Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | May 2, 2011

My First Time Trial, or “How Embarrassing, I Don’t Even Have a Pointy Helmet”

To borrow a phrase from that wise philosopher Britney Spears: Oops, I did it again. I signed up for an event I was completely unqualified to do. I foolishly attempted a cycling time trial. Yes, I stuck out like a sore thumb, but it was a learning opportunity. I’ve already formulated a plan for my next race, and I can’t wait.

My friend Nan, who’s a much better cyclist than I am, somehow talked me into it. I was reluctant, but one day last week, in a moment of wine-induced weakness, I clicked the “Register Now!” button. Clearly, I need a breathalyzer attached to my computer to prevent me from signing up for events under the influence because, let’s face it, this has become a bad habit of mine. If anyone wants to start working on that technology, let me know. I have friends who could use it too (they know who they are) (Desiree).

As usual, I had my pre-race “What have I gotten myself into?” feeling. I knew I’d be out of my league. I never ride fast, unless I’m late for something, like dinner. I don’t have the fancy-schmancy equipment. No time-trial bike, no aero bars, no skinsuit, no pointy helmet. I toyed with the idea of taping a paper cone to the back of my helmet to make it pointy, but I couldn’t find one big enough. I resigned myself to riding with my normal, blunt helmet.

And so I found myself, once again, getting up early on a Sunday morning. But instead of putting on my Sauconys and my race belt, I grabbed my bike shoes and my embarrassingly unpointy helmet. I loaded my stuff into the car, taking my tri bags from last season, just in case I got the urge to eat a PowerBar with a 2010 “Best By” date. I met up with Nan and another friend, Kate, and we were off to the race.

I was surprised to discover, however, that time trials are nothing like running races. Running races have sound systems with big speakers blasting music and announcers getting the crowd pumped up. There’s the ritual call-and-response with the announcer saying things like “RUNNERS! ARE YOU READY?” and everyone screaming “WOOHOO!” as loudly as possible while waving their hands in the air. Yes, it’s a bit cultish, but it works for us.

Generally speaking, running races have a gun or horn to signify the start, and then the obligatory playing of the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up.” I don’t even like the Stones much, but it’s become a Pavlovian thing: I hear Mick and my feet start moving. Sometimes there’s even music on the course. Then, as you get to the finish, there’s a banner that says, appropriately, FINISH, often with a big balloon arch. As you cross the line, there are friendly race volunteers who say “Good job,” regardless of how pathetic your time is, and they hand you water and Gatorade. Sometimes you even get wrapped in foil blankets. There are always bananas and bagels. Frequently, there’s beer.

Well, this event was nothing like that.

If running races are like this:

then this time trial was more like this:

There was no rock music. No announcer. No big sign that said “START,” and what’s worse, no big sign that said “FINISH.” Fortunately, Kate had tipped me off to the fact that the finish line might be, shall we say, understated. In fact, the finish line consisted of a guy in a chair next to some orange cones with a small 8.5″x12″ piece of paper that said “Finish” in teeny tiny letters. No chip timing mat. No balloon arch. No phalanx of race volunteers to reaffirm your rock-star status and generally make you feel good about yourself. Nada. I was a little disappointed. Heck, if I’m getting up at 5:45 AM, I want some hoopla.

I checked out the other athletes, all of whom seemed to be doing just fine without any hoopla. There were skinsuits and pointy helmets galore. In fact, it looked like a band of sinewy, skinny aliens in matching outfits had arrived from another planet. I looked at my baggy jacket and very unpointy helmet and felt slightly inadequate. What’s more, I had wheels with spokes instead of disk wheels, or what I call Whooshy Wheels because of the “whoosh” sound they make as the rider flies by. There were plenty of athletes sitting with their bikes on trainers in the parking lot, warming up. We warmed up the old-fashioned way, by riding around.

Soon enough, it was almost time to start. We headed over and got in line according to our assigned start times. It was an individual start with riders starting 30 seconds apart. Nan was ahead of us, with a few riders after her, then me, then a decked-out guy, then Kate. The start line was quieter than a library on a Monday morning. I chatted with Kate, who was just behind me, and we felt compelled to whisper. I resisted the urge to run back, hop in my car, pull it up to the start line, roll down the windows and blast some tunes (Start me Up, of course!). Instead, I stood quietly in line. I suggested to Kate that we start The Wave, but no one seemed to notice what we were doing. We silently inched forward. Soon it was time for Nan to roll out. I waited for four more riders to go. Then it was my turn.

I approached the line. The race official double-checked my number and then asked “Woman over 40?” to confirm my racing category.

“Yes,” I replied. Then I added “You’re supposed to tell me I look good for my age.”

He paused, still looking down at his clipboard. He fiddled with the paper. He looked up at me, clearly perplexed.

“It’s a joke,” I whispered to him. He didn’t seem to get it. He started the countdown, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and I rolled out.

“Well this isn’t very exciting,” I said to myself as I pedaled along. The scenery was lovely, but I was all alone. I thought briefly about my experience at the Helena Tri when I rode completely by myself, and of course, this song popped in my head:

Then I heard “whoosh whoosh” as the guy who started after me sailed by. Fast. I barely caught a glimpse of his skinsuit and pointy helmet as he went. I pedaled along into the wind, for what seemed like half of eternity. Finally I saw a rider in front of me. Oh look, another person! Clearly, he was suffering from some very debilitating injury, because he was about to get passed by yours truly. I pulled up next to him. We chatted briefly, commiserating about the wind. I told him to have a good ride and pedaled on, back to being All By Myself.

I soon heard the whooshing sound again, and again, and again, as more riders with fancy wheels and pointy helmets passed me. Lots of riders. Scads of them. I started to worry that kids on tricycles might come flying by me, so I picked it up a little bit at the end. And then, I saw it, the grand finish line, as noted by the tiny little sign on the side of the road.

My time was slow, but I didn’t care because I do these type of events for the party afterwards and the free beer. Alas, there were neither. But, I have to say, everyone was very kind. It was a beautiful day for a nice ride on a lovely course. And it was a great learning experience.

I’d like to do another time trial, but I know now that the key is the pointy helmet. Everyone who passed me had one. Clearly, that’s my ticket to a faster finish time (yes, it’s the helmet, not the leg strength or the cardio capacity) but I don’t want to spend money to buy one. I decided on the ride (having had all that time alone with my thoughts) that what I need is take the witch’s hat from my kids Halloween costume and put it over the helmet, pointing backwards. Voila, pointy helmet. If I cover the spokes of my wheels with some construction paper, it’ll look like I have those Whooshy Wheels. Then I just need to attach a boom box to the back of my bike so I can play some Stones and kick it up a notch. Yes, I think I have a plan.

Someone with a pointy helmet

Riders without pointy helmets.


  1. Sue, you give new meaning to LOL & LMAO. Never stop signing up, and never stop writing about those things you can’t help signing up for. My fave lines? The “whoosh whoosh” wheels & “it looked like a band of sinewy, skinny aliens in matching outfits had arrived from another planet.” oh, you could not be more on the nose. Thanks for sharing and writing what we all think but don’t have the talent to express it with such wit and grace. šŸ˜‰

    • Thanks Nina! I hope the riders with the pointy helmets and whooshy wheels didn’t get offended – I just have misplaced equipment envy….

  2. Hilarious!. I giggled at the thought of you, Ms. Vacation Extreme Cyclist, being passed by a tricycle. I’ve been to running races before, so I know of all the pomp and circumstance of the before and after of it all. I can see how you would be disappointed. The witches hat and construction paper are creative, but this isn’t elementary school. Mother’s Day is this weekend. Ask for a pointy helmet.

    • Great idea! That would be an unusual Mother’s Day gift, but certainly more useful than a picture frame made out of popsicle sticks.

  3. Sue,

    Your blog is hilarious! I am addicted. Now I want to do a time trial sans pointy helmut. lol

    • Thanks Shannon! Maybe I can borrow a pointy helmet next time I do a time trial just so I can fit in. Either that or show up wearing a skateboard helmet, just to stick out a little more.

  4. This my first visiting your blog, and I’m going to keep coming back! Love your writing. I have never been brave enough to join in the club time trials, but I think I might give it a go this summer. I’d also be the girl with the non pointy helmet and non whooshy wheels!

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