Buying a new bike is an investment: you’ll spend years riding it, repairing it, and relishing it. So an important first step is to select the right kind of bike. A recurring question asked by cyclists, and especially cyclists interested in triathlon, is this:
Do I buy a road bike or a triathlon bike (Time Trial bike)?
So let’s break it down. Here are the primary differences spelled out:
1. The angle of the seat tube relative to the bottom bracket is smaller on a road bike ie. the seat is tilted further back, placing you in a more relaxed position and optimizing power output from your legs.
2. Drop handle bars. These allow you to place your hands within comfortable reach of the brakes and to have optimal control of your bike, enhancing steering and braking power.
1. The angle of the seat tube relative to the bottom bracket is greater ie. the seat is tilted further forward to place the rider in a more aerodynamic position on the bike, optimizing the use of your hamstring muscles.
2. Aero bars. Triathlon (or time trial) bikes usually have an aerodynamic headset (red arrow in the picture below) with short handlebars and aero bars. Braking and controlling the bike will be slightly less comfortable as you’ll need to have good balance and the ability to maneuver your hands from the aero bars to the brakes.
How do these differences, help you decide which one to buy?
This is the bottom line:
Road bikes are ideal for optimizing power when climbing hills, and optimizing control of the bike when going down hills. This is because the geometry of the bike is such that you are in a comfortable and open position, while tilted upwards on a hill to generate power from your quadriceps, which are essential muscles for climbing hills. On a triathlon bike, you need to shift backwards and lift your body out of it’s aerodynamic position, to get the same power output. Road bikes are more comfortable and easier to control.
Tri bikes are ideal for optimizing an aerodynamic position and the use of your hamstring muscles. The geometry of the bike puts you in a more forward position, with weight further forward on saddle, and more weight on the forearms in the aero bars. This narrow distribution of weight is aerodynamic, but not ideal for sudden turns or the need to brake. The position is less comfortable for long period of time on the back, neck and groin areas. It is also less comfortable climbing hills, and less steady on descents. BUT, you will go faster in a race due to the reduced drag.
Can I still race on a road bike in a triathlon?
Yes, absolutely. Many people do, and many people accomplish their race goals on a road bike. Luckily, the setup is modifiable and you can even attach aero bars onto your road bike. In more competitive races, you may not see very many people with road bikes. This is because these people are concerned with going as fast as possible in the race. A tri bike will help you shed some time.
Is there something in between?
Yes. You can buy a more aerodynamic road bike. There are a number of models that have come out, designed with slightly different geometry to optimize aerodynamics while maintaining the traditional road bike style. These bikes are a good happy medium if you would like to do some racing, but only want to invest in one bike. Some examples are the Specialized “Venge” or the Cervelo “S” series bikes. You can check out the Venge here.
I always recommend starting with a road bike, if this is your first major bike purchase. Road bikes are more versatile, and more comfortable. If you plan to do big mountain climbs, buy a road bike! If you already have a road bike, and you’re thinking of triathlon racing, then an investment in a tri bike might be the right choice.
At a higher level of competition, triathlon bikes do make a difference in race performance. If you plan to race in triathlons, and you don’t do many hours of recreational riding or substantial climbing, then a triathlon bike may be your best bet.
Keep in mind that you must be very comfortable on your bike in order to reduce wasted energy and to optimize your power output. If you have a triathlon bike that is not comfortable for you, the speed difference may not matter in the end. Getting a proper bike fitting is always recommended.
Ultimately, you need to think about how you will be using your bike the majority of the time, and whether you need to invest in one or two bikes.
Happy bike shopping!