionable if the system is fit for purpose, yet alone a serious target for any rider.
I think a lot of people get excited about how fast they can go, but there’s a level of how well you can do a ride on a given day, on a certain course, rather than just an outright ‘how fast did you go’Michael Gill
The constant battle for a fast time leaves Gill conflicted. “I think a lot of people get excited about how fast they can go, but there’s a level of how well you can do a ride on a given day, on a certain course, rather than just an outright ‘how fast did you go’; although there is of course a level of attraction to that.
“My PB is on a dual carriageway outside of Cambridge and yeah, it was a good ride, but I’ve definitely had better rides which are a minute slower, but better put together.”
Outright times are an issue almost irrelevant to riders such as Shillabeer, and to a certain extent Gill and Peckover, their sole aim is a medal on Sunday. It doesn’t matter what course the Championship is held on – the gravitational pull of becoming CTT National 10 Champion will always bring out a strong field, the amount of road riders entering testament to the prestige the event still has in Britain today.
The relative lack of interest in the Classic Series and wider CTT events demonstrates the difficulties a modern rider faces when drawing up their schedule, with both eyes usually fixated on stepping up to the next level, or at least staying at the current one. Last weekend’s 25 Mile Championship clashed with three National B Road Races and the Junior Tour of Wales, creating a difficult choice for riders looking to impress potential teams for 2024. There have been very few riders able to make a living from CTT events alone – Michael Hutchinson the most recent, his 13 straight 50 Mile Championship titles testament to his utter dominance in the noughties; the only way to turn professional for the vast majority of riders is good results in major races, a status the ’10’ now seemingly holds, even if other CTT Championships have fallen by the wayside.
Both CTT and fans of the sport should relish the prospect of some of the best road riders gracing the dual-carriageways only a handful of times a year; their presence can only help to grow time trialling in the UK. There may not be a return to ‘the golden age’ where professionals graced TT races on a weekly basis, but their resurgence in the National 10 can pave the way not only to further their own careers, but the future of the sport in Britain.