As a seasoned triathlete and a coach, I’ve heard this question a lot. Often beginners want to know what kind of bike they should buy for triathlon. And my response is initially always the same (and not without my patented sense of snark): “A bike that fits.” But, of course, that’s another topic for another day.
Others who have a few races under their belt want to know if what they’re riding is right for them. This is tricky because upgrading depends so much on your budget and your priorities. Therefore, the question can really only be answered on a case-by-case basis.
However, one thing is universally true. A triathlon bike will always be faster than a road bike. Case closed. But triathlon bikes are also much more expensive. Not to mention road bikes are typically more comfortable and more versatile. So which do you choose for your triathlon needs?
To answer this, let’s look at a few scenarios that you might be able to place yourself in.
Scenario 1: You want to attempt your first triathlon
If triathlon is new to you and you’re trying on the sport for size, my advice is to go with a road bike first. Here’s the thing: You might finish your first triathlon and hate the sport. I seriously can’t imagine that happening because just think about how awesome it is swimming in freezing cold lakes, suffering up hills on the bike, and pounding the pavement in extreme heat on the run! But if you do decide the sport isn’t for you, then at least you still have a great bike to ride recreationally.
Triathlon bikes are almost worthless outside of triathlon and time trialing. They’re not as safe, as comfortable, or as easy to handle as a road bike. And if you’d ever like to bike with a group of cyclists, they’ll probably shun you if all you have is a tri bike.
A road bike will get you to the finish line of the triathlon just fine. It may not be as fast, but it’s not necessarily slow either. In fact, you can still be pretty competitive on a road bike with some solid training and coaching.
Scenario 2: You’re considering being more competitive
If you’re thinking about stepping up your game, you might find yourself looking at ads for triathlon bikes more and more. Stop that! There’s no reason to shell out over $2000 unless you’re sure that racing (and not merely finishing) is your goal.
There’s a much cheaper solution if you’re toeing the waters of triathlon competitiveness. Clip-on aerobars.
The studies have shown that even with clip-on aero bars you’re going to save a tremendous percentage of power and time. The aero position can account for up to a 14% improvement in the coefficient of drag and potentially 12.5% power savings. And that’s with no other added gear such as aero helmets or wheels.
So for an extra $100-$200 you can up your competitiveness pretty substantially. Get some clip-ons first and see how much faster you go and how far up the ranks you move. After that you can think about whether a serious upgrade is going to satiate the hunger your competitive stomach is craving.
(Note: It’s possible that the time savings a triathlon bike provides may not be enough to justify its purchase, especially if you only want to show off in the local scene).
Scenario 3: You want to place in your age group at local races
That last parenthetical applies mostly in scenario 3. Now you’re seriously wanting to race, but you haven’t set your sights on something like Kona yet. You know a few local races have your name on them and you want to podium in front of friends and family. At this point, a triathlon bike might be worth the investment.
I say “might” because we mustn’t forget that the engine on top of the bike is more important than the bike itself. Depending on your cycling ability or the level of competition you’re up against or both, a triathlon bike may still not be necessary.
If you train hard and get strong on the bike, you may find yourself passing $3000 machines without such an aero advantage. And let’s be honest, it’s going to feel good beating competitors on a weaker bike.
On the other hand, be realistic about how much time a triathlon bike is going to save you. If you want place in your age group but the competition is far and away ahead by finishing time, the tri-bike probably won’t be enough to get you on the podium. Instead of spending your money and praying, work on increasing your power threshold and overall cycling fitness first.
However, if you find yourself in the middle of the pack and need some help against the wind, and/or the level of competition is tight enough to where the bike does make a difference, then by all means get that fancy tri-bike!
Scenario 4: You want to place in your age group at major events
In this last scenario you’re now most likely racing in an IRONMAN-branded event with the hopes of standing on the big stage podium. At this point there’s virtually no question. You will need a triathlon bike. The competition on both the male and female side in nearly all age groups is cutthroat. Unless you were a former pro-cyclist, chances are you’ll need the major advantage a triathlon bike provides.
Select the right time trial bike based on fit (not gimmicky selling points like hidden rear brakes) and find the perfect balance between aerodynamic position and power transfer.
TRIDOT TAKEAWAY: The bike you need for a triathlon depends on what you want to accomplish in the sport.
TALK WITH TRIDOT: What type of bike do you race with? Standard road bike? Road bike with clip-on aero bars? Or a lean, mean time trial machine?
JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.
Jones, Jeff. “How Aero is Aero?” Bike Radar. Immediate Media Company Limited, 30 Sept 2012. Web. 27 Apr 2016.