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Triathlon race – tri bike or road bike?

When it comes to triathlon racing, which is the best option for you, a triathlon bike or a traditional road bike?

Cycling has definitely evolved in the last 2 decades, with electronic shifting on road bikes to accessible lower cost power meters, to wind cheating bicycles out there. In the sport of triathlon the norm is most of the times to use a triathlon bike for race-day. New athletes entering the sport of triathlon often present this question to me, do I need a tri-bike to race my first  triathlon? Will I be faster if I use a triathlon bike or shall I stick to using my road bike? Well in short, it depends.

There are a few basic differences when comparing a tri bike to road bikes (the latter been the main competitor to a tri- bike selection). A first look at tri-bikes shows that the angles of frame geometry are different when compared to a traditional road racing bike. The steeper angles put the athlete in a position that is more aerodynamic (and more aggressive) hence creating less drag when moving fwd. The body of the athlete is placed in a less upright, more downward position bending from the hips, and the aero or Triathlon bars attached, giving  the athlete a different profile with quite different body mechanics while been asked to produce work. Usually saddles of tri-bikes are thicker in front, and they allow or promote a different seating pattern Vs a traditional road bike saddle.

The key question to answer has a few parameters to consider when making a decision. One of the most important factors for most of us, is budget when selecting gear. If no budget restraints are obvious having a traditional road bike for daily training, and a race-day ready tri-bike set up is the best option. Wind tunnels have proven that there is less drag in the aero position, but also results have proven that you might not be able to push hard similar W when changing to this lower position. Both these bikes need to be fitted though on the athlete with a detailed bike-fitting procedure, done by a certified professional. Without the proper fitting performed though, the fast and expensive machine you own will not be operating in a harmonious manner with your efforts. Bike fitting is one of the most important aspects for optimizing cycling performance, followed by thoughtful delivery of intensity in the sessions to follow. The aim for many with a tri bike or a road bike converted to a tri configuration is to get low, get down, and reduce the profile presented against the wind. There is a compromise for many though as they get to this position to loose primarily comfort and consequently their power output, under-performing during the ride. So there is a smaller mass presented against the wind, consequently less drag, but the athlete cannot push down hard on the pedals in this newly adopted position just  like that. For some stiffer athletes this can produce unnecessary stiffness and make muscles fatigue quicker in this awkward position.

Spending enough time preparing on the road bike or the Tri – bike well before race, has been proven to  be the most effective work in advance to tackle the race course. This is obvious right? Well for some athletes who regularly use a road bike for their training, an opportunity pops-up through a “friend” who can lend them a faster, super-bike which seems to be an attractive option. But this is a big mistake, as major equipment changes close before race day can produce disastrous results. Trying to make major conversions to configure a road bike to a tri set-up to assume the aero position can help many but not all athletes, because not all react positively to this change.

Most triathletes are on a budget so they might try to convert their current training road bike to a tri set-up with the aim to “cheat the wind”. Those who manage to do so and try over and over again this new set-up will collect time splits about the same course, different day, different setup, with minor adjustments to stem, bars and saddle. If the new set-up does not produce significant improvements then it is obvious that the new set-up is sub-optimum to race with. Just because the new set-up looks cool it does not mean it is faster.  If the next triathlon has a  hilly course profile then using your tri bike requires a lot more skill and ability to climb with the “cowhorns”, and training will  show if you are a good climber. If you fail to climb comfortably on your tri bike during training rides, and the race course has plenty of hills then you might want to reconsider racing with your a tri-bike. The hillier and more technical the course, the less likely a tri- bike will give you that advantage. So do your research and weight the options.

Cycling long distance for performance, is about comfort and ability to deliver force repetitively, and if this has disturbances slower split times are produced and the energy left to complete the next and last leg of the triathlon is jeopardized.

Final word of advice to triathletes contemplating which bike, or which bike configuration to use: Spend time riding your fast machine with the race set-up and try to become one during high intensity efforts. If this produces zero doubts about comfort, and repeated tests on same course yields better results then you have the answer.


*Kypros Nicolaou is an Exercise Physiologist, graduate of the University of Alabama, an ACSM certified Health & Fitness Instructor, holds an ITU  Level II Certification as a Triathlon Coach, and is a multiple Ironman & Half Ironman Triathlon finisher. He is coaching Triathletes online, teaches Functional Training at Ryltoday, and performs Exercise Physiology assessments at the Cyprus Sports & Research Center.    info@ryltoday.com

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