Triathlon bikes 101.

I’m going to preface right up front that this article is completely wrong. At least, every bike nerd is going to have something to say about bikes, and what every conversation comes down to is personal preference and experience. This is an attempt to simplify a world that has hundreds of magazines and forums representing thousands of opinions in a world with millions of enthusiasts. That said, I’m as wrong as the next person and I was lucky to have bike friends to give me concepts to start my own research before I bought my bike.

There are two kinds of bikes to consider for your first triathlon: road vs. tri bike (similar looking but not the same as a time trial, or TT bike). Each bike frame type has its pros and cons which will affect speed, performance, and budget. For those new to the sport it’s best to look at your wallet and decide how much you want to spend on a sport you might not enjoy or commit to completely.

Part 1: Road vs tri:

The road bike is the most common bike on the road. It usually has curled handlebars, a triangular frame, and can be made of steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, or a variety of each material. Using the phrase “road bike” is akin to the word beer. It’s a general term but there’s an astounding variety of products that make up that category. A tri bike is designed specifically for triathlon, serving two purposes (preserve the legs for the run, create an aerodynamic pose for cutting through wind) to achieve one goal: speed. Each kind of bike has a wide variety of styles and makers, and a wide range of prices.

Road bikes are certainly the most versatile option in that they can be designed and equipped for commuters, racers, long riders, and pack riding, and can be customized with accessories depending on the rider’s needs. A road bike can be used for everyday riding, with removable panniers on the rear for bags, or stripped down for weight savings and speed. Aero bars can be installed on the top handlebars for triathlon, and a large variety of pedal systems can be installed. The road bike’s hallmark is the position of the rider both in respect to leg position and hand position. Assuming one is riding an everyday road bike handlebar (not a flipped or mountain bike handlebar), there are three hand positions which affect comfort during rides. The primary riding position is over the shift levers and brakes. This gives maximum control over the bike mechanics. Second position is lower in the “drops”, the bottom curve of the handlebars. This position tucks the rider tighter and flattens the back reducing overall drag and increasing speed. Most riders can reach the brakes in this position, but gear shifting can be tricky. The third position is on the upper flat of the handlebar, which is the least aerodynamic position as the rider’s chest is a wall to the wind. This is often used in long, sustained climbs as it changes the center of gravity and leg power. Also, it can be nice to sit upright at times in a long ride. Each position takes time to learn balance and control.

Tri bikes have a very different geometry, positioning the rider in the most aerodynamic shape possible and assuming there will be a long run after the ride, they have a different leg geometry. They are smaller than road bikes to allow for a tighter tucked-in shape, the rider’s arms are set at 90 degrees in the aero position, and the shifting levers are at the very tips of the aero bars. The brakes are on the outer handlebars, rarely used other than for twisting through turns, a rarity in triathlon courses. The tri bike is built for speed and can be outfitted with any number of parts that enhance this fundamental goal. Rider position is the most noticeable difference, but every other variable also affects the ride.

This is the basic difference between the two bikes: road bikes are versatile for long pleasure rides, winding roads, narrow turns, pack riding, bike races, and offer a variety of positions. Tri bikes are designed for relatively straight roads (with hills) and long distances preserving certain leg muscles for running after riding. In some bike races a rider can draft behind other riders (in a Peloton, or team), saving as much as 40% of energy by using the bodies of other riders. In triathlon, riders are penalized for drafting and must cut their own wind – thus the aero position. It is the most efficient pose when it’s just you versus the wind. A well equipped road bike can take you from half century fun rides to half ironman distance and beyond, depending on your ability. A tri bike is specific to its purpose and is rarely ridden just for fun.

Part 2: Materials:

Bike frames are frequently made of steel, aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber. There are also bikes made of scandium, bamboo, and other esoteric materials, but most bike shops carry aluminum and carbon fiber for their retail lines. Carbon fiber is the most futuristic (and trendy) and therefore the most expensive material for bike frames and parts. It is remarkably strong, stiff, and lightweight. Less weight = more speed. More stiff = better power transfer from body to gearbox to tires and less vibration. Road vibration transferred through the frame and handlebars will seriously fatigue limbs for long rides. Carbon fiber comes in many different flavors affecting every aspect of use, and every maker has their own recipe that differentiates their bikes from others. There are also carbon wrapped aluminum frames, and specific use of carbon fiber in parts just to confuse things even more.

Aluminum is found all over the place, primarily for cost reasons. The lower-cost road bike frames are typically made of aluminum, and the seat post, front forks, and seat stay can be made of carbon fiber to reduce vibration in the areas of the bike that transfer feeling to the rider. This kind of bike is a good choice for new riders. For someone with unlimited funds, a full carbon fiber bike will offer an outstanding ride, but the new rider may not fully appreciate all the benefits. To be blunt, they might not be a strong enough rider for the carbon fiber to make a difference! A good entry-level road bike can be purchased at chain stores for as little as $700, or as much as $2,500. Triathlon stores carry more carbon fiber tri models because they are sport-specific. My first bike was an aluminum frame with a carbon seat post, seat stay, and forks, Shimano Ultegra shifters and brakes, and it cost about $1,300. I have friends who are steel frame road bike purists and friends who spent more on their carbon fiber beauties than their car. It is always a matter of personal choice.

Part 3: Components (gearing, brakes, seat, wheels & pedals):

The second area to consider is the quality of components installed on the frame itself. The gears, shifters, and brakes will directly affect the rider’s performance on the bike. Quality components shift smoothly across gears, last longer, and will enhance the rider’s ability. Shimano and SRAM are the big makers (Campagnolo {“campy”} is also very popular, but expensive and tends towards European tastes), and as they introduce a new top-end set of components the product line cascades downward. Some SRAM models feature the ability to instantly change your gearing from low to high, skipping all the gears in between for instant power on demand. There is, of course, a premium price for these features. Shimano’s Dura Ace, Ultegra, 105, and Tiagra components (that’s a top to bottom hierarchy of quality) can be found on many road bikes. Do some simple web searches for the products to see more info and what models are available this year, or on the bike in your price range. In general, reasonably priced bikes will have reasonably good components. Beware the deal that seems too good to be true – they are likely placing lower quality components on mediocre frames to bring the price down. While a mix of parts can sometimes point to a lower quality bike, higher end bikes are now substituting parts of the group out for those that might be superior. Once you find a bike you like, note all the components and do your research. A triathlon bike with Shimano will always have Dura Ace shifters as they do not make any lower-end bar-end shifting mechanism. These can be mixed with Ultegra and 105 derailleurs. SRAM tends to be one flavor across all components.

Part 3A: Gearing

Gearing will definitely affect the new rider. Most coaches (and the Lance) encourage a lot of small shifting rather than mashing through big gears to achieve power. A fast, steady cadence of 90 rpm is sustainable only through using many gears as the elevation and your ability demand. Therefore, choosing a gearbox that offers a wide range of options is best. My road bike has three front gears and ten rear cogs, giving me about 30 gears. In reality there are less combinations since cross-chaining (running the chain diagonally between the biggest front ring and smallest back cog or vice-versa) wears down the metal. I won’t get into the numbers assigned to gears here since for the neophyte this will be intimidating. In terms of just quantity (not dimension or size) of gears, try not to go lower than 21 speeds. On big climbs you will want the “granny gear” until you are strong enough to push a bigger gear.

Part 3B: Pedals

Pedals also greatly impact the ride. “Clipless” pedals are paradoxically named because these kinds of pedals lock the rider’s shoe to the pedal. Clips, in bike parlance, are metal tabs that hold the rider’s toes. Therefore clipless pedals are a cleat screwed to a shoe which couples with a mate at the end of the pedal. They operate like ski bindings and learning to enter and exit and will take a few rides to get fully comfortable. Do not be afraid. We all fall. It’s why we wear gloves. Clipless pedal’s greatest benefit is allowing the rider to transfer power to the pedals at all times in the pedal cycle (push down, pull back, pull up, repeat). Pedal systems are sold separately from the bike, which will add anywhere from $100-$300 depending on material and brand. For new riders, Shimano makes a version of their SPD pedal that can be clicked into from either side. Typically sold as mountain bike pedals, the “dual-entry” system means less fumbling around when stopping and starting and trying to click back into the pedal. For people worried about weight, Speedplay makes a whole line of lightweight, dual-sided pedals. I use Shimano SPD-SL pedals, which are one-sided entry but weighted nicely so they always swivel into an accessible position for connection. This is by no means an endorsement of Shimano, it’s just what I use now.

Part 3C: Wheels

Wheels come in a huge variety of shapes and materials, including disk wheels, aerospokes, bladed spokes, aero-rims, and more. These can enhance performance and also drive up the cost considerably. A single set of carbon-fiber disk wheels can easily cost two thousand dollars. Some race courses prohibit disk wheels because of intense crosswinds, so this is an area best left for intermediate riders or the expert in the bike shop. It is also possible that later in your tri career you will have several sets of wheels for different course types. For training, aluminum heavy-duty wheels work great for all weather conditions and will stand up to thousands of miles. “Train heavy, race light” is a philosophy that extends to race wheels and race shoes for the same reasons.

Part 3D: Bike seat

The bike seat is a critical component. There are a wide variety of seats, but concentrate on picking one that is ergonomically comfortable for your pubic bone. After 20 miles your pubic bone and genitals will thank you. You can spend an outrageous sum on Italian cycling shorts with fancy chamois to protect your ‘taint, but on race day you’re going to wear a thin, breathable multi-sport outfit. Get a seat that is comfortable under a thin chamois and you’ll be much happier. A fitter (see below) can help with this selection, and you can find one that is anatomically specific to your pelvis. There is no shame in wanting to prevent erectile dysfunction or numb labia. Those are real side effects of a bad seat.

Part 4: Weight:

Bike freaks make a lot of noise about the weight in grams of different components and bike parts. For new riders, this is pointless. 1 pound of human flesh = 453 grams, so arguing about a 10 or 20 gram weight difference in pedals or bars is nothing compared to an effective diet.

Weight cannot be underestimated in how it affects performance. When shopping for bikes you’ll notice there’s always weight indicators for riders looking to shave every gram they can off their total weight. In triathlon, speed rules all, and every gram on an elite rider translates into seconds off a race time. For the rest of us, weight makes a difference, too, but it should be in perspective. Before getting hung up on wheel weight differences, remember you’re also carrying a spare tube, tire levers, and a bag to hold it all under your seat.

Part 5: The Fit:

No matter what bike you choose if you plan on racing the bike, hire a professional bike fitter to adjust the bike to your body. For less than $200, this will ensure proper form and give a certain peace of mind that you’re not going to hurt yourself from an asymmetrical wobble at the apex of your stroke. Many bike shops can recommend a fitter. I paid $165 for my bike fit and it was worth every penny to ride comfortably from the beginning.

Summary:

A quality road bike is the ideal first bike for people new to the sport. It offers the most flexible options and can be used for many multi-sport events. A tri bike is significantly more expensive, and its greatest benefits may not make a difference to the new rider. A tri bike can be considered a graduation present for yourself after you’ve done a few triathlons and have committed to the sport. In that they are more expensive and suited for a singular purpose, they are an incredible tool for racing. At the upper level of bikes in either category, the better bike parts will take seconds, maybe even minutes off your time. If you’re at the point where you’re counting seconds, you’re beyond a newbie and will have formed your own opinions about the equipment that works best for you. For new riders I suggest buying a more versatile bike that can be used even as you add new weapons to your arsenal.

Shopping list:

If you buy a retail, pre-assembled bike, it will typically include:

frame, gears, brakes, seat, and wheels. ($700-$2,500)

You need a helmet. ($40-$200)

You may need to choose a pedal system. This will require purchasing bike shoes if you choose a clipless system. (Pedals $100-$300, shoes $100-$300)

You may want gloves. ($10-$50)

You may want to upgrade your bike seat, ($75-$200)

You may want a pair of everyday riding bibs and jersey. ($100-$300)

Optional (I think necessary) for the tri-rider:

water bottle cages and bottles, ($15 per cage, $10 per bottle)

spare tubes, tire levers, bike pump or CO2 inflater, ($25-$50 for everything)

a seat bag or option to hold your tire kit above, ($20)

bike fit appointment. ($150-$250, varies widely)

Accessories:

floor standing bike pump, ($70-$100)

spare tubes, ($6)

chain cleaner, cleaning tools, and lubricant (it’s like flossing – we should all do it more often), ($50)

bike computer showing mileage and speed. ($50-$100)

OR

GPS cycle computer including cadence counter ($500+)

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6 responses to “Triathlon bikes 101.

  1. Christopher Rosien

    Ooh ooh ooh Max, let me be the first to expand upon the Road vs Tri thing…

    I think the thing to remember is the Tour De France! Why are there no Tri frames? Because the body position when riding a road frame is so much more powerful than the Tri position! That plus the power of drafting makes it a clear choice even given the loss of aerodynamics over long distances.

    So where do Tri frames shine? Long course! You can’t draft and the ride is more about sustained endurance and not the tactics of a peleton.

    This raises an important point, though, regarding shorter triathlons. When is the crossover from a road to a tri frame a net benefit? Arguably, sprint and olympic triathlons are about attacking. Relative to the length of the course, a lot more time is spent coming up to speed and overcoming rider traffic. Also, on a congested course, especially a loop course with a sprint and olympic running simultaneously, riders do move from one draft to the next. The “non-drafting” rules do allow 15 seconds and triathletes end up using them whether they realize it or not.

    Of course, all that must be weighed in balance with how the bike geometry affects one’s running. I think that is even far more subjective and especially at shorter distances. If the tri frame helps you to run then that alone could be the deal breaker but it’s by no means a given as the first mile always … well … sucks. Training your bike to run is your best weapon by far!

    There are IM winners on road bikes although most go tri. What about a road bike with aero bars? You get most of the aero-dynamics but you lose most of the endurance position in favor of the strength position. Sounds about right for a short course.

    If I am going to be done in 90 minutes or less than I’m voting road!

  2. Confused roadie chick

    Stumbled upon this linking off of the CHLA page, and I’m a little confused… You’re the coach? And you ride a triple??!!!!!

    • My *road* bike is a triple. I bought a Cervelo P3C when all I was doing was long course triathlon. It’s a 53/39 and came with an 11/23 rear which I bumped to a 12/27 for Ironman Arizona. I’ve got to drop it back to the 11/23 for Vineman 70.3.

      As a coach, I recommend clients buy road bikes. A great all-purpose bike with subtle position shifts can be utilized for triathlon, crit racing, or touring.

  3. Confused roadie chick

    No disagreement on your gearing on your P3, but frankly, there’s no reason anyone needs a triple on anything but a mountain bike and insane climbing (think >16% for long stretches) in my not-so-humble opinion. Telling peeps that buying a triple is normal, in a day and age when even the weakest can get by with a compact and a 12-27, is setting people up with more weight than they need and utter sadness when 6 months later they get made fun of enough that they have to shell out the money for a new crankset.
    :)

    • From my experience, the best way for new riders to gain fitness is to get comfortable spinning 95 rpm consistently across gears. For many adult athletes, this means appropriate gearing to meet that high cadence. As they build power, they will graduate to larger gear ratios and eventually outgrow the triple. But that fitness takes several years to develop, and many folks don’t have that discipline. They come in and out of the sport, which means they don’t build fitness year after year. People coming out of spin classes already can maintain high cadence, but not necessarily sustained power, and for them a double front is a challenge but achievable.

      I appreciate your perspective, but I reckon if you self identify as a “roadie chick” you’re already used to pushing a bigger gear. More power to you!

  4. Confused roadie chick

    But mad props for encouraging people to get a road bike. If you’re only going to own one, that’s gotta be it.

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