One of the toughest questions I faced when getting into triathlon was whether I should purchase a traditional road bike or a tri (or time trial) bike. I have come up with a little guide to steer you in the best direction when it comes to this difficult question. Remember, no matter what, a good fitting at your Local Bike Shop will be necessary!
Questions to ask yourself:
Can you borrow either of the two?
YES – Borrow it. Whichever one. Try it out, see if you like it, and begin making your next move from there. If you can ride it for your first couple tris, even better. Now take what you have learned and make a purchase.
NO – Too bad, keep reading.
Will you be riding in group rides?
YES – Because of the constant braking and shifting needed in group rides, you’ll need to go with the road bike. Shifting on a tri bike out of aero position is a pain and you won’t want to be in aero while drafting. You can also put on aftermarket aero bars to get into a pretty decent aero position when riding alone or in a race.
NO – There’s no need to worry about braking out of aero position because you’ll be riding alone, so go with a tri bike.
In your training will you be with triathletes or cyclists?
TRIATHLETES – Go with a tri bike. You may be the only triathlete in the bunch without a tri bike, so you might as well fit in.
CYCLISTS – They will be riding road bikes, so you probably should also.
How athletic are you?
VERY – A very athletic person is going to have the flexibility (or be dedicated to work on it) to be comfortable in aero position and is going to want to compete in their age division at races. You are going to want a tri bike to have that competitive advantage.
MODERATELY – Although you many need to spend some extra time working on your mobility to be comfortable in aero position, I would still go with the tri bike. Being able to get into a good position to use a larger percentage on quads vs. hamstrings on the bike will save your legs for the run.
NOT VERY – Positioning is going to be uncomfortable to get into on a tri bike. Also, you are not going to be competitive enough at this point for the advantages to outweigh the comfort factor. You might want to get a road bike for the ease of the ride and the fact that you will ride more if it is more enjoyable, which it will be with a road bike.
Other things to consider:
Road bikes are more popular than tri bikes, therefore they are more abundant both new and used. You may get a much better deal on a road bike. I would rather get a great deal on a full carbon road bike with great components, then spend the same amount on a tri bike that will be needed to be upgraded in the near future. Check your LBS (local bike shop) for end of the year deals and the used market to see what’s out there.
You definitely have a better shot at getting a good deal on a road bike, but you also have a better shot at a road bike being able to be ridden around the block and taken for a ride. LBS’ often don’t carry tri bikes in stock. So, when purchasing your first bike, this might be tough as you will not be able to test out the exact bike you are purchasing. This becomes less of an issue on your 2nd bike as you will know much more of what you want. But, for your intro bike the sport, it is nice to ride around and see what you are getting yourself into.
Interest in Triathlon vs. Cycling
When I purchased my first bike, my main priority was finishing a 174 mile charity cycling event. Doing a triathlon was in the back of my mind, but wasn’t my primary concern when purchasing a bike. Fast forward to a few months after that ride, and I was in love with triathlon and regretting my decision getting a road vs tri bike. But, my initial intentions was not to be focused on triathlons, it just worked out that way. So, if you think you will be more into group rides, cruising the coast, and socializing with other cyclists – you need a road bike. But, if there is a chance that triathlon will dominate your mind – you need a tri bike.
You will be more aerodynamic on a tri bike, even if you put clip on aero bars on a road bike. You will also be in a better position to be quad dominant on the bike, leaving your hamstrings fresh for the run. If you can handle the aggressive position, a tri bike is going to be advantageous during a triathlon for those 2 reasons. In my opinion, even if you currently aren’t flexible enough to be comfortable in aero position for a long duration, you need to work on that.. There is no such thing as not flexible enough – work on it.
My first bike was a road bike. I purchased it to complete a long charity ride and then signed up for my first triathlon shortly after. When I realized I was much more interested in triathlons, I regretted getting a road bike. I felt out of place not having a tri bike at races and knew my positioning was not as good as it could be. Never the less, I road my first year of races on that road bike, including my first Ironman. After knowing I was in this sport for the long haul, I upgraded and purchased a tri bike. Now, I love having my old road bike for group rides and my tri bike for when I am solo. I absolutely love having both. Also, financially I would not have been able to purchase the tri bike I did at the time I purchased my road bike. If I had bought a tri bike back then, I would still be looking to upgrade. Therefore, I am happy that I was able to purchase a great road bike back then and save for a great tri bike now. I love having both!
Have any additional questions? I would love to help! E-mail me at AspireSportsLab@gmail.com
Sean Spire is the Head Coach of ASL. He was a competitive swimmer who discovered CrossFit and Ironman Triathlons. He has his BS in Exercise Science from Florida State University.