Quality bike session: three words guaranteed to give you that sinking feeling when you read them on a training schedule. Whether it's on the turbo trainer or out on the road, those words mean only hard work and pain. However, there is one sure way to make those sessions not only bearable but enjoyable - time trialling.
Time trials will not only improve your cardiovascular fitness, leg strength and speed endurance, they also replicate the bike leg of a triathlon so you can become used to the discipline of riding alone and learn to pace yourself without being distracted by the run to come.
You'll be motivated to work hard because the TT results are published afterwards, and when it's all over you can relax and compare notes with fellow riders about the strength of the wind, the tractor that held everyone up and that annoyingly zealous marshal.
There's nothing new about time trialling in the UK. It appeared in the late 1800s, when authorities banned cyclists from racing on roads because it was deemed dangerous. Races were often interrupted by the police and, according to cycling historian Bernard Thompson, "Horse-mounted policemen charged at racers and threw sticks into their wheels."
Unwilling to limit their activities to closed tracks, cyclists went undercover and competitors set off from a given point at set intervals, dressed in clothes that wouldn't attract attention, and raced the clock rather than each other. Events were kept secret and courses were named using mysterious codes (eg U603) that are still employed today.
Whatever the distance
The sport has flourished ever since and the choice of events is now enormous, which offers great versatility when it comes to fitting them into your training programme. Time trials are held throughout the year, though there is a slight lull in December and January, and when the evenings become lighter they're held during the week as well as at weekends.
The standard TT distances are 10, 25, 50 and 100 miles, so you can find one to suit the triathlon distance you are training for. More often than not they're fast and relatively flat. Hilly events are also organised but these aren't for the fainthearted.
Top age-group triathlete Paul Horsfall uses time trials as part of his training. "A good 10-mile time trial is close to the highest amount of pain I can deal with, so training at this intensity to build lactate endurance helps my bike-leg speed in triathlons," he says.
"When it really starts to hurt it's sometimes useful to play mind games with yourself, for example focusing on a hard effort to a corner in the distance. Then, when you get there, do the same with the next corner and keep going until you are done, but never think too far ahead.'
Time trials also give him the opportunity to practise riding his TT bike in race position, which is very different to training on a road bike. "The TT bike handles very differently, so it's good to make sure I'm used to how it feels, especially using the deep front rim in a range of wind conditions. Even if you have just one bike, it's important to get used to holding a good, streamlined race position.
"A time trial is also a great way to see how effective your training really is. Although the conditions aren't always the same, you generally find the same guys turning up so you can work out who is becoming quicker."
Local v open
Time trials fall into two categories. Local club events are fairly relaxed affairs and often the best way to start. Evening 10-mile series are particularly popular during spring and summer; some organisers invite beginners to come along to try a few races to see if it's for them.
These series are usually held midweek and you can enter on the night - turn up half an hour or so before the start. You'll be asked to pay a small fee, then you'll be given a number and a start time.
The second TT category is the open event, which tends to be bigger than a club event. The standard tends to be higher, with riders coming from all over the county or region. You must enter in advance - the fee may be slightly higher.
Open events are usually held on Saturday and Sunday mornings and often hold out the promise of home-made refreshments afterwards. It's a good idea to recce the route beforehand, butif that's not possible, try to have a drive or cycle round before the start. Events are well marshalled but it's much easier to concentrate on cycling if you know where you're going.
On the next page: Find out how to ride a good time time trial and our top beginner's tips.