Do I need a Special Bike for a Triathlon?

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By John Higgins — Of the 3 sports that comprise a triathlon, the cycling leg requires the most technical equipment, and is arguably the more intimidating sport because of this, particularly for competitors who come to triathlon from a running or swimming background. But cyclists are also faced with equipment questions and conundrums when considering participating in a triathlon. Do you need a special triathlon bike, or will any bike serve the purpose? And what’s with the low and stretched out position anyway?

The bike leg is in essence an individual time trial, followed by a run! Because competitors are not allowed to draft behind other riders and save energy, the way to go faster and have energy for the run is to reduce your wind resistance by riding in an “aero position”. This requires a different riding position, which means either a triathlon- specific bike, or modifications to an existing road bike. The longer the event, and/or the more competitive you want to be against yourself or others, the more significant this aerodynamic advantage becomes.

A tri bike (shown here) will be faster in a triathlon, but the rider will need to decide whether the expense is worth the time savings. A road bike with aero bars can be a good alternative. Photo by Dave Iltis

If you don’t have a tri bike, but are wanting to participate in a triathlon, here are some things to consider before investing in a tri bike.

Event Distance. Triathlons are generally classified by the total distance as either Sprint (12.4 mile bike), Olympic (24.8 mile bike), Half / 70.3 (56 mile bike) or Ironman (112 mile bike). Short distance events like the recently held Daybreak Tri and Dino Tri are popular for experiencing a triathlon and testing fitness, equipment and strategies. Unless you have your sights set on the podium, any bike you can put your hands on will be fine for these shorter events, even a mountain bike!

Your Motivation and Goals. If your aim is to do one triathlon and check it off your list, then there is no need to invest in special equipment. But if this is a sport you plan to repeatedly go in, and you want to be competitive, then having the right tool for the job is going to help.

Current Bike. If you have a road bike, you can use that for any triathlon (add aero bars, and see below), but you wont be as fast as someone with the same cycling fitness who is on a tri bike, especially in longer events. But many people do their first long event on a road bike just to make sure they are “hooked” before getting a tri bike.

Other Cycling Pursuits. A tri bike is usually a poor choice for group rides, club rides, non tri cycling events, and riding up and down canyons, due to the gearing, riding position and steering. If most of your cycling will not be training for or participating in a triathlon, then you probably don’t need a tri bike.

Time and Money. Triathlon is not a cheap sport. Entry fees, travel, training, and equipment all consume time and money. If you’ve got the time and money to go for it, then you probably want to maximize your enjoyment by having the right gear, and that would include a tri bike.

Converting a Road Bike to a Tri Bike. It’s not just a matter of slapping on aero bars. The frame geometry and riding position for a tri bike is quite different to a road bike. It’s difficult to have one bike optimized for both styles of riding. There are horses for courses, so don’t expect any old mustang to carry you to a triple crown. Which is not to say you can’t enter the race. Give tri a try.

John Higgins wants to elevate your cycling experience. He operates BikeFitr – an independent bike fitting studio, and Fit Kit Systems – supplying equipment and education to bike retailers and fitters. Contact: [email protected]

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Another thing to consider is the muscle engagement with a correctly-fit triathlon bike does keep the running muscles fresher for the run. Really only comes into play with longer races, as you’ve pointed out, but it does make a difference to have the entire body, including hips etc., positioned comfortably for a long time in the aero position.

  2. The key element of bikes for triathlons is a relaxed geometry. Having tired arms after the swim section a relaxed geometry makes it easier to maintain ones course. This goes back to the Dave Scott Centurion bikes of the mid 1980’s. A relaxed geometry bike like the Specialize Tarmac and adding aero bars and wearing an aero helmet and learning correct body position while riding will provide 99% of the potential of using a special tri bike.

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