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Triathlon Bike Gear Essentials

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ Triathlon Bike Gear Essentials

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.

You’ve been working hard training for your first triathlon and are looking at how you can optimize your bike gear without breaking the bank. Or you might just have started looking at triathlon bike training and considering what you need to buy now, or later. Either way, we have a triathlon bike gear essential guide, where you can find out what are the required purchases, what’s a bonus and what is really a luxury item.

Bike and bike related purchases can be equally fun and stressful. Yes, you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a tri bike or on bike gear, but you don’t have to! In order to perform well in a triathlon, if you’re following a good triathlon bike training plan and you upgrade your bike a little, or buy a few well considered items, you’ll nail it without breaking the bank.

In this article, we’ll cover the must-haves, the nice-to-haves and the downright luxuries of bike gear:

  • Basic purchases: the bike and its key upgrades such as aero bars, clip-in pedals and bike shoes, a bike fit and a fitted tri suit;
  • Bonus purchases: aero helmets and cleaning up your bike;
  • Next-level items you could buy eventually: heart rate monitors, power meters, tri bikes… and so much more.

Essential Bike Gear for Your First Triathlon

While you cannot really buy anything that will make you significantly faster in the water or on the run, you can “buy speed” on the bike. You can save watts with carefully considered upgrades like a new aero helmet or super slick fitted tri suit. However, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get the essential bike gear that will see you through your first triathlon.

In fact, you can start off on a Walmart bike, an old mountain bike, or even a hand-me-down from a friend or family member. As long as you’re comfortable and handling that bike well, you can ride it, train on it, and make some significant training progress without spending too much money. The same goes for your bike helmet (safety first!) and your outfit when you’re first starting your triathlon bike training. 

However, if you’re in the market for some new bike gear, your essential first purchases are:

  • Bike;
  • Upgrades to the bike: aero/tri bars, clip-in pedals, bike shoes, a bike fit;
  • A fitted tri suit.

The Bike $0-$1,000

Don’t be fooled by all the people who suggest you need to buy a triathlon bike right away. Yes, tri bikes have their advantages, but they can also make you slower if you’re not 100% comfortable on one or depending on the course you’re riding.

Instead, like I said, you can simply train and race on whichever bike you have handy. There are great differences between a mountain bike or general city bike and a road bike, so it’s worth looking into swapping an old bike for a new road bike if you can. 

I recommend buying a road bike before a tri bike for a few reasons. Firstly, a road bike is easier to handle and will help you develop better bike handling skills. These will come in very useful on more technical routes with lots of twists and turns, and will generally make you a better, safer and faster rider. Ultimately, you’ll learn to steer your bike straighter, which will make you faster by essentially shortening your bike race course.

Additionally, if you want to do some social rides, a road bike is safe (because the shifters and brakes are at your fingertips), while a tri bike is not. Triathlon bikes are also much “twitchier” and harder to handle, so in group rides, you’ll always be better off on a road bike. 

Finally, if you think of the longer term, road bikes are also easier to resell than triathlon bikes. So, when you eventually want to move on to your next bike, it will be much easier to make some money from that, too.

How to buy a road bike for your first triathlon

Most people purchasing their first road bike have a budget of around $1,000-$2,500. If you’re looking for a brand new bike, this is not great news. Most new bikes in this price category will be entry-level, most will have Shimano 105 components that are heavier to ride with, and these bikes will be harder to re-sell. 

However, if you opt for a second-hand bike, you could get one that would normally retail for as much as $5,000 for under $2,500! Let someone else pay for the depreciation and look for a used bike with Shimano Ultegra, Dura Ace, or SRAM Red components. These are all a step up from entry level.

Next, look for 11-speed and, if you can, go for disc brakes. Finally, make sure that the chain and cassette (the gears on the back wheel) look shiny and not black. A totally black chain is dirty and suggests that the seller hasn’t been maintaining their bike well if they’re not even cleaning it when it’s for sale!

Of course, if you have the budget to go beyond an entry-level bike, then head on to a good bike shop and listen to their advice. I strongly advise developing a good relationship with your local bike shop: they’ll help you with good tips and, if you buy your bike from them, you can always count on them to sort out any issues. 

Bike Upgrades

Once you have a road bike, there are a few low-cost upgrades you can make to gain some speed and reduce drag.

Aero bars $150-$300

These are the single most useful thing to add to your bike for a small price and will help you gain lots of speed during your triathlon. Getting aerodynamic is so important because, ultimately, your body is what’s causing most of the drag when you’re riding (up to 80-85%!).

Thanks to aero bars, your front area will become smaller and you’ll fight the wind much less. However, make sure you get them early on in your training and you practice on them so you get used to the modified body position. In fact, expect not to feel comfortable when you’ve first got a pair of aero bars on your bike! Start off by riding in the aero position 1-2 minutes at a time, alternating and gradually building up.

I recommend you get a pair with a slight bend upward so your arms don’t need to bend down to reach them. This way, you’ll avoid creating tension in your upper body which could lead to cramps when you’re running later. These bars normally also have an inward bend so your hands can be in a neutral position instead of having to turn your palms upward to hold the bars. 

Clip-in pedals and bike shoes $200-$300

The next great bike upgrade you can make is switching to clip-in pedals and bike shoes. These will cost around $200-$300, but they’re a great addition for your safety and to make you more efficient when pedaling. And, of course, you need shoes to match your clip-in pedals.

Clip-in pedals allow you to be more stable on the bike, although of course, you’ll most likely fall when you wear them the first time (it’s a right of passage for this classic piece of bike gear!). Moreover, some studies show that the amount of force a foot needs to exert for the same power output is higher if you’re not using clip-in pedals. 

Bike fit $200-$300

Another cost efficient upgrade for your triathlon bike is a professional bike fitting. While this might seem like a luxury, the truth is that the most drag you’ll be fighting on the bike doesn’t come from the bike itself, but from your body. So, if you can get an extra advantage by being more aerodynamic and becoming comfortable in that position, you’ll see the benefits on race day.

When asking for a bike fit, emphasize looking at your back mobility and make sure that the fitter knows what race distance you’re training for. Prioritize comfort so you can adjust to the aero position sooner and transfer more power into your pedals. 

All bikes can get to an improved position thanks to a bike fit. One element can be the saddle position, for example. By moving your saddle a bit forward and raising it a little, you will enable your body position to get more aerodynamic, by moving above the handle bars. You can also gain a lot of comfort and efficiency from a better hip angle, a cleat angle that might be more suited to your knees, or a set of insoles that help your legs track in a straighter line. All this is money well spent!

Tri suit $100-500

One final bike upgrade isn’t actually for the bike, it’s for your body. Again, thinking of reducing drag and improving your aerodynamics, we need to make your body as “slippery” as possible. A fitted, skin-tight tri suit or shorts and top combo will help you gain about 1-2 km per hour compared to wearing baggy clothing. 

However, don’t be fooled into thinking you need to spend hundreds of dollars on high-end tri suits like the pros. Just look for clothing that fits you snuggly, without any loose fabric, but with the right amount of comfort so you don’t chafe.

I usually recommend that beginner triathletes buy a pair of tight-fitting tri shorts and a tight tri top. You can use this to train and race and you can mix and match the items in the future if you buy more. 

A word on tri shorts: unlike “traditional” bike shorts, these have a smaller chamois so you don’t have that feeling of a soggy diaper when you come out of the water, but you still have a comfortable cushion for a long ride. You can’t really wear cycling shorts for both training rides and for racing, because of this. And you’ll be happy to run with less of a “diaper butt” too!

As for your top, you want a tight-fitting tri top over a regular cycling top. The latter has bigger pockets and more fabric on the shoulders, so it’s great for your training rides. You could also race in a cycling top, but if you’re doing a non-wetsuit swim, then the baggier pockets will create drag and slow you down. Finally, when choosing between sleeveless or long-sleeved tops or tri suits, it’s all down to your personal preference (and maybe the weather!). The most aero tri suit possible will be a long-sleeved one.

“Nice to Have” Bike Gear

Once you have all your essentials sorted, including a good bike helmet, you can start looking at slightly fancier items to help you get faster on your triathlon bike leg. This doesn’t always mean buying more stuff, however. It can also include a good bike clean-up that give your bike some TLC and wins you “free speed.”

Aero Helmet $150-$350

If you were going to swap one existing bit of bike gear for your triathlon, it would be your helmet. I think of this as the best dollar-per-speed purchase because it gives you about a 1 km per hour speed advantage by comparison to a regular bike helmet, and you don’t need to spend a LOT to get a good one.

One big caveat, though: you’ll only get that speed advantage if you maintain the aero position! You’ll need to practice not shifting your head around and keeping that tucked-in body position during your long rides.

Clean Bike Build $100-$300

Giving your bike some TLC will result in free speed on race day. This is very often overlooked, but if you’re not taking good care of your bike and you’re not removing any drag-adding items from it, you’re not going to get the most of whatever money you invested in your bike.

Some good cleaning and care steps to do before race day include:

  • Clean your front chain ring;
  • Clean and lube your chain. Make sure it’s not rusty, not stretchy, just in good condition;
  • Get a new cassette and have it lubed well.

Additionally, do the following to get more aerodynamic:

  • Zip tie cables together while still allowing them to function;
  • Take your bottles off your bike frame and get a bottle cage that goes horizontal between your aero bars or at a 45-degree angle behind your saddle;
  • Get a bike bento box to put your nutrition in;
  • Remove anything you don’t need (stickers, reflectors, etc. – all good for training, not good for racing!).

“Next Level” Bike Gear

If you still feel like you have money to spend on your triathlon bike, or are looking for ways to treat yourself while boosting your speed or reducing your drag, there’s always more bike gear you can buy. Although these aren’t essentials, here’s what else you can purchase to give you a (slight) advantage:

  • Power meter or heart rate monitors – $400-$1,000. These are both useful training tools which can help you establish your desired power outputs or help you train according to heart rate zones. However, they are not essential and you can end up spending a lot of money on fancy things, when you can just use your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) as a guideline for training and racing. Use our pacing strategies to help you along.
  • Aero wheels – $1,000-$4,000. These will cost at least $1,000, but a set of deep-section wheels that are 50mm deep or deeper can add about 1 km per hour to your bike speed for the same effort. They are a much more expensive upgrade, however, and they require some serious consideration of your weight-to-power ratio.
  • Tri bike – $2,000-$15,000. Like we’ve said already, a tri bike isn’t necessarily going to make you faster than a road bike. Yes, tri bikes are generally more adjustable so you can customize the fit better, and you’ll have that aerodynamic position advantage with less effort (in theory). However, you need to really be comfortable in the aero position on a tri bike and you would buy this in addition to your road bike, because a road bike is much safer and easier to ride in training or in a group. I would not recommend you buy a tri bike unless you are sure that you’ll be racing triathlons for years to come.
  • Indoor trainer – $300-$2,000. I advise you to get whichever tool helps you ride more, because only riding more will make you faster on the bike. So, if the weather is keeping you from riding outdoors, then it could be time to invest in an indoor trainer. Whether you get a basic one or a smart trainer is a question of budget. But, if you can afford it, a smart trainer will help you get over the mind-numbing boredom of riding indoors (there’s only so much time you can spend listening to music or watching movies!). The advantage of a smart trainer is that it will allow you to unlock amazing tools like Zwift and be able to do an entertaining workout without feeling like the hours are barely passing!
  • Tri shoes – $200. The differences between tri shoes and regular cycling shoes are reducing all the time. Originally, you would have wanted tri shoes as they would give you better ventilation and also they would stay open while clipped into the bike in transition so you could easily slide your foot into the shoe once you mounted the bike. These days, however, good bike shoes are well ventilated and much easier to slip into as well.

There are so many other bike gear options available, but as this is your guide to essential and slightly upgraded items, we’ll leave it here for the time being!

Get Yourself Race Ready With Essential Bike Gear

As long as you follow a well thought-out, progressive bike training plan for your triathlon and you make some small, less expensive upgrades to your bike gear, you should see some speed gains come race day. The single most useful bike upgrade item will always be aero bars and your ability to sustain the aero position for as long as possible. Beyond that, upgrade your gear as and when you believe it’s a worthy investment and, remember, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to race your first triathlon!

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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.