Can scientists predict time trial records for the next 15 years?

Research sets out the future time trial records and shows that they are likely to get much quicker

The national men’s time trial records are set to tumble in the next 15 years, according to clever new research.

Start training now and, by 2020, you could be the first man to break the 17:00 minutes barrier for 10 miles, the study says. Stay fit and focused for another decade and you could smash 550 miles in 24 hours.

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Those are some of the predictions for the sport by researchers at Bournemouth University. They crunched all the records listed since 1930 by Cycling Time Trials, the sport’s governing body in England and Wales, to identify clear trends. They point to a bright future for this venerable British discipline.

“Many other sports are hitting their limits with what can be achieved but this study shows that outdoor time trialling has some legs in it yet,” says Dr Bryce Dyer, Head of Research & Professional Practice and Principal Academic in the Department of Design & Engineering at Bournemouth.

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“What is important is that the study highlights that future growth is possible for time trialling,” says Dyer. “I have an interest in sports performance so this was intended as a fun hobby piece of research bolting together some my interests. It was really a question of ‘what if?’.”

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The elaborate statistical modelling used by the team has generated surprisingly detailed predictions, giving forecasts down to the last second and, for the 12 hour and 24 hour distances, to within a few tens of feet.

They say that, if all goes according to plan, by 2030 the 10 mile record should be just 16:41, with 41:39 for 25 miles, 01:27:50 for 50 miles and 03:03:57 for 100 miles. The 12 hour record will fall to 323.76 and for 24 hours it will be 550.937.

DOWSETT Alex011p

Dowsett is present National TT champion and 10-mile record holder. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Dr Dyer laughed when CW asked if he would bet on the predictions being right and explained the difficulties created by time trial events while they were still doing their calculations.

“This study was a nightmare,” says Dyer, “During its preparation, Alex Dowsett broke the 10 miles record – and the 50 mile record later went too. We had to rerun the models several times!”

TT records table Max Glaskin

The same study also goes some way to support claims by vets that time trialling’s golden age ended almost half a century ago. The frequency that records were set between 1950 and 1969 has never been matched, despite a flurry in early 1990s.

Yet, since then, the rate of improvement has been far higher – the margins between the old records and the new has been much bigger. This may be down to the involvement of elite riders such as Chris Boardman, Graeme Obree and Michael Hutchinson.

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Some reckon modern technology, such as aerobars, is responsible for the new records but the study says otherwise. While the record for 25 miles was broken frequently after aerobars were permitted from 1991, “this effect was not witnessed in the 10-mile, 50-mile, 100-mile or 24-h records,” say the authors.

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They suggest that other factors, such as weather, course terrain and the extra drag caused on riders by vehicles on the open road may combine to mitigate any benefits that new technology should confer.

“Whilst this does not mean that technological change is not of value, it does mean that other sociological and environmental effects (such as course design) or when the event is held will be critical if future record progression is to continue,” they conclude.

Dyer says there is potential to apply the same kind of study – called Singular spectrum analysis – could be used to forecast future World Hour Records and the team pursuit, where conditions are much more controlled than on time trials.

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With such a detailed breakdown now in the public domain, it could trigger more bids to set new records. So does that mean the forecasts will be self-fulfilling?

“I don’t think it’s self-fulfilling but it does highlight that aspects beyond the riders control (i.e. favourable course design) is really important if records are to improve further,” says Dyer, whose personal best over 10 miles is 19:24. “The sport might be able to help itself ensure its own progression – if that’s the way the sport should go.”

The study also suggests that, for time trialling to flourish by seeing new records set, more of the long distance events should be organised. “I think our study highlights that the really long distance records are rarely broken, as there are fewer events and less interest, so there is real scope to develop that part of the sport more than the shorter distances,” says Dyer.

Max Glaskin is an award-winning freelance journalist who tweets about cycling and science as @CyclingScience1 and is the author of Cycling Science (published by Frances Lincoln UK, Chicago University Press USA, and seven other languages).

The analysis and forecasting of male cycling time trial records established within England, Wales by Bryce Dyer, Hossein Hassani and Mehran Shadi is published in the Journal of Sports Sciences