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Triathlon Bike vs Road Bike: Which Is Best For Triathlon?

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New triathletes might wonder which is better for them: a triathlon bike or a road bike.

When deciding on your first triathlon bike, it can be tempting to invest in a high-end, tri-specific model. But the truth is, any bike will do just fine for your inaugural race. Whether it’s a mountain bike or road bike, the important thing is that it’s in good working condition and fits you comfortably.

Triathlon Bike vs Road Bike: What's the difference?

Your first triathlon should be about enjoying the experience and learning the ins and outs of the race. Don’t put added pressure on yourself by splurging on a top-of-the-line bike that may not even be necessary at this point in your training.

It makes a lot of sense to not be ready to sink a lot of money into a sport you aren’t sure just yet is for you, and if you compete in your first few triathlon races on a mountain bike or in a rented wetsuit, I promise you won’t be the only one!

However, as you gain some experience and start to fall in love with triathlons, you may start to wonder if it’s time to make an investment, and where to even begin. You’ll be spending the most time during your race on your bike, so let’s start there.  

Triathlon Bike

Cervelo P5 Triathlon Bike

As the name suggests, a triathlon bike, or tri bike, is a bike that is designed to handle the unique challenges of competing in triathlons. Although early triathlons started in France back in the 1920s, they didn’t gain popularity until the 1970s, and the tri bike as we know it today followed a decade after that. 

Some people acknowledge Richard Byrne as the inventor of the triathlon bike. Byrne made a bike in the 1980s that had a steep seat tube angle for the first time, with the goal of creating a more aerodynamic model than a regular road bike. This bike was marginally popular amongst serious triathletes, but was virtually unknown outside the triathlon community.

In 1989, Dan Empfield created a slightly less steep model, which he was the first bike specifically for triathlon – the Quintana Roo Superform, leading to a more widespread availability of the modern tri bike.  

This custom bike was dubbed the first to be “built from the aerobars back,” with a steep seat angle designed to prevent leg fatigue during the run portion of the race. It quickly proved its worth – triathlete Ray Browning rode the Superform to break the overall course record at the 1989 Ironman New Zealand. 

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Triathlon may still be a niche market today, but thanks to these pioneering companies and products, athletes can now compete at their highest level without having to sacrifice any aspect of their performance.

The design has continued to be improved upon over the years, becoming lighter and more sophisticated, but ultimately retains the early riding position and geometry of the frame. 

Although there are a few differences between a road bike and a tri bike, the most obvious thing you’ll notice about a tri bike is the handlebars. A tri bike has a base bar, arm pads, and aero extensions. 

The shape of the tri bike is also different, putting the saddle forward over the pedals. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows the rider to be more tucked in, which creates a more aerodynamic position. Second, it is easier on the hamstrings, allowing for an easier run following the bike leg of the race.

Road Bike

Road Bike Cervelo

The road bike is the modern version of early bicycles, designed to be ridden at high speeds on smooth roadways. Unlike those early models, which were often made of wood, most road bikes today are made of aluminum or carbon, with titanium and steel being used in certain more niche models.

The lightness and versatility of a road bike often makes this a better choice for athletes who may want their bike to function not only for training and racing triathlons, but also in their day to day life, or for training and racing road races.

Although a tri bike is more aerodynamic, a road bike is still a force to be reckoned with on a triathlon course. With its higher handlebars, base bar, and seat that is set farther back, a road bike is better at accelerating, climbing steep hills, and maneuvering twisting turns. A road bike is also more stable overall, and is more efficient at braking, both of which are significant benefits to athletes who are newer to the sport.

Road Bike or Tri Bike: How Much Faster is a Triathlon Bike?

The advantages of a tri bike will depend a lot on what kind of course you might be racing. While a tri bike overall has aerodynamic and geometric perks that make them faster on a flat, straight course, a road bike can have a real edge on a course that is particularly hilly, twisty, or uneven. 

With all things being relatively equal, on average your speed during the cycling leg likely won’t be significantly different on a tri bike rather than a road bike. However, studies show that completing the bike leg on a tri bike can potentially save you nearly a minute on a 5km run.

Is a Triathlon Bike More Comfortable?

It can take quite a bit of time, practice, and patience to be comfortable on a tri bike. Over long distances, a road bike is definitely more comfortable as it allows you to stay upright and relaxed. Gaining the ability and confidence to be able to place the majority of your weight over the front wheel isn’t easy, and the jump from road bike to tri bike can be daunting.

Athletes new to a tri bike are prone to focusing on the ground in front of their front wheel. This is not only detrimental to a fast time, but can also be extremely dangerous for not only the rider, but fellow competitors. Actively working on looking forward is a key milestone in a successful shift from racing on a road bike to racing on a tri bike. Experienced bike coach Matt Bottrill recommends drills where you look forward for 20 seconds of every minute, and adamantly advises that this step not be neglected.

Triathlon Bike Vs Road Bike | Which Is Best For Triathlon?

You’ll also need to take it one step at a time. You can’t expect to adjust to a tri bike all in one shot. Once you’ve worked on your focus and are able to look comfortably and confidently at the road ahead, you may want to start to work on developing comfort with using your elbow pads in the aero position. This is a big change from what most road bike users are used to, and can take some time to become accustomed to. You’ll need to learn how to raise your shoulders in what’s called a shrug, which will help you increase strength and reduce drag. Dropping your chin down to maximize your head position will come next.

The more confidence you have in your bike handling, the faster you’ll ultimately be. Working on mastering corners, avoiding obstacles, and navigating unexpected challenges such as strong winds or uneven terrain without slowing down is a major part of learning how to transition to a tri bike.

How to Make Your Road Bike More Aero

If you’re not yet ready to take the leap to investing in a triathlon bike, there are some ways you can make your road bike more aero, by mimicking some of the features of a tri bike.

Repositioning your seat forward so that the knee of your forward leg is positioned directly over your shoe will help you save your legs for the run. Be careful to move the seat up a half centimeter for every centimeter you move forward. 

Lowering the front end of your road bike will also put your body into a more aerodynamic position. This can be done by removing the spacers between the stem and headset. The more you remove the more extreme the change will be, so it’s advisable to do it in gradual increments, to allow your body time to adjust.

If you’re ready to invest a little money into upgrading your road bike, you can look into clip-on aero bars, which will allow you to more fully tuck your body. Don’t rush out and add aerobars right before a race unless you have used them before. This will definitely take some getting used to, and you may find yourself feeling unstable or unsure without significant practice first. 

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From Which Point on Should You Consider Buying a Triathlon Bike?

Most athletes just starting to compete in triathlons will use a road bike for several years before starting to think about moving to a tri bike. After a number of races, triathletes often start out with modifying their road bike for better aero properties before finally taking the plunge and buying a tri bike.

There are a number of factors to consider when you start thinking about buying a tri bike. For triathletes who don’t plan to get more serious than competing in a few local races a year, sticking with a road bike may be the best bet. However, if your goal is to become highly competitive, or start training for full or half Ironman triathlons, a tri bike may be a wise investment. 

How Important is Your Gear Overall?

Don’t neglect the rest of the equipment available to help make your bike split the best it can be. Before making the leap to a tri bike, you may want to consider investing in triathlon bike shoes, padded triathlon shorts, clipless pedals, aero bottles, and most importantly, a good helmet.

If you feel like you’ve already done all you can and are ready to move forward with a tri bike, research carefully and consider renting or buying used to start to make sure you’ve found the best fit for you and avoid a very expensive regret!

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Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach. Since graduating college, Ryan has coached over sixty triathletes, runners, cyclists, and swimmers. He focuses on helping them select appropriate goals and guiding them towards achieving them.

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