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How to Prepare for the Triathlon Bike: The Best Bike Upgrades Triathletes Need to Make

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ How to Prepare for the Triathlon Bike: The Best Bike Upgrades Triathletes Need to Make

Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

Bike purchases are equal parts fun and stressful. The things triathletes can buy for their bikes are endless. Unlike swimming and running where it’s difficult to “buy speed,” it’s a heck of a lot easier on the bike. A hundred dollars here for some carbon shoe inserts to push a few more watts of power, $300 there for an ultra-skin tight aero race suit for another watt or two and before you know it, you’ve dropped $1000 for a handful of minutes saved on the bike. Worth it? That depends.

You don’t need to spend $15,000 on every last piece of gear to make your bike as fast as possible. Of course, you can purchase speed and if you have the money to do so, go for it! There’s nothing that quite meets the excitement of #newbikeday!

In this article, you’ll learn: 

  • The order of bike upgrades from the best bang for your buck to the worst;
  • The approximate cost of each upgrade; and
  • The benefit you’ll get from the upgrade.  

The truth of the matter is that whatever bike you’ve got is good enough! Given your particular budget and commitment level to triathlon, let’s get rolling on optimizing your bike for speed.

The best bike upgrades for triathlon

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Get a helmet! A helmet is your most important piece of bike gear and should be your very first purchase. Take care of your brain! Now, with that public service announcement out of the way, let’s continue.

ANY BIKE YOU CAN FIND $0 – $1,000

When you’re just getting into triathlon, you can use whatever bike you have access to. That can be a commuter bike, mountain bike, cruiser bike, road bike, or a junker you pick up at the local department store for a few hundred dollars.

You don’t need to buy a dedicated triathlon bike until you know you’re going to be committed to the sport for a long time. Tri bikes are very specific bikes that aren’t versatile, and not many people ride them, so they’re hard to resell. So, don’t buy a triathlon bike unless you’re committed to triathlon for the long haul.

AEROBARS

Next, even if you’re using a budget-friendly bike, you’ll benefit from adding clip-on aerobars. Achieving an aerodynamic position is critical because approximately 80-85% of the total drag you have to push through is caused by your body, not your bike. A pair of clip-on aerobars will make you smaller on the bike, and you’ll fight the wind much less.

My recommendation is to find a set of clip-on aerobars that have a bend upward. This allows your arms, hands, and wrists to sit in a natural and comfortable position. When you’re reaching too far forward or downward or position your wrists at an unnatural angle, it adds to the fatigue your body experiences throughout training and racing.

When you first get a set of aerobars, even if you’ve been professionally fit on your bike, don’t expect it to feel good. The triathlon aero position is unnatural and extreme, so it will take time to get used to. Start by holding the aero position just one or two minutes at a time, then gradually build up. As long as your bike position is good, you’ll be as comfortable in the aero position as you are in the regular riding position within a few months. 

ROAD BIKE

I recommend buying a road bike before a triathlon bike for a few reasons:

  • A road bike is easier to handle than a tri bike, and you’ll develop better bike handling skills as a result. That means you’ll be able to steer your bike straighter, whether it’s a road bike or your eventual tri bike, essentially shortening your race course.
  • You can ride in a group or do a triathlon on a road bike, but you can’t ride in a group safely on a tri bike. Triathlon bikes don’t handle as well as road bikes, and if someone riding in a group drops into their aerobars, it’s a big danger to the other riders.
  • Road bikes are easier to resell than tri bikes, and despite what you think right now, you’ll positively, without question, move on from the first bike you buy at some point. So, you’ll want to be able to resell the bike easily (more on this right away). 

Don’t believe me? Professional cycling coach and bike fit guru Matt Bottrill agrees and even shares two situations where a road bike becomes faster than a tri bike. You can read all about that here

Most people who purchase their first road bike have a budget of $1,000-$2,500. I believe that it’s best to buy a used bike at this price point, so someone else pays the depreciation. Look for a bike with Shimano Ultegra, Dura Ace, or SRAM Red components (also known as groupsets or groupo). Look for 11-speed instead of 10, or, heaven forbid, 9-speed. It’s the standard as of 2019 and for the foreseeable future.

CLIP-IN PEDALS AND SHOES $200 – $300

Clip-in pedals are one of the first things a new cyclist or triathlete should consider getting for two main reasons:

  • An upgrade to clip-in pedals is a priority because of safety.
  • Clip-in pedals result in a more efficient pedaling stroke than flat pedals.

Of course, you’re likely going to fall the first time you wear clip-in pedals on a ride. Don’t worry; it’s a rite of passage. Once you get the hang of using clip-in pedals, they’re much safer as you’re better connected to your bike.

BIKE FIT $200 – $300

As I mentioned earlier, roughly 80-85% of the total drag triathletes need to overcome is from the body, not the bike. A proper bike fit makes you more aerodynamic and comfortable in that aerodynamic position. 

Getting a set of clip-on aerobars won’t help you much if they’re positioned in a way that creates so much discomfort that you can’t stay in the aero position. Getting comfortable in this position takes time, but a bike fit customized for your flexibility, back mobility, age, and race distance prevents discomfort, enables quicker adjustment to the aero position, and transfers more power into the pedals.

A good bike fit can achieve an improved position on all bikes: road and triathlon. Maybe it’s a better hip angle. Perhaps it’s a better saddle position, a cleat angle that works better for your knees, or a set of insoles that let your legs track in a straighter line. 

It’s not just beneficial for the bike, either. A proper bike fit will save you potentially 1-3 kilometers per hour on the bike, and maybe even more time on the run because your body won’t be fatigued and out of balance like it would be after riding in an uncomfortable position.

FITTED TRI SUIT $100 – $500

Continuing with the theme of reducing that 80-85% of the total drag generated from our body (not the bike), we need to make the body as slippery as possible.

You don’t have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a super-fancy, high-end custom tri suit like pros wear, but you should purchase gear that is comfortable and fits well, so there’s no loose fabric, and so that you don’t chafe.

I recommend a pair of tight-fitting tri shorts and a tight-fitting cycling top. This will get you through both training and racing, reducing the amount of money spent right out of the gate.

The main difference between cycling shorts and tri shorts is that tri shorts have a smaller chamois, so you don’t have a soggy diaper when you finish the swim, but they’re still comfortable enough to be used during training rides (whereas cycling shorts can’t be used for both training rides and triathlons because of the diaper butt).

When choosing between long-sleeved and sleeveless tri suits, the decision comes down to your preference. Sleeveless tri suits are more comfortable, but sleeved tri suits keep some of the sun off your skin, and the fabric is more aerodynamic than skin. If you want the most aero suit possible, you want a sleeved tri suit.

BONUS PURCHASES

Once you’ve got the basic bike setup in place from the list above, you can start considering some of these upgraded purchases that will give a good return on your money.

AERO HELMET $150 – $350

An aero helmet is likely the best dollar-for-speed purchase you can make. The speed advantage of an aero helmet over a traditional road cycling helmet is roughly 1 km per hour, but that comes with a big caveat. An aero helmet only provides this big advantage when you stay in the aero position without shifting your head around. Traditional aero helmets have a long tail behind your head that creates drag when you turn your head. Turn your head a lot (most triathletes do), and the long tail aero helmet could be a disadvantage.

My recommendation for the first “aero helmet” triathletes purchase is a combination aero-road helmet that is more aerodynamic than a traditional road helmet but more user-friendly and forgiving than a long tail aero helmet. 

CLEAN UP BIKE BUILD $100 – $300

This is an overlooked aspect of bike speed that is significant. Triathletes often spend thousands of dollars on a bike that’s super aerodynamic and has all the wind tunnel data to prove it. Then, they mindlessly slap water bottles, saddlebags, bento boxes and gels to the frame, eliminating much of the aerodynamic gains that bike manufacturers have made over the past two decades.

Spend a little bit of money to clean up your bike with some of the following ideas:

  • Zip tie cables together while still allowing them to function.
  • Take your bottles off the frame and get a bottle cage that goes horizontal between your arms on the aerobars or at a 45-degree angle behind your saddle.
  • Purchase an aero bento box to carry your nutrition.
  • Remove all unnecessary parts (reflectors, stickers, etc.)

These small purchases can add up to as much as another 1⁄2 – 1 km per hour, depending on your starting point.

AERO WHEELS $1,000 – $4,000

A set of deep-section wheels will add roughly 1 km per hour to your bike speed at the same effort, but they’re much more expensive than the other upgrades listed already. Wheel upgrades also bring about some serious considerations. 

All other things being equal, the best combination of wheels is a disc wheel on the rear and an 80mm or deeper wheel on the front. If you weigh more than 160 pounds (72 kgs), are a good bike handler (can ride easily on a painted line in the road without swerving back and forth), and bike close to or faster than 35 km/h, this is the combination for you.

If, however, you weigh less than 160 pounds, the disc wheel and deep section wheel in the front might cause you to get blown around and actually be slower with these deep wheels. If you’re riding slower than 35 km/h, the disc wheel won’t offer much more benefit than a 60mm wheel.  

TRI BIKE $2,000 – $15,000

Notice how I still haven’t mentioned getting a triathlon bike? That’s because a tri bike will perform better in a race than a road bike, but the choice between racing on a road bike versus a tri bike isn’t as simple as “A tri bike is faster; therefore, buy a tri bike.”

The benefits of a triathlon bike over a road bike to do triathlon are:

  • Tri bikes are typically more adjustable, so you can customize the bike’s fit better, be more comfortable, and stay in the aero position longer. 
  • The saddle of a tri bike is moved forward, so it’s more directly over top of the pedals. This opens up your hip angle, thus working the quads and glutes more evenly so that you can run better when you get off the bike.
  • Tri bikes are often designed with integrated flat packs or nutrition storage areas.

That said, a tri bike is a very specific bike that you won’t be able to safely ride in a group. I recommend people buy a tri bike only once they know for certain they’re going to continue doing triathlons for years to come. 

Final Considerations on Bike Upgrades 

If you’re still in the first couple of years of triathlon and dancing on the fence between continuing with triathlons or not, but you enjoy buying all the gear we’ve listed above, just ask your local bike shop to only recommend upgrades that you can easily move from your road bike to the tri bike.

If you pick away at smaller upgrades early on and ensure those upgrades can be transferred to a tri bike, when you finally get that tri bike, you’ll have a complete setup that’s about as aero as possible.

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Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.