Essential Triathlon Gear – Part II (The Bike)

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In this video I go over some of the basic gear that you need for the bike portion of a triathlon.

Here is some additional information to go along with each part of the video:

Section 1) Bikes: What kind of bike do you need? There are several different kinds of bikes that work for triathlons (depending on distance and what kind of speed you are looking for).
Mountain Bikes: Many people already have a mountain bike of some sort. Some have shock systems on them and some don’t. If you are doing your first Olympic or sprint length triathlon and you are not sure about how many more you will do, a mountain bike will work just fine. I would not recommend using a mountain bike for a triathlon longer than Olympic (i.e. half ironman or full ironman). So, if you already have a mountain bike and you just want to try this triathlon thing out and do a sprint length…go right ahead and use your mountain bike. That is, in fact, how I did my first sprint triathlon in 2005. One recommendation that I would give you is to go get some smooth road wheels put on your mountain bike for training and racing. This will decrease the drag you will get on the road from using knobby tires and will make your time a little faster. This should only cost you about $40 at your local bike shop (LBS).

Fitness or Commuter Bikes: If you are in the same situation as above (just doing your first sprint or Olympic and not sure how many more you will do) but you don’t have a bike at all or don’t want to use a mountain bike, this is the type of bike that I would recommend for you. These bikes have a comfortable, upright riding posture (similar to a mountain bike) with thinner road wheels and tires. However, the tires are usually a little wider than a racing road bike which allows these bikes to ride easily on crushed rock trails as well as on the road. These bikes can be used for racing, commuting, or recreational riding (pull a trailer with kids or pets). So, if you decide not to do any more triathlons, this bike will still be very useful and functional. Some examples of commuter or fitness bikes are the Trek 7.5 FX and Giant Dash (women) or Rapid (men). Email me for more options. You can usually pick up a good commuter or fitness bike for around $500. I would not recommend spending less than that if you are going to use it for triathlon. Why? Because you are going to need to train for your triathlon and if you buy a bike of inferior quality, there is a strong possibility that you will dread riding it…and that does not help you train for a triathlon…you should want to ride your bike and a good bike will help with that.

Road Bikes: OK, so maybe you have done a few triathlons and are ready to move up or you know that you want to get serious about triathlon and you want speed. Now you are at the most difficult decision point for most triathletes: Road Bike or Triathlon Bike. Should I buy a road bike and just slap some clip-on aero bars on it for my triathlon or should I go ahead and just buy a dedicated time-trial triathlon bike? Very difficult question. My advice, if you haven’t done a lot of riding on either type of bike, is to start with a road bike and move to a triathlon bike later as a second bike or as a replacement.

Road bikes are a step up in speed from the commuter bike for several reasons: a) They have skinnier tires and rims and an overall more aerodynamic profile. b) The riding posture is more aerodynamic (less upright). c) The overall weight of the bike is often significantly lighter.

So, here is what to look for when buying a road bike:
Frame Material: There are several frame materials available. The most common low to mid-range material is aluminum. Higher priced bikes will have carbon or titanium frames that decrease road vibration and are lighter. However, for most people, aluminum road bikes are perfectly acceptable. You will have a hard time finding a steel road bike these days (they are out there…but mostly from Italy I believe). So that is probably not a viable option.

Carbon Fork: Most road bikes will at least have a carbon fork regardless of the material of the rest of the frame. In my opinion, if it doesn’t have a carbon fork it is not worth looking at. The carbon fork will help dampen the road vibration.

Drive Train: I am only going to talk about Shimano drive trains in any detail because that is what is the most common and that is what I ride. The other options are Campagnolo (often referred to as “Campy”) and SRAM (and a few smaller ones). Shimano makes three common drive trains for road bikes: 105, Ultegra, and Dura-Ace…with Dura-Ace being the most expensive and 105 being the cheapest. The Ultegra group is probably the most cost-effective group of the three and the most common that you will see on mid-level road bikes. I recommend looking for a bike where at least the rear derailleur is Ultegra.

So, in conclusion (and yes, there is a ton more that I can talk about here), the simple formula for a quality road bike that will perform well in triathlons and road races is: Aluminum frame, carbon fork, Shimano Ultegra drive train. In addition to those three things, I would probably also stick with a name brand such as Trek, Cannondale, Giant, Felt, Scott, Cervelo, Specialized, etc.

Triathlon Bikes: First of all, what is the difference between a Road bike and a triathlon bike? Can’t you just put aero bars on your triathlon bike and it is the same thing? NO! The triathlon bike has a different frame geometry. The seat tube angle is steeper on a triathlon bike which makes your position more aerodynamic and saves your calves and hamstrings for the run by engaging your quads more. This is not just a gimmick. You will notice a difference in how you feel on the run when you get off of a triathlon bike compared to a road bike. Is this a significant enough difference for you to have a triathlon bike instead of a road bike or to have both? For me, it is significant enough to have both (in my opinion…and that is the one that matters in this case). For someone who is only doing sprint and Olympic triathlons but does more road riding with groups, it is probably not worth it. This is a decision you have to make. The factors are how much road riding (not related to triathlon) do you do, how many triathlons do you plan to do, and what is your budget (i.e. can you afford two bikes).
Triathlon bikes use pretty much the same components as road bikes. So, you can pretty much use the same formula as above to get a good triathlon bike.

Section 2) The Accessories: Now you have your bike or you know what type you want to get…so what else do you need to do the bike portion?
Helmet: You are going to need a bike helmet to do your triathlon. Most triathlons are very strict about their helmet policies. Often, you will get disqualified for not putting your helmet on before taking your bike off the rack or for not buckling the strap. The only thing you really need to know about picking out a helmet is that you need to make sure that it meets the ANSI/ASTM standards. This is often a requirement at triathlons. Other than that, just about any bike helmet will work. Sure, there are ones that are more aerodynamic (and silly looking) than others, but most helmets work just fine. Take a look at pictures of Chrissy Wellington winning Kona for the last 3 years…she wore a fairly normal bike helmet…not one of those pointy aero things that everyone else used.

Pedals: Clips or Clipless? Which is which and which should I get? So you have probably seen the kind of pedals that you “click” into such that your shoe is attached to the pedals, right? These pedals are known as “clipless” pedals. That may seem backwards to you (it did to me when I first got into biking), but this comes from the fact that the “cages” (where you insert your normal tennis shoe into a cage and strap on top of the pedal) were commonly called “clips” back when clipless pedals were invented.
So which one do you get? It is perfectly acceptable to use your tennis shoes and a cheap pair of clips to get through your first triathlon. However, clipless pedals and the bike shoes that go along with them provide better power transfer and efficiency. So, I would recommend that you make the move to clipless pedals at some point. There are many different types of clipless pedals but the cheaper SPD pedals from Shimano work just fine.

Shoes: You only need to worry about getting bike shoes if you are using clipless pedals. There are several different types of shoes. Road or triathlon shoes are usually more difficult to walk in but they are stiffer and provide the best power transfer. Mountain bike shoes are usually easier to walk in but a little more flexible. Either works fine but make sure that the shoes you pick will work with the pedals you pick.

Carbon Everything:

So, many of you may be thinking that carbon bikes are the way to go and that I shouldn’t be recommending that you buy an aluminum bike. I understand that there are benefits to carbon, but I do not believe that they are significant enough to justify the cost for the average triathlete. The weight savings is the most commonly cited reason for buying carbon bikes and even carbon accessories that I have seen. So, why do we care about weight savings in a bike? So we can go faster, right? Fine…so that seems like a pretty good reason. However, my personal opinion is that, unless you are a highly competitive triathlete at a very low body fat percentage, you can save more weight by going on a diet than you ever could by spending an extra $1000 on carbon. Here is a great example: The Profile Design T2+ Aero bars (aluminum) weigh 500 grams. Their carbon version weighs in at 495 grams. You spend an extra $50-$100 for carbon and save 5 grams. Wow…why don’t you just put that candy bar down and put the $50 back in your pocket? We could all stand to lose 5 grams, right? Until you get to the point where you are fast enough to win your age group, 5 grams just simply won’t make a difference.
I will say that carbon does do a better job of absorbing road vibration and gives a smoother ride if you buy a full carbon frame bike. So, I can see some benefit to buying a carbon bike. In fact, my next bike will probably be carbon. I have ridden an aluminum triathlon bike for the last couple of seasons and have been very happy with it, but I think it may be time to make the leap to carbon soon. I just don’t think that the current cost difference is worth it for most recreational triathletes, and I definitely don’t think the small accessories are worth buying in carbon (e.g. the aerobars, bottle cages, pedals, etc.).

Anyway, there is much more that you could buy for the bike portion of the triathlon if you wanted to. We could talk about carbon wheels, hydration systems, bike trainers, etc. However, I think we will leave off here with this blog. I believe it has served it’s purpose…which was to give you a basic overview of what you need to do a triathlon. If you want more info about bikes or accessories, just shoot me an email.

Ryan Chapman
B.A.S.E. Training

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