When Marco Baggioli slices along the road on his aerodynamic race bike, every detail is tailored to the exquisite pursuit of speed. His bespoke Dassi bike is embedded with the space-age material graphene, which is 200 times stronger than steel yet lighter than paper, to maximise the transfer of power from his legs into forward velocity. To minimise drag, his carbon-fibre rear wheel, handmade by the master builders at Fast Forward in the Netherlands, is a smooth, spokeless disc. He wears a sleek Met Drone helmet and tight-fitting Endura skinsuit, their design honed by wind-tunnel testing, to cut down air-resistance. Even the angle of his back is calibrated to reduce turbulence. As a result, he can pedal solo at over 40kph, non-stop, for an hour – a pace normally tasted only by superhuman Tour de France riders.
By day Baggioli is a respected investment banker who has worked for JP Morgan and BNP Paribas. But in private he excels in the thrilling cycling discipline of time trials – an esoteric world in which ambitious riders draw on cutting-edge bike designs, Formula 1 wind-tunnel analysis and intense training sessions to achieve scintillating speeds. In the UK, races are usually held on marshalled road courses (typically of 10, 25 or 50 miles) and riders compete alone against the clock, heading off at intervals, in a bid to set the fastest time. With futuristic bikes, visored helmets and skinsuits fresh from a science-fiction fantasy, time trials are striking visual spectacles.
“Time-trial machines are beautiful pieces of equipment,” says Baggioli, whose 2018 race calendar has taken in events in Greece, Turkey and Cambridgeshire ahead of the prestigious amateur time-trial race at the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships in Italy. “The fact you wear a race helmet and aero suit makes you feel like a gladiator. And the excitement of racing against the wind is very cool. The pain is incredible, but that is part of it: races are short, so you give it everything. At the World Championships last year, I got passed by a Canadian guy at the finish. When he got off, they gave him oxygen. He went 100 per cent. I went 99.”
It’s a sport for the hardcore cognoscenti. “The technology is very exciting,” says Michael Hutchinson, a former professional racer who still holds the UK record for the 30-mile event with a time of 55 minutes and 39 seconds and an astonishing average speed of 52.05kph. “There is an obvious tie-in with the appeal of other high-end sports like Formula 1 and America’s Cup sailing.”
For a sport predicated on such up-to-the-minute tech, time-trial racing actually has an enchantingly long and offbeat history. In the 1890s, group cycle races on British roads were regarded as dangerous, and events were often interrupted by the police. But the cyclist Frederick Thomas Bidlake helped to promote rebel races, with competitors dispatched at intervals over a course, enabling each of the riders to pretend they were travelling solo. Riders raced at dawn to avoid detection and courses were given coded names. The sport later developed into a legal system of races, now overseen by the Cycling Time Trials governing body, but the glamour of secrecy remains in the continued use of coded course names: fast routes today include the 10-mile V718 in Yorkshire and the 25-mile E2/25 in Cambridgeshire.
Time trials form an exciting component of professional cycling, with dedicated time-trial stages at the Tour de France and races at the World Cycling Championships and Olympic Games. However, with perhaps only 20,000 time-trial riders in the UK – just 0.75 per cent of the country’s 2.7 million regular weekly cyclists – races still feel like an exclusive gathering, occasionally even offering amateurs the privileged opportunity to race alongside professionals.
“A few years ago I was at a race and I realised, ‘Oh my gosh, that is Bradley Wiggins’,” recalls Baggioli. “He was starting three numbers before me and queueing up like everybody else. The professionals want to set personal records too. It is like a little club. And some big races are very professional. An official once asked to look at my bike. I said, ‘Oh, do you like it?’ He said, ‘No, I need to check it with a scanner for hidden motors’.”
Baggioli is a member of the EC1 Collective, a coterie of City and Canary Wharf professionals who seek out refined cycling experiences. “Cyclists like me have three choices,” he explains. “You can race in criteriums with 50 people doing laps around track circuits, but there are lots of crashes and broken collarbones. Do I want accidents and time off work? No. You can do long sportive races [100km-200km mass-participation events], but they involve hours of endurance training and I’m too busy. But with time trials you race individually, so there are no collisions; you train with short, intense sessions that you fit around work and family; and you measure yourself in a scientific way, so you are always improving.”
The 2015 and 2016 British National Time Trial champion Hayley Simmonds has a PhD in experimental chemistry from the University of Cambridge, and the 2017 champion Claire Rose is an Oxford-educated doctor who now races for the team Cervélo Bigla. “I like the flat-out effort of time trials, but with the science behind it there are so many things you can control, as opposed to racing in a peloton, where you can’t control what others are doing,” explains Rose. “It is not just about the aerodynamics, but also the pacing and the training, so it appeals to scientific minds.”
Her intense training strategies draw on complex equations of her power output (measured in watts), heart rate (beats per minute) and pedal cadence (revolutions per minute). She rides a luxurious Cervélo P5 superbike (from £5,499), which was designed using Formula 1-level computational fluid dynamics. Even the brake cables and callipers are carefully shielded from the wind to minimise air-resistance.
This thirst for progress is shared by Colin Lizieri, a 62-year-old fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, whose students might be shocked to discover he can race his bike for 10 miles at an average speed of 46.5kph. Despite only completing his first race with Cambridge Cycling Club four years ago, he represented Great Britain at the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships in France last year.
“I used to be a runner, but getting into time trials got my competitive juices flowing again,” explains Lizieri. “I like the simple, clean metric of having a set distance and always comparing yourself to your last time. There are other time-trial riders in my academic department, but most think I must be insane to trek up to races in Hull at weekends. When I got to pull on a Great Britain skinsuit, it was an ego trip but a lot of fun.”
Science teacher Alice Lethbridge set new British records in the 100-mile and 12-hour events last year. “You get a real adrenaline rush from the speed, although after my 100-mile record I was in ruins on the floor for 15 minutes,” she says. “But time trials are also strangely calm, because you are constantly calculating speeds and sums in your head. I am very competitive with myself and I like to set personal bests.”
The search for speed is relentless. “I have done a wind‑tunnel test where I became aware of little things that made a surprisingly big difference to my speed,” says Lethbridge. For aerodynamic gains she now wears an Endura Encapsulator skinsuit, which features ribbed linings on the arms to channel airflow around her body, and a pair of smooth, sock-like overshoes, which reduce the drag from her shoe buckles and straps.
Simon Smart, an aerodynamics expert who worked in Formula 1 for 13 years, is the brains behind the Drag2Zero wind-tunnel service for cyclists (from £800 for two hours). His speed-seeking clients meet him at either a wind tunnel in Wiltshire, which is normally reserved for aeromechanical research, or the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 wind tunnel in Northamptonshire. “Once you have taken up time trialling, it is actually very like tuning your race car,” he insists. “We’ve had a lot of customers who were amateur race drivers or motorcyclists who got into time trials and enjoy chasing speed. The wind-tunnel service is a really efficient way to get clear answers.”
Smart’s experiments with a complex matrix of factors, from head position to saddle height, reveal how subtle positional changes can influence a key aerodynamic measure known as CdA – a combination of a rider’s drag coefficient (Cd) and frontal area (A). “In the wind tunnel we can reduce someone’s CdA by on average 10 per cent and save 20-30 watts of power, so you are essentially reducing the energy you need to go at a faster speed. A beginner can come here and knock two minutes off their personal best over 10 miles, which is a real game changer.”
Former Olympic cycling champion and aerodynamics guru Chris Boardman, who won the World Time Trial Championships in 1994, opened the UK’s first cycling-specific wind tunnel (built with the shape of bike riders, not cars, in mind) at the Boardman Performance Centre in Worcestershire in April (sessions from £195). “If someone is planning to do a 40km time trial, our tests reveal the time you could save by making a particular change to your position or the grams of drag you are experiencing in real time,” he explains. Even a wrinkle on an ill-fitting skinsuit can slow riders down. “This is about informed choices – not just about your position, but also your clothing and how everything interacts.”
Despite the wealth of design innovations and aerodynamic tests available to help turn ambitious riders into human missiles, speed can still remain a deliciously inscrutable mystery. “I discovered that moving my saddle forward by 20mm made me 1kph faster, but we never understood why,” confesses Hutchinson, still bewildered. “It somehow made me do something else, like change the position of my shoulders or how I held my head. We know it is not magic. But even when you race faster, you don’t always get to find out why.”