“Team time trials are mentally the most challenging task for professional cyclists”.

A sportive director explains the tactics to the cycling team.
© Team Alpecin-Deceuninck

The Vuelta a Espana starts with a team time trial. This is a very special discipline and requires special preparation in terms of training, tactics and technique. Kristof De Kegel, Performance Manager at Team Alpecin-Deceuninck, explains in an interview with Alpecin Cycling how the professionals as well as the staff prepare for such a team time trial.

How do individual time trials and team time trials differ from each other?

ITT — the words say everything itself. Riders either hate it or really like it. They prepare individually on their own and it’s based on their own physical capacities. TTT on the contrary, it’s a team task and success of it really depends on each individual performance within the team. 

Is riding in a team also more stressful for the athlete, because he has more responsibility?

Riders are completely mentally aware of the fact that we need the weakest one to be as successful as possible. Saying that it is quite a stressful job as an individual athlete to participate in TTT because there is a big responsibility. Everyone is aware that something can go wrong because of his performance – this is a huge pressure.

No one wants to be the weakest, and mentally you need to be really focused not to make technical mistakes. Riders go very close to each other, because the aerodynamics plays a crucial role. Thus, it is not only physically but also mentally the most challenging task for cyclists. When a performance goes very well in TTT or you even win it, everyone is super happy.

© Team Alpecin-Deceuninck

What is the key to success in a team time trial?

The goal is very simple to be as fast as possible. In a TTT at a Grand Tour you have to put in every single rider, when you select 8 riders for. They all have different physical and mental capacities. When you put a team together for the team time trial, you have to put them in order based on biodynamics, physics, body size and rider strength – all these things are very important to have one “big engine” powered by eight different engines.

And you should use these engines in an optimal way. Finding the right place within the team so the speed stays up is something to think about. And of course, tactical and technical things also play a major role for success.

Why can sprinters or puncheur also contribute to success in flat team time trials?

Actually, most of the time you see sprinters and punchers are really good in TTTs, which is one difference between ITT and TTT. In an individual time trial sprinters do not like it when it’s too long and they do not have a chance to recover a bit. But in team time trials most of the times sprinters are technically quite good and are able to ride close to the wheel.

Also they are well protected from the wind and they are good in accelerating after corners. Actually, that is what sprinters and punchers are really good at and if you can place a really big engine in between of them who can do some longer intervals you have a good mix of riders to perform good in a TTT.

You said the key is to keep the speed high. To achieve that, do you then let the stronger athletes ride in the lead for longer than the weaker riders?

You can do a lot about performance, but in team time trials it’s more about speed, it’s the only thing that counts. If the speed drops, it always costs a lot of energy to increase the speed again. So a drop in speed is avoided. The length of the work in front is adjusted from rider to rider based on their physical abilities. So one rider is perfect for a 30 to 40 second interval and another can go longer. It varies from rider to rider.

A nice example is Tony Martin, who rode in the front for more than one minute in the World Championship a few years ago, which was three to four times longer than the shortest interval of the other teammates. But even there, the shortest lead of the weakest rider was very important for the overall performance, as it gave the ‘big engines’ the chance to recover. Even 12 to 15 seconds from two riders accounts for almost 30 seconds of extra recovery in each complete change.

When these are missing, you can see from the data that the strongest riders feel this and don’t have time to recover so they can perform at their best. You always have to find the right balance and understand the overall goal of keeping the team together for quite a long time in a recovery phase. Certainly it also depends on the course of the team time trial.

© Team Alpecin-Deceuninck

How does a team prepare for the team time trial?

For the riders, the preparation in our team consists of individual efforts on the time trial bike, ridden as aerodynamically as possible. But when we come together to do a team time trial, we have to look at the big picture.

You have to put the riders in the right place and analyse the findings by visual information. So taking videos and photos and seeing how it works. We went to the track to practise different interval lengths and different positions to find out who is best in which position and to analyse how that affects the overall performance.