Road & Mountain Bikes Essential Upgrades For Triathlons: A Beginner’s Guide


The world of triathlon can be quite intimidating for the uninitiated, especially when you look at some of the gear that triathlon enthusiasts invest in. The tight-fitting Tri-Suits and the bikes that look like they have come from a sci-fi film set pervade the scenes at triathlon events.

The good news is that you certainly do not have to invest heavily before your first triathlon. In fact, you probably already have a bike that will get you through your first few events handsomely.

It is not uncommon to see beginners using road bikes or mountain bikes for their first triathlon. In fact, it is fully possible to complete a sprint, or even Olympic distance, triathlon on a fold-up bike. If you are just getting started in the sport then whatever bike you have in your garage will be enough for you to make a decision whether or not triathlon is a sport that you wish to dive deeper into.    

Mountain Bike Upgrades For Triathlon

Maybe you are crossing over from mountain biking to triathlon, or simply have a mountain bike at home and want to know how you can modify it to make it a little more effective during a triathlon.

The three biggest changes you can easily make are to replace your tires for slicks, lock your suspension and lower your handlebars.

Tires Check

Adding slick tires will make a huge difference due to the decrease in rolling resistance. While the chunky surface of a mountain bike tire is exactly what is needed to create the grip on off-road trails that stops you from sliding around, it is the opposite of what is needed when tackling a smooth asphalt triathlon course. Be sure to read the instructions when fitting your new slicks and pump them up to the maximum psi. The higher pressure will also decrease the rolling resistance.

Suspension Adjustment

Without the suspension on your mountain bike, you would probably shake your teeth loose on a trail, but on a smooth road, this suspension is your enemy. You want all the force that you put into the peddles to be transferred directly to the crank, but the suspension will dissipate a lot of this energy. A simple fix is to lock out your suspension or make it as still as possible.

Lower Handlebars

The biggest force to overcome during the bike leg of a triathlon is wind resistance. While this is not a consideration for mountain bikers, triathletes go to extraordinary lengths to be as aerodynamic as possible. The easiest way to make yourself more aero on your mountain bike is to lower the handlebars as much as possible in order to flatten out your upright riding position. You may want to go one step further and add a set of aero bars.

Can I Use A Road Bike For A Triathlon?

Not only can you use a road bike for a triathlon, but in some cases, they are preferable to a full triathlon bike. For example, the winner of the 2019 Nice 70.3 Ironman, Gustav Iden, did so on a road bike with clip-on aero bars! (source)

Many triathletes never invest in a triathlon-specific bike and find that a road bike offers more versatility as it can be used in draft-legal events too.

Road Bike Upgrades For Triathlon

Triathlon bikes have a specific geometry that puts the rider in a more aerodynamic position and allows the rider to remain in that position more comfortably for extended periods of time.

While you can simply take your road bike as it stands and complete a triathlon, there are some upgrades that you may want to consider in order to attempt to replicate a triathlon bike setup.

Clip-on Aerobars

Firstly add some clip-on aero bars to your bike. These will allow you to get into a more aerodynamic position, and also places the weight of your upper body onto your elbows. If you ride for long distances on the drops then you will notice that this can create pain and discomfort in your wrists, so aero bars are a double win.

Saddle Position

In addition to the bars, try altering your saddle position. While not an upgrade as such, moving your saddle forward will allow you to reach the aero bars more easily without feeling too stretched out.

Aero bottle

Why not add an aero bottle to your setup? They are not that expensive and will sit perfectly between your newly installed aero bars. While the bottle itself will not make much difference in terms of drag reduction, the point is that it allows you to hydrate without moving from your aero position and this is where the gains are made.  

Cleats

If you do not already have cleats then this is a great upgrade to look into. Research shows that there is little difference in the power you can deliver with clip-less pedals, however, they do allow you to engage more muscle groups because you can pull the pedal up with your clip-in shoes. This is a game-changer for triathlons because it means there is a more even distribution of loading during the ride, leaving you in a better position for the run.

Best Entry-Level Road Bike Features For Triathlon

If you are looking to get a new road bike and you know that there is a good chance you want to use it for triathlons too, then look closely at the specs. Some offerings will be targeted towards road bike purists who will favor a light bike for technical courses. Others may have more triathlon-friendly features.

Make sure to check out our recommended road Bikes on our list of Best Triathlon Battle-Tested Budget Gear

Deep section wheels would be something to look out for as they create a lot less drag. It has been shown that a 95mm-deep rim can save up to 35 watts against a box rim over a 40km time trial (source).

This becomes increasingly important on triathlon courses which are typically much straighter and have fewer climbs than road bike races, so that reduction in drag becomes more significant.s

When it comes to weight, don’t be too concerned about getting something a little heavier. Triathlon bikes are, on average, heavier than road bikes because the focus is on aerodynamics rather than weight. Instead, look for something with an aero frame.

There are entry-level aluminum aero-frame road bikes out there that will not break the bank. Given that aerodynamics start to play an important role as soon as you get about 21kph (source), this is something that even a beginner rider will benefit from.

The groupset that you go for will be much the same as if you were buying the bike purely as a road bike, so an 11 or 12-speed will serve you fine. 

Does A Triathlon Bike Make A Difference?

With all things being equal, a triathlon bike will be faster than a road bike over a standard triathlon course. The reason for this is that triathlon bikes are built to go fast in a straight line, whereas road bikes are built to be able to climb hills and manage technical sections with aerodynamics placed as a secondary objective.

In wind tunnel tests TT bikes have been shown to be consistently faster than road bikes, but not by a huge amount. In one study, the triathlon-specific bike gave a power saving of 21 watts vs a road bike with clip-on aero bars (source).

This equates to just 55 seconds over a 40km race.

While this will be the difference between winning and losing for the professionals, for a beginner triathlete one would have to question the value in time saved against the cost of a triathlon bike.

Read more about the decision to invest in a triathlon bike in our article Triathlon Bikes: An Entry Level Buyer Guide.

You can also check our recommended Tri Bike in our list of Best Triathlon Battle-Tested Budget Gear

Final Thoughts

If you want to try out triathlon as a sport and are worried that you can’t because you do not have a triathlon bike, then fear not. You can turn up to an event with whatever equipment you have and you will be cheered around the course with just as much enthusiasm as every other competitor, and you will cross the finish line with that same feeling of having achieved what you initially thought was unobtainable.

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