“What bike is best for triathlon, a road bike or a time-trial / triathlon bike?” Any cyclist or triathlete who has been at it a long time has fully engaged in this debate numerous times. The answer: “It depends.”
What is the bike going to be primarily used for? If you’re a seasoned cyclist, already own a quality road bike and are looking for a triathlon specific bike then a tri-bike may be worth considering.
If you’re relatively new to cycling and triathlon, or this is the only bike you own, a road bike is definitely the best way to go. Here’s three big advantages a road bike has over a triathlon or time trial bike:
- More riding positions: You can ride in the drop-bars, on the brake hoods, on the top of the bar, or in aero with clip-on aero bars and have easy access to your brakes and your gears. All told, a road bike is more comfortable.
- More maneuverable: A racing-level road bike is designed to ride on rails; they turn much better and typically ride better on fast descents than triathlon bikes. Most cycling events, even casual tour events, will not allow you to ride a tribike at their event.
- Versatility: A road bike is a better choice for crowded group rides, hilly triathlon courses with lots of turns, and they are good for commuting too.
Before I go any further, it’s worth exploring a brief history of the time trial bike.
The need for speed hit a crescendo in the 1980s as bike manufacturers entered a space race to create a faster bicycle. Bike makers left no rock unturned in their effort to go faster. They experimented with construction materials, tube shapes and geometry. This era brought us disc wheels — and a lot of disc wheel (doh!) moments.
Enter Greg Lemond. He won the 1989 Tour de France on what would now be considered a Franken-Bike. The bike featured a smaller 650cc front wheel and Boone Lennon-designed aerobars. In addition to winning WTFWT style points, he also eeked out one of the closest Tour finishes of the modern era.
Lemond’s winning ride sent the aero race into overdrive. Tons of variations of aero wheels, bars, and helmets soon hit the market. Today, there are hundreds of models of time trial bikes. Today, the advancements in time trial bikes are too long to list. To get the most benefit of ANY time trial or triathlon bike you need to be able to do two things:
- Maintain a constant aero riding position – Not something every triathlete can do especially on a long course race
- Be traveling at a speed where aero gains are maximized – an aero position either on a road or tri bike is valuable only if you are riding faster than 12 miles per hour
Based on the above, if you are riding a hilly course with lots of turns, then a road bike will have an advantage. Tri bikes love straight and flat (even rolling) courses.
The Aero Road Bike: Best of both worlds
In the past 2-3 years bike makers have built more aero shapes into their road bikes. Bikes like the Cervelo P5, the Litespeed Archon, and the Specialized Venge borrow much of their frame shape from time trial bikes while keeping a more traditional road bike geometry. Without getting too technical, the end result is a bike that cuts like a hot knife through butter, but can still turn on a dime and tackle hills more readily than a time trial bike. I was not a believer until I rode one, but the difference was apparent on the very first ride. Clip on some aerobars and presto, you are ready to race.
Regardless of what type of bike you choose, you should have it professionally fit to get maximize your power output, positioning in all of the riding positions and comfort. A poorly fit bike is a slower, more uncomfortable ride than a properly fit one.