One of the first big decisions, and arguably the biggest investment, a newcomer to triathlon will be faced with is “What kind of bike should I use?”
This is a bit of a loaded question and highly situational, so let’s dissect the options a little bit and hopefully give you a better idea of what you should be considering. First and foremost, regardless of the type of bike you use, the most important aspect of buying/riding a bike is getting the proper size bike frame and being fit to it properly. If you go running in shoes that are 3 sizes too big or small you will at the very least be uncomfortable, and at worst, probably hurt yourself. So if you don’t know what fits you yet make sure you talk to an educated bike salesman in regards to proper sizing and fit.
There are so many options when considering what to ride in a triathlon bike! All of the road bike and tri bike hype is not to discourage any other types of bikes you want to ride, so let’s start with what you probably have already in your garage or basement right now! There will certainly be a few mountain bikes and hybrid bikes at any given triathlon and they are allowed. Mountain bikes are usually the most comfortable ride. They have more gears to make pedaling easier and they have shock absorbers that bounce right over bumps. The positioning of the rider on a mountain bike is also more upright. The same goes for hybrid and commuter bikes. All of this makes for a more comfortable ride but will come at the cost of speed.
If you are riding any of these bikes, a lot of the work you put into the pedals will be absorbed by the thicker width of the tires and the inherent heavier design. But, if you like riding on these bikes better, ride on! and have fun doing it!
The Road Bike
A road bike is probably the most common bike you will find at any given triathlon. A traditional road bike offers a more comfortable ride, a lot of versatility, and is relatively light. It also lets the rider shift gears and brake easily and without changing position at all.
A few things change when comparing a road bike to a triathlon bike. Without going into a lot of detail, the frame is built so that the rider is positioned more aerodynamically. This means less wind resistance and, if all else remains the same, less wind resistance means faster.
The first thing you can do to a road bike to make your position more aerodynamic is get a pair of clip on aerobars. This will probably be you biggest bang for your buck when it comes to speed.
If you are in the road bike realm and looking for versatility in the tri-world. Check out Red Shift Sports at https://www.redshiftsports.com/ . They can hook you up with products that can easily change your position on the road bike to resemble a more triathlon/aerodynamic fit. Their dual position seatposts will adjust forward/back to your riding preference. Their switch aero system will also offer a lot of versatility in your riding position.
The “Faster” of the triathlon bikes come with a price though - in more ways than one. Triathlon bikes tend to be less comfortable to the rider because of the positioning. The saddle and aerobars on a triathlon bike will put the rider in a more “forward” position with the rider's shoulders lower than they would be on a road bike. The aerobars on a tri-bike often offer the rider a means to shift gears but the brakes are located on the outside. This means that the rider has to change positions to brake or slow down which can take practice.
Be aware; There seems to be no upper limit one can spend on triathlon bikes either. An entry level tri bike will still be a couple thousand dollars - it will come with decent components (derailleurs/pulleys/shifters) and a “tri-bar set up.
The cost in tri bikes goes up as the material gets lighter and design gets more intricate. Carbon fiber bikes are a lot lighter than aluminum and just as sturdy. These mid-level tri bikes will usually come with better components as well. A lot of bike manufactures will offer the same bike frame with the option of how high-end you want to go with the bike parts.
The high end tri bikes will hover around $10,000.00 and will offer components like electronic shifting gears and built-in-frame hydration systems. A worthwhile investment before dropping money on such a high end bike is an aerodynamic wheelset. The tri built wheels will get you cutting through the air with a lot less effort and the rolling resistance of the tires/bearings will cut those last seconds off your bike ride.
A Note on Drafting...
Most bike legs in triathlons are designed to be individual “time trial” efforts and do not allow you to ride closely behind other cyclists. This is also referred to as “drafting” and if you have ever ridden closely behind another cyclist, you know how much easier it is to keep up while you are in their draft. The reason for this is that there is less wind resistance for the cyclist in the back because the front cyclist is absorbing it all.
Wind resistance is only one part of the speed equation while riding a bike. The other things that you should consider when thinking about a bike are mainly weight and comfort level while riding.