Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Time trial (TT) bikes are designed for one thing only: to go as fast as possible. They are often much more aerodynamic than traditional road bikes, with sleek designs, deep-dish wheels, and minimal attention to stopping power. All factors combined make them incredibly fast, but unfortunately, they're also so much less maneuverable. So, as Egan Bernal, another high-profile athlete who suffered from yet another TT bike-related accident recovers talks about whether or not the UCI should ban these types of bikes from competition altogether has begun to simmer.
Silhouette of a time trialist, or triathlete, there's no way anyone can tell from this picture.
And as expected, there are two very passionate sides to this debate. On one hand, you have the athletes who say that these bikes are necessary for them to be able to compete at the highest levels. They argue that if UCI were to enact a blanket ban on TT bikes, it would be taking away the excitement out of some of road cycling's most impressive and elegant events such as Team Time Trials, and regress many technological advancements in cycling.
On the other side, there are those who say that the safety of the athletes should be UCI’s number one priority. They argue that training on a TT bike, especially on public roads, presents such a peril that it’s not worth the risk, no matter how small.
The Dangers of Time Trial Bikes
After Bernal's crash, there was a wellspring of criticisms on TT bikes that emerged. Most notably, Chris Froome pointed out key flaws that make these bikes unsuitable for public roads.
No brakes on the tri-bars.
Training for time trials requires athletes to simulate their race day riding position on public roads. Unfortunately, this means holding on to the tri-bars or skis without access to the brake levers to improve the rider's speed and efficiency for extended periods.
Closeup of the cockpit on a time trial bike, as seen the brake levers are below and the shifters are up top.
"To be able to get ready for an hour-long time trial you have to get out there on your time trial bike and simulate that. How many roads around you do you know that you can ride for an hour in almost closed road conditions where there is no traffic, no stop signs, and no traffic lights? Those conditions do not exist in the real world," Froome said on his personal YouTube channel.
TT bikes are designed to slice through the air as efficiently so cyclists can ride as fast as possible in a straight line. The downside is that this design means that cyclists may find it difficult to make small technical adjustments to steering. It's not exactly made for going around corners as a simple miscalculation can destabilize the cyclist, especially at full speeds.
Difficulty in seeing ahead.
Aerodynamic road bikes often have the rider hunched over in an aggressive position to further reduce drag. On a TT bike, cyclists try to get their heads as close to their tri-bars as possible to make them even more aerodynamic. This head-down position, however, can make it difficult for cyclists to see what's ahead of them and increases the chance of crashing.
Very aero, very cool, very dangerous.
In an interview, Bernal seems to acknowledge that this aggressive head-down position was the primary cause of his horrific accident. However, it's important to note that he was training on public roads shared with motorists and not on a closed track. Nobody is arguing against track bikes or riding in an aggressive position within a closed environment such as a velodrome, those against suggesting a ban always trace directly to riding on public roads.
Why Banning TT Bikes Won’t Solve the Safety Issue
While nobody is contesting the many dangers associated with riding a TT bike, proponents are quick to the bike's defense by arguing that are ways to make these bikes a lot safer for public roads.
Relaxed tri-bar regulations can eliminate the vision factor.
For one thing, the UCI regulations on the height of clip-on tri-bars may be counterintuitive to keeping riders safe in the sense that it forces cyclists to adopt an aggressive position to maximize aerodynamic efficiency. According to time trial specialist, Alex Dowsett, relaxing this particular rule could help cyclists achieve the aero position without compromising their view of the road.
During the aerodynamic revolution around the 80s, cyclists tried many innovative positions and parts, which led to a lot of really odd and obscure regulations from UCI. Most TT positions look like this.
The responsibility of safety falls squarely on the cyclist, not the bike.
Secondly, many athletes argue that the onus is squarely on the rider, not the bike. And if a ban were to be enforced, cyclists, being the competitors that they are, will still try to find the most aero position on their traditional road bikes which would eventually present us with similar safety concerns.
Looking ahead but still tucked in, aero and (mostly) safe.
TT Bikes are just plain more exciting to watch.
One of the most enticing things about road cycling is how technological innovation and brilliant engineering push forward the bounds of the sport. The evolution of the TT bike is a perfect example of this. From an entertainment standpoint, it's hard to deny that seeing cyclists fly down the road on these super-fast machines isn't exciting. That being said, banning TT bikes would significantly reduce the impressiveness of the time trial stages. While this may not be a safety concern, it does take away from the spectacle and excitement that fans and athletes love about these races.
One team pedaling full speed to make the podium.
At the end of the day, it is up to each individual cyclist to train and ride safely. If they choose to train on public roads, they must be aware of the inherent risks and take measures to ride as safely as possible.
And because of this, we think that while TT bikes may present some safety concerns, banning them outright is not the answer as it would take away much of what makes the sport so interesting. So, as long as there are still things that can be done to improve safety on these bikes, then it’s probably best to try to do those instead.