How do the Tokyo 2020 Olympic time trials work?

The race against the clock is a highlight of the games, but what are the rules?

Anna van der Breggen on her way to World Championship victory in 2020
Anna van der Breggen on her way to World Championship victory in 2020
(Image credit: Dick Soepenberg/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic time trials are one of the cycling highlights of the games, as some of the best riders against the clock hit the course.  

While many cycling fans will be well versed in the nuances of the time trial, the Olympics is an event that draws countless new fans to the race every year.

For the time trial riders are forced to leave behind the team support and race against the clock, alone. 

TTs are also divisive among cycling fans, as many spectators and pundits consider the solo discipline boring when compared with the tactical thrills of mountain racing and sprint trains, while the cycling purists often see the TT as the ultimate display of a rider’s ability on the bike.

Check out all the route details from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics courses here

But how does the time trial work? We look into the rules: 

What is a time trial?

Geraint Thomas

Geraint Thomas

(Image credit: Getty)

Time trials actually exist in a number of different sports, from cycling to cross country skiiing and motorsports. A TT is basically a timed race from one point to another, but in cycling there are two main types - the individual time trial and the team time trial.

The individual time trial sees each rider compete alone against the clock without the benefit of slipstreaming, while a TTT sees a team of riders (from two to 10) race as a unit to complete the course in the fastest time. 

Time trials can either be raced as a standalone event, such as the World Championships TT or the once-prestigious Chrono des Nations event, or as part of a multi-day stage race like the Tour de France. 

What is the difference between a time trial bike and a road bike? 

A time trial bike

Time trial bike 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There is one major detail you might notice watching your first Olympic time trial - the bikes.

A time trial bike is quite a striking change from the traditional road bikes we’re used to seeing out on the road, as they are designed for pure aerodynamics to slice through the wind as quickly as possible. 

To make them as quick as can be, time trial bikes are often heavier, trickier to handle and less comfortable than a traditional road bike, but by far the biggest difference is the riding position.

Geraint Thomas's Tour de France-winning road bike

Geraint Thomas's Tour de France-winning road bike

(Image credit: Getty Images)

TT bikes come with special out-front handlebars that put rider in a narrow tucked position to reduce their aerodynamic drag, while they also have a ‘base bar,’ which riders use to brake and corner more comfortably.  

According to our own research, a time trial bike can be as much as 87 watts faster than a road bike at 40kph. 

Wheels are also a key choice for a time trialist, as most riders while use a carbon disc wheel on the rear of their bike and a very deep section carbon rim on the front. These will be the best road bike wheels for the job of being aerodynamic than the wheels used on a normal road race, but are also less comfortable, heavier and can make the bike unstable in strong winds. 

What's the difference between a time trial bike and triathlon bike?

73rd Critérium du Dauphiné 2021 - Stage 4

Specialized Shiv ridden by Patrick Konrad of Team Bora - Hansgrohe during Stage 4 Individual Time Trial Critérium du Dauphiné 2021.

(Image credit: Bas Czerwinski/ Stringer)

If you're wondering what the difference is between a time trial bike and a triathlon bike it mostly comes down to the remits of the governing sports bodies which dictate what the bikes can and can't look like.

Some brands have bikes that are able to straddle both the legal requirements of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) as well as the ITU (International Triathlon Union), by tweaking the design, for example the Specialized Shiv that teams Bora-Hansgrohe and Deceuninck - Quick-Step will most likely be riding, is also ridden by the likes of triathlon professional athletes including British Lucy Charles-Barclay and Spanish Francisco Javier Gómez. The triathlon version features different rear frame geometry and the additions of 'faring's' front and rear, which would be deemed as illegal under UCI regulations.   

Specialized Shiv

The Specialized Shiv as ridden by Lucy Charles-Barclay under ITU regulations

(Image credit: Tom Pennington/ Getty)

Our page dedicated to the best time trail bikes and triathlon bikes goes in to more detail on the differences, as well guiding you through the features and what to look for if you are thinking about investing in one.

What other kit do riders change for the time trial?

There are other changes teams make to their kit specifically for the time trial. The most visually obvious one for spectators will be riders selecting the best road bike helmet in their helmet sponsors range for going fast. 

Breathability and weight will take a back seat for a preference of watt saving aerodynamics, assisting the rider in punching through the air as swiftly and as cleanly as possible. 

Less obvious swap outs will be the choice of clothing, where aero skinsuits, which do away with pockets will make an appearance, such as EF Education-Nippo's Rapha TT Aerosuit that was lunched earlier this year. 

Launched earlier this year, Rapha say that the TT AeroSuit is capable of producing a 12.4w energy saving at 55kph and one degree of yaw when compared with the old team-issue kit.

However, it's worth noting that clothing also comes under UCI jurisdiction, and must be cleared by the governing body or face being banned in competition as was the case with Endura' Hour Record breaking skinsuit back in 2019. 

Time trial riders vs climbers 

Filippo Ganna at the 2021 Giro d'Italia

Filippo Ganna at the 2021 Giro d'Italia

(Image credit: Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

While time trials are always held under the same rules, the terrain TT courses cover can vary greatly, meaning each event may suit a different kind of rider. 

For the flat and fast TT courses, it’s a case of pure power and aerodynamic ability, which means heavier riders like world champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), who sits at around 82kg, or Jumbo-Visma’s Edoardo Affini (80kg).

But often time triallists can blur the lines between pure power and climbing ability, most notably the likes of Geraint Thomas, Rohan Dennis (both Ineos) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who are amongst the strongest climbers in the world while still being able to deliver huge power on the flats.

In recent years however, we’ve seen the resurgence of the uphill time trial, with race organisers opting to challenge a rider’s versatility, splitting courses between rapid, flat sections and tough mountain climbs to the line, like stage 20 of the 2020 Tour de France on La Planche des Belles Filles.  

>>> Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games cycling schedule: when to watch the racing

These stages often favour riders who can maintain a high watts per kilogram (w/kg) rather than pure power when pedalling, as lighter riders tend to climb faster.

For this reason, pure climbers often have the chance to show their ability against the clock, as was demonstrated by Rigberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) in the 2021 Tour de Suisse, where he won the stage seven ITT, which featured a mountain climb and then descent, with the likes of Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) both finishing high up in the rankings. 

Alex Ballinger
Alex Ballinger

Alex is the digital news editor for CyclingWeekly.com. After gaining experience in local newsrooms, national newspapers and in digital journalism, Alex found his calling in cycling, first as a reporter and now as news editor responsible for Cycling Weekly's online news output.

Since pro cycling first captured his heart during the 2010 Tour de France (specifically the Contador-Schleck battle) and joining CW in 2018, Alex has covered three Tours de France, multiple editions of the Tour of Britain, and the World Championships, while both writing and video presenting for Cycling Weekly. He also specialises in fitness writing, often throwing himself into the deep end to help readers improve their own power numbers. 

Away from journalism, Alex is a national level time triallist, avid gamer, and can usually be found buried in an eclectic selection of books.