Beginner Triathletes: How to pick the best bike for you

My Facebook News Feed is full of friends talking about how they’re setting up transition/pumping their tires/putting on their wetsuit for the last time of 2010. The end of the racing season is upon us, and although I have one more race left on my calendar this year, I’m pretty much ready to put my feet up (with a glass of scotch in hand) and relax for a while.

One of my friends is particularly interested in the end-of-the-season deals that she can get from her local bike shop. See, she doesn’t have a bike, but she’s been itching for one for a while. Right now is probably the best time to buy a new bike, because of course, bike shops are looking to dump their extra stock of 2010 bikes so that when spring rolls around they have a full room of flashy 2011 models. And dump they will. My LBS is having a sale this weekend, and all their bikes are on sale for one amazing discount or another.

Anyway, her questions about what bike is best for her got me thinking about how I got into cycling, why I chose the bike(s) I did, and why it was important (for good and bad reasons). So, I thought I’d put together a little help list of different things to consider when purchasing a new bike:

What different kinds of bikes are there?

I’m going to first establish four different categories of bikes, but I’m definitely aware that there are bikes that overlap some of these categories. For simplicity sake, we have:

Road
Mountain
Triathlon
Cruiser

For the sake of focusing on an athlete interested in racing road triathlons (not XTerra, off-road triathlons), I’m going to focus on Road and Triathlon specific bikes.

Which one should I get?

Road bikes are great if you want to go for long fitness rides with friends, rally for a fast pace lines, and ride for a long time. Triathlon bikes are great for people who like to (obviously) race triathlons in races where drafting is illegal, and for those that like to ride their bike for a long time (say, 100 miles?) by themselves.

Ok, but really, which one should I get?

Really, it depends on what you want to do. Want to do century rides with your friends? I’d recommend a road bike. Want to race an Ironman? You might want to invest in a triathlon bike.

Ok, so I want to get into triathlons, but I don’t have a bike. Which kind of bike should I get?

This is an easy question to ask, with a complicated answer.

Point 1: Bike companies make triathlon bikes for a reason. Technically, many of the fancy schmancy bikes you see pro athletes riding are time trial (TT) bikes. The TT geometry is different than the regular road bike geometry- the angle of the seat post on a TT bike is steeper, the weight of the rider is more forward, and the control is a little different. The TT bike allows the cyclist to apply more consistent power over a longer distance. The farther forward you are, the more power you can generate (in general; there are “extremes” to every example). Reduced frontal area, from using the aerobars, promotes better aerodynamics (o rly? nooo way!). Integrated aerobars are going to make a bike faster than if it had the clip-on kind, but essentially, reducing that frontal area can help take up to 4minutes of a 40km time trial (or more?).

Counterpoint 1: Just because there are TT bikes, does not mean you have to have one in order to race triathlon. In fact, it may not be practical to have a TT bike in many of the shorter triathlons. If the triathlon is draft-legal (ITU races usually are), then having a TT bike is pointless. Plus, if the course is hilly, (depending on your riding style and comfort on the bike), a road bike might give you a faster split. The forward geometry of a TT bike makes climbing more difficult than the upright position of a road bike.

Point 2: Having a TT bike can make training on your own a bit easier. If you don’t have anyone’s wheel to hang on to for a long ride, then a TT bike can help make it less painful and make the ride go by faster because you will likely be going faster. On a TT bike, you’re aerodynamic, you’re more forward, and you are (likely) not a huge sail for the wind to grab.

Counterpoint 2: If you do have people to train with, then having a TT bike when you first start out is often a terribly stressful experience, for you and the people you ride with. Not only are TT bikes more difficult to control than road bikes, they can also be quite intimidating. If you ride with others in a paceline, having TT bike can be absolute disaster if you ride in aero position. And, if you are going to ride on the pursuit bars the whole time, why even have a TT bike? Even if you don’t have anyone to train with, the first several rides can be full of anxiety on a TT bike; remember, its not the Huffy you learned on.

Point 3: TT bikes look really bad ass. I mean, seriously, look at this photo:

Amanda Lovato's new Kestrel 4000LTD

Seriously. Bad. Ass.

Counterpoint 3: Ok, do you really have $6,000 to drop on your first bike? Maybe. But probably not. And to be fair, you could spend the same amount of money on a road bike as you do on a TT bike. And, you can find cheap TT bikes out there, but you can usually find cheap(er) road bikes.

Point 4: The forward position of a TT bike makes for an easier transition to the run in triathlon, partly because it encourages your hips to open up more than if you were in a similar position on your road bike. If you were to try the same position on a road bike, that has a less-steep seat tube angle, you might end up hitting your knees to your chest or pinching off the blood supply to your legs.

Counterpoint 4: Riding with other people, on road bikes, can help to improve bike handling skills. Playing the green sign game* is more fun when you are not alone, and a road bike is more suitable for such a game. Road bikes typically offer more get-up-and-go mobility, making it easier to start a dead-sprint than if you were on a TT bike. Road bikes are also more responsive in cornering and braking, making them a bit safer for the beginner than the TT bike.

So, when it comes to getting a TT bike or a road bike, it really depends on what you’re looking to do- what you are hoping to get out of the bike (and the sport).  Is there anything wrong with riding a road bike in an Ironman? Absolutely not. I got passed at IMoo by a dude on a road bike. Are you going to win the Tour de France with only a TT bike? Have fun on Alpe d’Huez with that one.

If you are a beginner and have rarely ridden a road bike before (or have only ever had limited amounts of rides on a friend’s bike), then it is in your best interest to start with a road bike. Not only will it help make you more comfortable on the roads, it will also be beneficial to have in the long run. Most elite triathletes will tell you that having only one bike is nonsense. Plus, having a road bike can encourage you to try more daring things that you might be more hesitant to try if you only had a TT bike (like, say, climb up and over a mountain pass!).

If you are looking to get a faster bike, you could upgrade to either a race-geometry road bike or a TT bike. If you don’t want to invest a lot of money in a brand-new setup, upgrade components. Move your saddle forward, add some clip-ons, get lighter/stiffer parts (crankset, deraillers). If you find that you are riding all the time in your clip-ons, then you might as well…

Go all in. Get a TT bike. Just don’t live up to the triathlete stereotype: work on your bike handling skills!

No matter who you are, though, you should:

  • Have your bike professionally fitted (not just “adjusted” by the shop you bought it from; really, technically, professionally fitted by a FIST certified professional).
  • Learn basic bike maintenance (like how to lube your chain, for example, or fix a flat)
  • Have fun!

from Pinkbike: something you really shouldn't do with a road or TT bike

*The green sign game is my least favorite cycling game, where the first person to see a green road sign springs ahead and then everyone else has to chase them; first person to pass the sign “wins”- what, exactly, i am not sure – and then you do it all over again the next time you see a green sign.

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5 thoughts on “Beginner Triathletes: How to pick the best bike for you

  1. hahah in Canada our signs are blue! so we have the blue sign game! I believe it’s pride and bragging rights that are on the line for the sign…all I know is that you learn where those precious signs are and just wait for the sneak attack!!!

  2. Yayy!! You totally helped me decide… and I hadn’t even thought about the different “fittings” at different LBS’. I’ll have to look into that!! Thank you so much 🙂

  3. Nice tips!
    I’ll add, before buying any bike (other than maybe a cruiser)- once you have chosen the type of bike; the absolute most important thing is to get a bike that fits you (don’t make yourself fit the bike). Not every brand and model can be made to fit everyone.
    A good fitter can do this, many shops have devices like a serrotta fitting “bike”, or you can take some measurements and plug in some numbers on sites like http://www.competitivecyclist.com ‘s fit calculator. For a road bike, the horizontal top tube length will the primary go/no go for most people (TT bikes, it’s starting to be listed as reach).

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