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Tour de France gallery: 40 years of time trial technology

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40 years of time trial history

Back in the Merckx era, aerodynamic performance wasn't nearly as much a concern as it is today (Image credit: AFP Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

However, even back in 1985, riders had at least a basic understanding that aerodynamics mattered. Here, Bernard Hinault - wearing an early aero shell - rides past Sean Kelly during an individual time trial (Image credit: AFP Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

Always an early adopter of new technology, Greg LeMond is shown here with a teardrop aero helmet during the 1986 Tour de France time trial in Saint-Etienne (Image credit: AFP Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

In 1987, bicycle designers had a vague idea of what made a bike - and rider - aerodynamic, but aero bars were a world away from today's norm. Here, Charly Mottet speeds around the Futuroscope course with a very front end, but the lack of TT extensions left his chest open to catch the wind (Image credit: AFP Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

Greg LeMond brought notoriety to aero handlebars during his famous time trial victory over Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour de France, where he beat the Frenchman by nearly a minute and captured the overall victory by a scant eight seconds (Image credit: AFP Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

In the 1990 Tour de France, LeMond went on to use not only a Scott clip-on aero bar but also the company's novel Drop-In road bars. The inward extensions at the bottom allowed for a very low and narrow position that was still UCI-legal for road stages (Image credit: AFP Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

In 1991, technology was catching on like wildfire. The small front wheels used and body positions that riders were forced to adopt may have been fairly aerodynamic but the round-tubed Colnago used here by Rolf Sorensen was anything but (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Time trial frames in the early '90s were primarily designed to put riders in an aerodynamic position, not to be aerodynamic themselves (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

With riders taking technological innovation to the extreme, it's a good thing the integrated head sock of 1992 didn't catch on (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

Miguel Indurain won the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in 1992, and was seen here using a time trial helmet with integrated visor (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

The high front end adopted here by Stephen Roche went out of fashion in the early 2000's (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Luckily, this early Banesto aero helmet design didn't catch on (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

In the mid-90s, manufacturers began experimenting more seriously with carbon fibre (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Tony Rominger's 1995 Colnago Chrono Oro was well ahead of its time with its carbon fibre construction and long tail which helped smooth airflow over the rear wheel (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Some designs, like Indurain's Pinarello, were truly wild, until the UCI eventually began cracking down (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Check out the narrow and tall top tube on Chris Boardman's bike as used in the 1996 Tour de France prologue (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

His later Look bike, is much more alike the designs found available today (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

In 1997, most frames were still made out of metal, which limited what designers could do in terms of aerodynamic shaping, but by this point, aero componentry had caught on. Here, Jan Ullrich tears around the Saint-Etienne course with aero wheels and TT bars, but his frame was limited to a slightly-deeper-than-usual down tube (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Bjarne Riis was aware of the value of aero bars back in 1997 but even so, a traditional cap still won out over an aerodynamic helmet (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Likewise, Marco Pantani rode around the 1997 Tour de France time trial in Disneyland with a rear disc wheel, four-spoke carbon front wheel and aero bars, but round tubes and no helmet (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Aero bar companies, thankfully, are much more adept at providing adjustability on today's models... and as an aside, the Kato isn't the first wild pair of sunglasses Oakley has launched (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

This image of David Millar is now almost two decades old, but his position wouldn't look out of place today (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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40 years of time trial history

Floyd Landis' 'praying mantis' position decreased his frontal area in 2006, a concept that riders have begun adopting again more recently (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

Carlos Sastre held off his competitors in the final TT of the 2008 Tour de France, his teardrop helmet was all the rage at the time (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

In 2010, a late UCI ruling meant the Specialized Shiv was rendered illegal. By this point, riders were wearing skinsuits and using aero chainrings (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Cadel Evans had such a huge drop from saddle to bars that special provisions were made for his stem and bars, however the lower-is-better philosophy has developed since (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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40 years of time trial history

Come 2012, Kask and others replaced the teardrop helmet with shorter 'bobtail' helmets that were more aerodynamic in more head positions (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Also in 2012, Poc unveiled the Tempor the 2012 Olympics. Its radical shape helps to guide wind past the rider's shoulders, and it's still popular today - seen here ridden by Alex Dowsett in 2020 (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Unlike that Kask, this shortened Specialized S-Works TT helmet would still catch the wind when Tony Martin drops his head. The 2016 world ITT champ was an early adopter of clincher tyres, seen here using Specialized Turbo Cottons, which are still in use in this year's Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Proving that lower isn't necessarily faster, Wout van Aert uses a high stack beneath his extensions, optimising his balance between CdA and power output (Image credit: Getty Images)
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Rohan dennis

Rohan Dennis takes optimisation so seriously that in 2019, instead of his team-issue Merida Warp, he used a blacked-out BMC, complete with custom-made TT extensions from Speedbar (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)
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40 years of time trial history

Dowsett did the same in 2020, instead of his team-issue kit, he used a Specialized Shiv, a 'mini disc' trispoke front wheel, that Poc Tempor helmet and a saddle from Simmons Racing (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Dowsett has also been using overshoes custom designed to fit his feet (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

Victor Campanaerts has spent a lot of time working on his flexibility, allowing him to maintain a super small frontal area whilst still putting out the power (Image credit: Getty Images)
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40 years of time trial history

The focus today is not on getting 'low', but getting 'small', and going narrower with the TT bars helps (Image credit: Getty Images)
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EF Education First gave their chains a special wax lubricant for the TT

In the past decade, teams have been optimising drivetrain efficiency with wax based lubricants (Image credit: Josh Croxton)
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Most of the AG2R La Mondiale riders also used CeramicSpeed OSPW rear derailleurs

Others have tackled chain link articulation - how much the chain links must bend - to reduce friction (Image credit: Josh Croxton)
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Some Movistar riders raced with Continental GP5000 tubeless tyres on their front wheels with Continental tubulars on the rear

While some teams have turned to tubeless technology in the search for a puncture-free ride and reduced rolling resistance (Image credit: Josh Croxton)
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Filippo Ganna's new Pinarello Bolide TT for the Giro d'Italia

In 2021, Filippo Ganna's Pinarello Bolide is fitted with a super-deep front wheel and a custom-moulded carbon cockpit, among various other watt-saving hacks (Image credit: Ineos Grenadiers)

The individual time trial of the Tour de France has long been a fixture of the race, and a lasting legacy of the true intention of the event: to test one athlete against another over a set distance under the watchful eye of the clock.

The number of time trialling kilometres has dwindled throughout the 21st century. In 2002 for example, there was 176.5km spread over four stages. By 2012, that had dropped to 96km over three stages, and in 2020, there was just one stage covering 36km in total. With 58km worth in the 2021 Tour de France route, the individual time trial has seen a small resurgence, but despite the still relatively minimal distance, it remains as crucial as ever to the GC battle. 

In the '70s and '80s, technology played only a minor role in the individual time trial, but as time has progressed, our collective understanding of the importance of aerodynamics has grown. As a result, riders have turned to new - and sometimes radical - equipment to get faster, while the equipment itself has improved with each iteration. 

Time triallists will go to extreme lengths for free speed. Some of which thankfully didn't catch on, such as hooded full-body speed suits and shaving strips into leg hairs, but many, such as TT extensions, aero tube shapes and disc wheels have become part and parcel of the contemporary concept.

40 years of time trial history

Here's one design that we're glad never caught on (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

One of the early high-profile examples of this came in the 1989 Tour de France, when Greg LeMond famously added handlebar extensions to his bike, helping him to put 58 seconds into Laurent Fignon on the streets of Paris to win the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds.

But that's not the first instance where riders aimed to cheat the wind in a time trial. Prior to LeMond, riders wore aero shells on their heads to improve their aerodynamics, as Bernard Hinault did in 1985, and used disc wheels to cut down on drag. The latter increased in popularity after the Olympic Games and Francesco Moser's successful hour record attempt in 1984. The disc wheel first appeared en masse at the Tour de France in 1986, and are a staple inclusion on a time trial bike today, but the smaller front wheel used by Moser was eventually outlawed by the UCI. 

Cycling hour record bikes

Francesco Moser's soon-to-be-outlawed hour record bike (Image credit: Enervit)

With the advent of carbon fibre technology, frames not only became lighter but they also took on aerodynamic shapes, meaning round tubes could be replaced by truncated teardrops and Kamm tail designs. Indurain's Pinarello was a radical example of this in 1995. Luckily, bike design has come a long way since 1997, when Bjarne Riis chucked his Pinarello into the verge after several technical problems in the final time trial of that year's Tour.

Technology became more and more radical and, as a consequence, the UCI stepped in and put the brakes on secret innovations in 2000. It introduced new rules governing the design of time trial bikes to a "triangular form" and other restrictions.

Regulations have tightened further in recent years, putting various stipulations on rider position, while banning fairings and various other elements that the UCI has deemed to serve only aerodynamic purposes. Many of those decisions have profoundly impacted manufacturers. Aerocoach, for example, recently had to redesign a hub cap midway through the Giro d'Italia for Ineos Grenadiers when the UCI banned it after stage 1. 

Not only improving the products themselves, brands and teams have also invested in improving their ability to test the performance of their equipment and riders. Wind tunnel testing is almost considered a prerequisite for a successful time trialist these days, CFD testing can use computing power to simulate real-world results, while supercomputers can iterate thousands of design concepts without needing to physically test a single one. Meanwhile, focus has also grown toward other factors that affect speed, such as drivetrain friction and rolling resistance. 

As a result, certain theories that were once considered the gospel truth have recently been redefined or quashed altogether. For example, the idea that having a lower handlebar equals a faster rider has been replaced by the desire to balance a rider's CdA (Coefficient of drag x area) and their power output capability. Also, the preference for higher tyre pressures has been put to bed by a better understanding of tyre rolling resistance, and that lower pressures deform to road imperfections and maintain momentum as a result.  

Time trial technology has come a very long way in the past 40 years, and this special time trial gallery tells the story of the design and development of the time trial bike, equipment and accessories throughout that time.