Choosing the right bike for a triathlon can be a challenge. When you’re first diving into the sport, it’s okay to use whatever bike you have access to just to get a feel for what to expect. After all, it doesn’t make sense to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars into a sport you may not be interested in beyond a single race.
If you fall in love with the challenge of triathlon and want to continue to make progress, you’ll probably start looking at upgrading your bike: this is where you’ll enter the world of triathlon and time trial bikes. These futuristic-looking bikes look similar to road bikes but with seemingly strange components which can be intimidating for a new rider. There are a lot of questions to consider, so we’ll explore some of them here.
To start, are triathlon bikes good for long-distance? Triathlon bikes can be a great choice for long-distance rides. In fact, they are typically designed with this exact goal in mind and have been created specifically for the sport of triathlon and to provide the optimal advantage of riding alone for long triathlon distances such as the ironman triathlon which hosts a 180 km (112 miles) bike ride.
Choosing the right bike ultimately comes down to personal preference. There are a lot of factors to consider including cost, riding / race-style, and comfort. You may find you prefer to have multiple bikes that can work in a variety of race scenarios. Or you may be happiest customizing a single bike to handle anything you throw at it. Basically, it’s choosing between specialized or generalized. You can always customize the components through trial and error as you continue to gain experience in the sport.
Let’s dive into some other questions that might pop up as you consider whether or not a triathlon bike is right for you.
Can You Ride a Triathlon Bike in A Road Race?
Most road races will NOT allow triathlon bikes (also called tri bikes) or TT bikes mainly due to the safety risk they may impose on the riders for a variety of reasons, the primary one being their nature of lower stability which makes them unsuitable for group rides. Another thing to consider is whether or not the racecourse itself is suitable for using a triathlon bike. If one is racing at a small local race, then they are likely to be on roads that aren’t exactly bike-friendly. Whatever discomfort one would feel on a road bike would be exacerbated on a Tri bike.
But what exactly makes triathlon bikes and TT bikes bad for road races? The main issue is a lack of control and maneuverability. While this is slightly less of an issue on most triathlon bikes, time trial bikes are only meant to be used in very specific, controlled environments. On both bikes, you’d likely be using aero (or “tri”) bars, which further limits your control. The aerodynamics offered on these types of bikes results in less control overall while riding. What you gain in speed, you may lose in overall comfort and a feeling of steadiness.
In addition to losing some control, TT bikes in particular are not suitable for long rides from a comfort perspective. You’re forced into a very aggressive position regardless of where one has to put his hands on the bars, whereas a road bike offers a bit more flexibility with your positioning. Because of this position, you also have decreased visibility. If you’re on the aero bars, your line of sight is very limited. You’re also going to feel every minor bump you hit, which leads to an increasingly uncomfortable ride. (Source.)
TT bikes and triathlon bikes are specifically designed to meet the needs of athletes in their respective sport. For tri bikes, the steep angle of the head tube pushes the hips into a more forward position, which helps save a rider’s hamstrings by forcing the quadriceps to be the primary force for power. This means slightly less fatigued legs going into the run portion of the race (Source).
It’s always best to go with the bike that fits the needs of your sport.
If you use the bikes for their intended purposes, you’ll get the best results. This doesn’t mean you can’t make it work with other bikes (if they’re allowed), but it’s likely to be much less effective.
Pros of Using a Triathlon Bike
Tri bikes come in all kinds of unique and different designs, but the primary goal is to create the most aerodynamic and efficient setup possible while still providing at least some level of comfort. Triathlon bikes will generally have a wide, flat frame that creates less wind resistance. The wheels will also be notably different than a road bike as they can have a deep rim profile or even full-out disc wheels. This makes them significantly more aerodynamic which translates to greater speed.
They also often include aero bars which allow the rider to drop down into a tucked, aerodynamic position. These are the bars that stick straight out from the headtube area of the bike and have a padded elbow space. This can be a challenging position to maintain, so you should be sure to train while in this position if you’re going to utilize aero bars (whether they come with the bike or you add them on).
Finally, tri bikes often have space on the bike to store nutrition during the ride. Sometimes this is built right into the frame (again, to increase aerodynamics). If your bike doesn’t have this, though, don’t fret. You can get nutrition storage that takes up a small space on your bike and won’t significantly affect your efficiency. There are even ways to get creative, like using electrical tape to secure energy gels to your frame. At the end of the day, the best bike and nutrition system is the one that works for you without too much hassle or cost.
Which Bike Is Best for Long Distance Rides ?
Triathlon bikes are meant to be comfortable for any triathlon distance, meaning anywhere from 12 to 112 miles. While it is generally agreed that a road bike provides more comfort and control, it is equally accepted that the tri-bike aerodynamics efficiency allows for a higher speed. In conclusion, it is a tradeoff between comfort, control, and speed, however, there may not be a significant difference between a triathlon bike and a road bike which is set up with aerodynamic components.
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If you already have a good road bike (or if you don’t want to store and maintain multiple bikes), this could be a great option for you. That way you can have one bike to take with you on multiple kinds of races and training styles and you can customize your bike to fit your needs. (Source)
A lot of athletes will choose to put their triathlon bike on an indoor trainer during their training season and only take it out for a few rides before the race day. That way it can be kept in excellent condition and not put too much wear on the components. This also means that second-hand triathlon bikes are typically a great deal, especially if they’ve been maintained in this way.
Is It Hard to Ride a Triathlon Bike?
Riding a triathlon bike is different from what you may be used to with a standard road bike. You may find yourself relying slightly more on your quads than your hamstrings while riding the bike, which can lead to a different kind of fatigue on the run. They are also usually less stable than a road bike, especially if you have disc wheels or rims. If you end up on a course during a windy day, you may notice a wind gust more than you would if you were on standard wheels.
If you are using aero bars, you will also likely face a challenge with your line of sight. Trying to keep your head up while in the tucked position not only defeats the purpose of the aerodynamics, it can also cause some neck strain.
You may also notice that your center of gravity feels a little different. That’s because your weight is closer to the front of the wheel while your arms and elbows are in a more narrow position, especially on those aero bars (Source).
This can cause a feeling of instability, but as with anything, your bike handling skills will improve the more you practice.
Can You Train on A TT Bike?
One can train on a TT (short for “time trial”) bike, but it’s probably best left on the trainer or used only in very specific types of races. In fact, some races will not allow time trial bikes to be used in triathlons.
Time trial bikes are singular in their focus: be as fast as possible on the simplest course possible (Source).
They thrive in highly controlled conditions like flat, straight roads or ideally indoors. These bikes aren’t meant to be taken on a casual cruise around town and aren’t meant to be ridden for more than an hour or so, due to how uncomfortable the position is.
A time trial bike is probably a bit excessive for the average triathlete or cyclist and is likely best left to the pros. They are also not worth getting if you plan on primarily focusing on longer-distance triathlon races or any races that aren’t specifically designed for them.