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Stefan Bissegger won the stage three time trial at the 2022 UAE Tour on a day that saw the first gaps in the general classification. Much further down the results sheet was Luke Plapp finishing 102nd on the day. As one of the pre-stage favourites, finishing 1:16 down and almost getting caught by his “minute-man” Joao Almeida in the 9 km test, was not how Plapp hoped his first WorldTour time trial might go. Looking beyond the results sheet, the reason for Plapp’s sub-par performance was clear: the former Australian time trial champion raced the time trial on a road bike.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Plapp crashed in the pre-stage recon ride and damaged the only time trial bike available to him at the UAE Tour. Whether Plapp made the same full gas effort he might have on a time trial bike is unclear, and we will never know exactly what Plapp could have achieved in the same stage on a time trial bike. Still, given the comments from Chris Froome, Tom Pidcock, and others recently on the topic of potentially banning time trial bikes, perhaps Plapp’s ride is a glimpse into the future of WorldTour time trialling. A glimpse at what a slower and ultimately just as unsafe, road bike time trial might look like if the speed machines of today are ever banned.
The cameras didn’t capture much of Plapp’s ride and what we saw was mainly into an opening headwind, but what we did see was enough to tell us a simple ban on time trial bikes is unlikely to fix the safety concerns at hand. Plapp found a way to adopt an aero position on his road bike most can never dream of on a dedicated time trial rig. The young Australian looked aero and fast as he powered through the opening section with hands just barely resting on the levers, forearms on the centre of his handlebars, and interestingly for this conversation, his head tucked right down with seemingly zero view of the road ahead.
Ironically the position seems altogether much more dangerous than that which Plapp adopts on his dedicated time trial bike, a Pinarello Bolide. Plapp did raise his head regularly to briefly check the road ahead but spent a large proportion of the shots we saw with presumably very little to zero views of the road ahead.
Rider safety was the basis for much of the recent discussion on banning time trials bikes. With some riders adopting ever increasingly more extreme time trial positions with reduced visibility and presumably bike control, some question if road-bike-only time trials could create a safer and level playing field. Without time trial bikes, riders would have more control and not need to train in the extreme positions on open roads, the theory goes.
The various counter-arguments can be condensed into three points. Firstly, riders will still adopt extreme positions. Secondly, aero road bikes are not all equal, and the biggest teams will still find advantages the smaller teams can’t. Finally, to ban time trial bikes would unfairly impact riders who specialise in time trialling.
Personally, I feel time-trialling is the cutting-edge of our sport driving some aspects of performance research and development. Or as Wout van Aert put it, to ban TT bikes is a “bullshit” idea. Many time trial fans will have the same reaction to the idea of banning time trial bikes. For them (myself included) the only real question here is whether Plapp should have been disqualified for resting his forearms on the handlebars?
The UAE Tour continued today, with Plapp again grabbing some attention with a strong ride on the summit finish.