From the Archive: Sur la Plaque

From the Archive: This is a re-post from August 2011. It’s interesting to revisit my first experiences with time trialling, and think about how my perspective on the discipline has changed. Since this post, I’ve raced a variety of time trials, on my own bikes and borrowed ones. In 2015 I raced Dave Stachon’s Cervelo P5 at the Coupe des Ameriques stage race and won the TT, my first and only TT win in an actual race. I also nearly hobbled myself, having ridden a position I was not accustomed to and pinching a nerve in my hip joint. Now that I feel I know how to TT well enough to put in good rides when I need to, I tend to prefer to do different training on Thursday nights. Will the Canadian National Championships Time Trial on the Gatineau Parkway in June tempt me? I doubt it! I plan to focus on the road race and criterium, but I hope Mike Woods and the other Pro Tour guys race it and show us what they can do. Read more form the archive.

Sur La Plaque: French for “Put that thing in the big ring, f@$%tard.” (Literally, to move sur la plaque means to move onto the plate, or the BIG RING.) – Velominati

In 2010 I heard a lot about time trials from Rob Parniak, David Stachon and Neil Schiemann. When Alex Michel joined our cabal this spring, another voice chimed in: time trials are cool, you should try. ‘BMX’ Jim McGuire and I were in the same boat in early June, total neophytes, but keen to try. So off we headed to a Thursday night OBC TT, where we joined forces with Alex for a team effort. It was fun enough to draw me back for more.

Argon 18 Time Trial bike

So I’ve continued, taking in four more Thursday night 15ks, in addition to our Hell Climb and a 40k out near Calabogie. Almost every outing has featured a different bike set up. First, I was on my Steelwool Truffle Pig, a cross bike with pretty standard road geometry. Sure, the brakes stick out, but the bike pedals really well. Going Merckx style (no aero gear) on the TP was a tough ride. I went a bit too hard on the way out, which tends to be the faster direction, then suffered on the return. I gave up hope of meeting my goal and defeated myself, only to realize I wasn’t doing as bad as I thought. Then I put it ‘sur la plaque’ and got down to business. Sure, I was already in my 50 (I can hear TT folks snickering), but you get the point. Not so much a lesson as a reminder: don’t give up, you can push harder.

After the TP ride it was time to try the ol fixed gear, also Merckx style. I rolled out my Steelwool Limited the day after the Hell Climb, still tasting the previous night’s gruelfest. Geared with a 48×15, which was too tall for the Hell Climb, I was faced with a gear I knew would be too ‘short’ for the flat 15k course. Whatever, rather than obsess, run what you brung. I figured the gear would limit my output going out, but possibly serve me well on the return. What I didn’t factor was the challenge I’d face simply controlling the bike in an ‘aero’ position at 48-50kph. 

With a Merckx set up, i.e., a regular road bike, you’ve pretty much got two ‘aero’ options: on top of the hoods, and phantom aerobars. Well, ok, there’s also the super aero position, but its risky, and requires a front rack, which I don’t personally have on my fixed gear.

Devinci, Argon 18, Specialized, Steelwool, Cervelo

For a t-rex like me, holding the hoods position for extended periods of time is hard to pull off, as I am weak in the upper body. While the lack of bulk is an asset most of the time on the bike, the triceps could use a bit more strength to support the upper body while on top of the hoods. Simply doing that more would likely help. Anyhow, it was not possible to stay on the hoods all the time, nor even desirable, as this position is more open to wind than the phantom aerobar position. However, at 47 or so kph in a 48×15, I lack the souplesse to control the bike well. Add sweat to the equation, and you’ve got a squirrely t-rex on a bike. So the first fixed gear TT revealed some clear areas to improve: gearing and actual aerobars. 

With Alex herding cats heading into the following Saturday’s 40k TT put on by the Almonte Bicycle Club, I was motivated to take a crack at this TT thing with a bit of gear. Alex stepped in with a clip on aero bar and a Rocketeer helmet from Giro. After suiting up my Truffle Pig, I had one of the most bizarre looking TT bikes going I’d ever seen. However, its only partly about the bike, and I like to run what I brung, so away I went. Alex helped me out further by lending his deep section carbon back wheel onsite at the mention of my structurally compromised rim. The gear served me well, as I was nearly able to reach my goal of coming in under 57 minutes, stopping the clock at 57:23. The aero bars took a bit of getting used to, and were certainly higher than desirable, but the ride was great. I think this distance favours me over the shorter one.

Argon 18, Cervelo, Steelwool, Devinci, Specialized

Next up was take two of the fixed gear, this time running aero bars, Rocketeer helmet, and a 52×15. Following a hard Wednesday night loop, I knew my legs would not feel terrific, but again, run what you brung. This TT was certainly sur la plaque. With the bigger gear and aerobars, I was able to ride a good rhythm to the turnaround, and was pleasantly surprised to see the speed stay in the mid 40s most of the way back. Heading into the last 3k I started doing the math. I was aiming for a sub 20 minute time, the benchmark for folks with aspirations. As I got into the last 2k I knew I’d have to ride 60kph to pull it off, and that certainly wasn’t happening! Nevertheless, I rode au bloc in an effort to get as close to 20:00 as possible, and in so doing, surely took a year off my life. Excruciating. 20:22. Those are 22 loooooong seconds. 22 seconds I have to find a way to cut. Unfortunately, the next outing on the same rig was was 20 seconds slower, and demoralizing enough to convince me to try my geared Steelwool road bike, the Secteur 18, now that its back in fine form.

Last up in a train of TT mayhem was the Gatineau Challenge, kindly put on by the OBC folks we owe so much to. Opting to use my recently reconstituted Specialized Roubaix, I left the aero gear at home and went basic, thinking I’d want to stand a good bit, and I’d be ok in Phantom Menace mode. As Sue Schlatter rolled away on her full TT bike 30 seconds ahead of me I wondered whether I’d made the right decision. After nearly catching her wheel on Pink (and hitting the climb more worked over than ever before), I saw her pull away on the descent, and suspected I’d made the wrong call. Whereas typical loops don’t require us to use 53x11s on the way out much, I was in that gear a couple times for certain, confirming my 50t would have been a bad move. As I progressed up Blacks, the sustained climb, I reeled in Sue and passed, only to have her pass me back on the descent, and hold the gap to the line. There simply wasn’t anything I could do to make up ground on the descents or flats. Sue is an amazing rider. In the end, I clocked 32:03, second behind Iain Radford in the 30-39 category, a good ways behind Doug Van den Ham, Aaron Fillion, and the other hammers in the elite group. Never before have I hit all those climbs so bagged! If its run again, I’ll be on aero bars and a speed helmet for certain. Ouch.

Ugh. Photo: Jeffrey Flurry

After an A-loop of the Gatineau Parkway on the Roubaix following the Challenge TT, I’d made up my mind: back to steel. There is nothing like chasing wheels on climbs to get a sense of whether your bike is working with you. After two years of riding steel bikes exclusively, I missed the ‘planing‘ I get out of my steel bikes while aboard the Roubaix. Yes, the Roubaix is a great bike, but when push came to show, I missed my steel bikes while fighting on the climbs. So I pulled the new parts off the Roubaix, and my Secteur 18 is now back in fine trim, poised to take on whatever I can throw at it. This week it will be the A-Loop, followed by our group ride on Wednesday night, then the time trial with clip ons on Thursday. Soon enough it’ll be time to give the Provincials time trial a shot in Rockland, then its off to the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee (D2R2) in Massachusets. Lots of riding left to do!