Episode 22:- The Odd British Time Trial Tradition

Time Trial bikes and riders waiting for the starting slot.

The Dan Ward Memorial Time Trial, Brickendon.

The Dan Ward TT is run by the London Phoenix Cycling Club, in memory of a former member.

The club time trial scene is peculiar to the UK. Cycling clubs regularly put on strange happenings that draw uncanny parallels with the good ‘ol rural English cricket match. There’s the tiny village hall, often used for the cubs and scouts, on the edge of an immaculate village green nestled among thatched cottages. Then, there’s the quaffing of tea from an urn and the dainty stuffing in of cake that, if not home made, is sourced from the nearest Marks & Spencer’s.

Competitors in the Dan Ward Memorial Time Trial at the village hall.
Competitors in the Dan Ward Memorial Time Trial at the village hall.

In contrast to a cricket match, however, the people chatting are semi naked, sporting some tight fitting spandex with pointy hats and clippy-cloppy shoes rather than those crisp cricket whites.

It’s a serious business, the “race of truth”.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of bikes, some costing upwards of 10 thousand pounds.

But what is this Time Trial you speak about?

It’s a serious business, the “race of truth”. For those that don’t know, it’s a discipline that sees riders racing individually against the clock on a set course aiming to complete it in the shortest possible time. Traditionally, these were individual efforts where riders started at intervals to keep from drafting. However, you can also have team time trials (TTT) where teams of cyclists work together. Generally, these are included in stage races and, more recently, can be found online. Here’s a post I wrote describing the trials and tribulations of running an online team.

But why is the British Time Trial scene so unique?

The first recorded UK time trial (TT) took place in 1895, organised by the North Road Cycling Club, and the scene grew from there. Then, in the 50s, road racing was banned in the UK due to safety concerns. This meant you could only ride bunch style road races overseas in countries such as France and Belgium, where these were legal and well-established.

It’s held in a small village called Brickendon in Hertfordshire, just outside the city, hidden among those iconic English lanes.

Time trials were the only option for people in the UK to scratch that racing itch because, bizarrely, they were deemed safe enough to be held on public roads as long as you had permission from the local authorities. This drove the club TT’s popularity sky-high until the late 1980s and 1990s, when road racing was finally legalised again. Nevertheless, time trialling remains a vibrant and beloved part of the British scene. Clubs continue to host regular time trial competitions like this one, which I volunteered for.

The event

I knew what I was letting myself in for, as I’d helped out the year before. It’s held in a small village called Brickendon in Hertfordshire, just outside the city, hidden among those iconic English lanes. The sun was out that day last year, and I really enjoyed it. I remember the ride out of central London being beautiful in the warmth of early spring.

Beyond the traditional “Hi, how are you’s?” and general chit-chat, most of the conversation revolved around bikes, racing, fitness and more bikes.

I was a little late to confirm my volunteer slot this year, which is not unusual for me. Nevertheless, I heeded the call when it seemed there would not be enough helpers on the day. The weather forecast for this year was changeable in the run-up, so I was unsure what to expect. Fingers crossed the sun would poke its head out.

Getting to the hall on time

The racing was starting at 2 p.m., so I aimed to leave the house around 11 a.m. It’s about 25 miles, and I wanted to get there in good time to pitch in. It was so good to find the sun shining as I rolled out through Hyde Park, up through Regents Park, out through Golders Green, and on to the countryside after Potters Bar.

The ride seemed further and hillier than I remembered, but it wasn’t that long before I rolled up to Brickendon Liberty Parish Hall (aka Fanshaws Room), where the HQ of the event was already set up by Andy, the main organiser.

Having marshals out on course is essential in emergency situations.

The refreshments...
The refreshments…

I was greeted with a lovely hot cuppa (with oat milk) and a choice of cake that had already been laid out.

The riders hadn’t started to arrive, but there were plenty of my clubmates around to catch up with. Beyond the traditional “Hi, how are you?” and general chit-chat, most of the conversation revolved around bikes, racing, fitness, and more bikes.

The job in hand

The course is on the open road and isn’t signposted. So, you need people out there to point the racers in the right direction as they approach each junction. These marshals are also able to deal with any issues that may arise with the riders en route. The riders reach very high speeds on specialist bikes that are incredibly light and somewhat unstable, particularly when taking bends or in high winds. Accidents can and do happen. Having marshals out on course is essential in emergency situations…

My role, however, was helping the riders sign on and ensuring they had their fair share of tea and cake! I know, right? #FriendsInHighPlaces

Both the start and finish lines need multiple marshals to cover various duties. Not only do they hold up riders by their seat rails (so they can set off efficiently), but they also ensure that each rider starts at the appropriate time. They need to take exact timings and generally ensure that things proceed according to the rules. There also has to be a British Cycling qualified official to oversee things…

Time Trial foreplay

Competitors signing on before getting to the TT start line.
Competitors signing on before getting to the TT start line.

The forty or so riders arrived in dribs and drabs to sign on and collect their race numbers. Start times are staggered, and each person is told their unique start time well in advance of the day. There’s an air of calm anticipation, as most know what they’ve let themselves in for—a world of pain for some nineteen to thirty five minutes (or longer depending on how quickly you cover the distance).

Instead of the calm, slightly apprehensive person that left, they were flushed, breathless, sweating and utterly spent.

The competitors were all welcomed and offered refreshments and encouragement. We tried to answer any questions they might have had about the course and the conditions as best we could. Many recognised one another and had ridden together before. Others were new to the event.

Without much ceremony, people would be checking their bikes, warming up by riding around the village, and eventually heading off to the start, which was just out of sight. Moments later, they would come wooshing past, all tucked into the most aerodynamic position they could muster. All to gain as many precious seconds as possible.

Open to all

Not all competitors had dream Time Trial machines. Some were on standard drop-bar road bikes; they had their own category. There was even a tandem taking part, headed up by clubmate Joe and his wife.

Tandem entry. Not your classic time trial speedster, but valid non-the-less!
Tandem entry. Not your classic time trial speedster, but valid non-the-less!

Again, they had their own tandem category, and as they were the only tandem team, they inevitably came first!! #WinWin. This idea of welcoming everyone on whatever bike they ride is something that makes the UK time trial scene so endearing and accessible.

To the finish…

About twenty minutes after the 2 p.m. start, people began to drift back after having finished. They presented very differently. Instead of the calm, slightly apprehensive person that left, they were flushed, breathless, sweating, and utterly spent. They’d given everything they had out on the road, and it took them some time to regain composure.

Everyone became more and more concerned as the news of the lost rider was confirmed.

All was progressing without incident, other than one lady who arrived late for her start time due to events beyond her control that morning. She was obviously feeling the pressure. As it was, she had her start time shifted to later in the day so she could race. #HappyDays

Interim result sheet fresh from the finish line.
Interim result sheet fresh from the finish line.

The results

The results were coming in. Images of the timing sheets from the finish were appearing on the event’s WhatsApp group. It looked good. The riders had put in some exceptional times. It even looked like the course record might be broken.

A side note

Shortly after 3 p.m., the marshals came back to the HQ, and rumours started circulating that one of the riders may have been lost and was probably still out on the course. Everyone became increasingly concerned as the news of the lost rider was confirmed. The lady who arrived late and missed her scheduled start time had taken a wrong turn and was nowhere to be seen! We all started to leap into action just when news came through that she had been found.

The relief was palpable, particularly when she was ushered back into the HQ by her saviour. Thankfully, she was unharmed and pretty much unphased by what had happened, which was good news.

The incident delayed the breakdown of the event a little. However, it gave everyone time to discover that the course record did in fact fall! It was beaten by over 10 seconds, which is huge in Time Trial terms.

The after-party

There was nothing left to do other than saddle up and ride back to Whetstone as a group, where we finished with some light refreshments at the club’s favourite cafe, courtesy of the lovely Paul, then home. #WhatAPerfectDay

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