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Triathlon Bike vs. Road Bike: Two Situations Where a Road Bike Becomes Faster Than a Triathlon Bike

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ Triathlon Bike vs. Road Bike: Two Situations Where a Road Bike Becomes Faster Than a Triathlon Bike

What makes a great racing bike, and when should you put the road bike before your tri bike? Here’s how to get comfort and confidence by choosing the road bike.

It’s generally known that triathlon bikes have aerodynamic and geometric advantages that make them faster than road bikes. With all variables remaining equal over the bike leg of a triathlon, the tri bike wins in speed. But, is it always the right bike to choose? What are the two instances where you’d be faster upright on a road bike? 

In the “triathlon bike vs. road bike” debate, comfort and confidence, or lack thereof, are the two key differentiators in triathlon performance. 

If you can’t get comfortable while staying more aerodynamic, you’re better off riding a road bike that’s specifically designed for a longer ride, as it allows you to remain upright and relaxed. Achieving some comfort level on a tri bike takes time and practice (read on for helpful practice drills!). Similarly, you’ll need to develop the ability and confidence to handle a triathlon-specific bike, learning to place most of your body weight over the front wheel.

What are the secrets to mastering the triathlon bike to get faster on your triathlon overall? 

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The best drills to increase your confidence in the aero position;
  • The right amount of training time you should spend on your tri bike vs. your road bike; and
  • Essential considerations for deciding between purchasing a bike—road, triathlon, or otherwise.

Use these cycling drills to increase your confidence and bike handling

Developing your bike-handling skills and confidence on the triathlon bike takes time and deliberate practice. Check out these top tips to get you there. 

Focus on your forward gaze

The most important and highest-impact drill to build your confidence while optimizing safety in the aero position on a triathlon bike is to simply LOOK FORWARD!

Far too many times, especially with the growing popularity of indoor training and racing, we see triathletes in the aero position staring straight at the floor beneath the front wheel. This is not only detrimental to your performance but also becomes incredibly dangerous out on the roads.
Matt Bottrill, time-trial specialist and expert triathlon coach, says many triathletes have a bad reputation as terrible bike handlers. Why? Because they’re always focusing on the ground!

Be methodical with your improvements

Matt’s advice, too, is to take it slow. Don’t chase too many improvements at one time. Gaining better control over the triathlon bike and increasing your confidence takes time. If you overload yourself by focusing on eye positioning and where your shoulders need to be in relation to your head for optimal aerodynamics, you’re putting the cart before the horse.

Once you’ve built your confidence with sighting down the road some 200 yards, you can then begin to progress to other drills to continue improving your positioning. The second drill involves using your elbow pads in the aero position, which increases your stability on the bike. Propping up your phone or tablet or using a mirror to see your positioning will help.

The key to this drill is that you’re trying to raise your shoulders, which is known as a “shrug.” That’s a great drill to increase strength and reduce overall drag. From there, focus on your head position. You’re simply trying to avoid dropping your chin down toward the aero bars.

Develop your bike handling

Generally speaking, increased confidence in bike handling means increased bike speed. Better bike handling means going around corners faster, avoiding obstacles without slowing down as much, and managing to overcome any hazards or course difficulties (strong winds, unexpected road surfaces, etc.). As a result, you’ll be better at riding a bike in general (outside races, too!).

Check out our video of the best small drills to improve your bike handling:

By performing small drills, you’ll release a lot of tension, and you’ll get stronger a little bit at a time. Regardless of whether you’re training for competition or just getting better at cycling in general, the better you are at handling your bike, the safer and faster you’ll become. 

Transition gently

To ease your transition from a road bike to a triathlon bike, while helping you on your first triathlon, you’ll want to add aero bars to your road bike. These are relatively easy to clip onto any road bike and provides the aero position experience with the flexibility to change your upper-body positioning when you get sore.

In fact, Matt recommends getting aero bars to try out before transitioning to a tri bike. He suggests positioning them such that the padding always touches the elbows and that your hands are at the tip of the bars. This will give you better control of the bike when you’re in the aero position, and your speed and aerodynamics gains will be instant. 

Don’t neglect stretching

As you transition to a tri bike or the aero bars on your road bike in triathlon training, you’ll feel tightness in different parts of your body. This is caused by your body positioning as you teach your upper body to adapt to the aerodynamic position and – the longer your rides get – to the time spent in a less flexible position, too.

Key stretches to add to your routine include:

  • Hip flexor stretch: Step into a lunge position from standing, dropping your back knee to the floor. Raise your arms above your head and reach toward the ceiling while pushing forward with your hips. Repeat 3 times for 10 seconds at a time.
  • Step-ups: Use a stepping block to perform exaggerated step-ups where you start with the knee as high as or higher than your hip, engaging your glutes and lower back. Do 10 per leg, slowly at first, then add weights as they get easier.
  • Piriformis stretch: Lying on your back with legs stretched out, bring your left foot to your right knee, placing the ankle just above the knee. Slowly raise your left knee towards your chest, feeling the stretch in your glute. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat three times.

Tri bike vs. road bike training: How much time should you spend on each?

The clue is in the name: if you have a triathlon bike and are training to compete in a triathlon, you’ll want to spend the bulk of your time on the tri bike. 

Matt Bottrill says 60/40 is the ideal percentage.

It is beneficial to change between the two bikes, if you can, during training. It’s nice to activate the different muscle groups.

Road bikes allow you to push higher power, so in situations during a race when you need to tap into that ability, you need to have practiced it. Spending that 80% of your time in the road bike saddle allows you to accomplish that.

Tri bike or road bike: Which should you buy?

To compete in your first triathlon, use whichever bike you have access to and, most importantly, the one you find comfortable and easy to handle. This will ensure you get the best result.  

You don’t need to purchase a triathlon bike to do a triathlon. And, if you’re just starting in the sport, the road bike gives you more opportunities right off the bat: 

  1. Group rides are easier and safer on a road bike; 
  2. Your body doesn’t need to learn to adjust to a new position; 
  3. And you’re likely to find it a lot more comfortable to do your bike leg on a bike that you’re already familiar with. 

However, while you don’t need to spring for a triathlon bike first thing, once you get more established in the sport and if you plan to stick with it for a while, you should consider purchasing a triathlon bike.

Benefits of using a tri bike: They are fast, great at going quickly on super-straight courses, and ideal if your race has very few starts and stops. At the same time, bear in mind that Gustav Iden won the 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice, France, riding a road bike. And he wasn’t alone: many others in the field were riding road bikes because of the nature of the course, with many climbs and technical sections requiring skillful handling. So, always consider how your bike will fare on the course you have ahead of you

Check out our top tips to help you make an informed choice about your tri bike purchase:

Adaptability

You want a bike that’s adaptable and adjustable to fit your body and positioning for optimal speed and comfort. One significant factor in adaptability is an integrated cockpit

Can you easily adjust your hand positioning on the bars or your arm positioning on the elbow cups? 

How easy is it to take the bike apart, pack, and rebuild? 

Can you do it yourself, or will you need the assistance of a bike mechanic? 

All of these questions must be considered before making your triathlon bike purchase.

Sizing

Of course, making sure you have the right size bike is necessary. Most bike manufacturers go into great detail on their websites about the sizing and how to determine which frame size is right for you before purchasing. We recommend spending some time doing research and even going for a professional bike fitting to make sure that your new bike is fully adapted to you and your body mechanics.

Frames and components

The frame influences your bike pricing the most because of the cost of materials: carbon fiber is more expensive than aluminum, but it’s also the lightest material you can find. However, do you really need the absolutely lightest bike on the road? It’s also worth considering that a carbon fiber frame can be damaged more easily. 

As for components, if you’re a bike lover, you’ll know how variable every element of a bike can be, from the saddle to your handlebars, etc. Keep these in mind when you make a purchase and consider what works for you from previous experience. For women, we highly recommend women-specific saddles for extra comfort. 

Matt warns that the quality of tires is one area where many manufacturers may fall short when putting together a triathlon bike. When you buy your bike, research rolling resistance for cycling tires and invest in different tires and inner tubes to get additional watts savings with gains in speed. 

Conclusion: How to ensure you’re as fast and as comfortable as possible

All things being equal, a triathlon bike will be faster than a road bike. However, if you cannot optimize your positioning for speed and comfort, you’re better off riding a road bike.

Practice your drills to increase your confidence and handling. Most importantly, learn how to keep your eyes fixed down the road rather than under your front wheel. 

Ultimately, the bike you feel your best on and enjoy riding and racing on will be the optimal choice for you, keeping you both safe and fast on the road, in competition, or on a leisure ride.

About the contributors

Matt Bottrill has won multiple National Championships and holds many competition records. He coaches some of the world’s top athletes on a range of stages. Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching, open to coached athletes, features all ages and abilities. Over the last few years, the team has achieved many titles, including individual, team medals, and records in National Championships and many PB’s. 

Contact Matt on his website and social media.

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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.