Walk through a triathlon transition area and you will see a wide variety of bike models. Vintage ten-speeds with toe clips and chipped paint can be found next to expensive featherweight aerodynamic state-of-the-art, triathlon-specific models.
The majority of triathletes start competing with a standard road bike. As their interest in the sport grows and they move from sprint events to half or full Ironman distances, upgrading the bike becomes an important step to improving performance.
By design, triathlon-specific bikes offer tangible advantages over road bikes. Bill Duehring, president of Felt Bicycles, explains. "A true triathlon bike, with its tri-specific tube shapes, geometry and bars, offers the athlete a more aerodynamic position, resulting in decreased wind drag and ultimately greater speed over a conventional road bike. Reduced drag equals free speed."
Chris Clinton, brand manager for Bontrager, adds, "The primary advantage of a triathlon bike is a reduction in frontal area that means a reduction of drag. The triathlete will be able to put out less effort to do the same speed or ride the same speed at a faster pace."
Since triathlon bikes often represent a major financial outlay, Erik Saltvold, founder of Erik's Bike Shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his staff help their triathlon customers work through the options. Should they upgrade their road bike, add triathlon-oriented accessories to their current road bike or buy a triathlon-specific model?
"For some people, a road bike is the best choice," Saltvold says. "It just depends on how much you want to get into it. Triathlon-specific bikes give you better aerodynamic positioning. The aero bars offer better comfort and better breathing. Road bikes just don't have the correct aerodynamic positioning. There are mechanical positioning advantages that you can't replicate on a regular road bike."
One of the most recognizable elements of a triathlon bike is the extended handlebars. Called aero bars, the bars are central to putting the rider into the most efficient aerodynamic position possible.
"In general terms, aero bars lower the body position on the bike, which can significantly reduce the amount of air, or drag, the rider pushes," says Eric Sampson, owner of Sampson Sports. "Lower drag equals less resistance, which equals faster speed. As you ride faster, you spend progressively more of your power simply pushing air."
Sampson reports that riders in an efficient aerodynamic position can typically improve their performance about 1 to 2 minutes on a 40K course. In a full Ironman, that improvement can mean 8 minutes or more.
Making the transition from road bike to triathlon bike can take some time. Riders will notice a big difference in their posture as soon as they mount a triathlon-specific bike. Travis Dorweiler, store manager for Maple Grove Cycle in Maple Grove, Minnesota, says triathlon bikes take a little getting used to. "There is going to be some fitting involved. There's definitely a lot of fine-tuning to get the correct fit and get the bike to do what you want it to do," he says.
On the course, riders will also need to change or adjust their riding style. Clinton says, "The first thing they will notice is the front end of their bike feels skittish. They are taking the wide stance of the handlebar and narrowing down their contact area with the front of the bike." Clinton recommends training on a tri bike before racing it. "Triathlon bikes require different muscles and a different position of the body. It will take a little while to get used to," he says.
"The biggest change is getting used to riding in the aero position," Sampson adds. "Like anything new, start gradually, riding in the extensions for brief periods to adapt to the new handling and feel for the bike. It puts a little more pressure on the lower back and soft tissue areas, so best to break these in gradually or they may revolt."
Once you are comfortable with the position, maneuvering on the course requires some changes in riding style. "Starting, cornering, climbing and getting out of the saddle tends to take place on the wide section of the bars, and the bike will feel somewhat similar to a road bike," Duehring suggests. "When in the aero bar position, a rider will naturally move forward in the saddle and drop their head. What is important is to not fight the bike. Let your legs do the work and keep your upper body relaxed."
It's rare to see a professional triathlete who doesn't use aero bars. But that piece of equipment alone doesn't guarantee a faster time, Clinton says. "People think by just adding the aero bars you will go faster. That's not necessarily the case. Once you get the aero bars, you have to go out and get used to that position. We often see people who put an aero bar on and put themselves in a very aero tuck position, but they are so uncomfortable that they spend a good portion of the ride moving from aero to drop to hood. All that movement is worse than if they just stayed with their drops with no aero bars in the first place."
Adding clip-on aero bars to a standard road bike is an option for triathletes still pondering their long-term commitment to the sport or hesitant to purchase an expensive triathlon-specific bike.
"By adding clip-on aero bars, we can replicate some of what a tri bike does on a road bike for the weekend warrior," Saltvold says. "The advantages of the aerodynamic position are clear once someone starts riding with aero bars."
When choosing clip-on bars, Clinton suggests looking for models that offer a range of adjustability. "The key areas are fore and aft on the extension itself, the position of the elbow pads and width (between the extensions). There are some aero bars that lock the width between the two extensions while others allow you to play with the width."
Since the extension sections of aero bars come in different shapes, trying them out is worth the effort. "Finding one that feels comfortable is ideal. If you are comfortable, you will be able to stay in that position a lot longer," Clinton notes.
First-time triathletes, however, shouldn't "worry about aero bars for the short events, where the ride is about 12 miles," Sampson says. "They're just not worth the effort and energy when you can ride in the drops and not hassle with changing the bars."
Saltvold points out, "If you are installing an aero bar on a road bike, you will still have the brakes and shifting on the traditional bars. On most aero bars you won't have access to your brakes and shifting on the extensions unless you have a true full-on triathlon bike that has the brakes and shifter built into the aero bars."
Upgrading wheels is another option for improving performance. Lighter, more aerodynamic wheels will help both road and triathlon bikes. "The bike's frame cuts through the wind but the wheels are constantly in motion and that results in a different kind of wind disturbance," Clinton explains. "Having a more aerodynamic profile on the wheel will offer a measurable difference for that rider, even on a $1,000 to $1,500 road bike."
He continues, "Wheels are a big enough factor that professional road racers will use aero wheels every day. Even in a group ride it's reducing the amount of effort that's required for them to maintain the same speed as other riders in the group."
Saltvold agrees, "Wheels are one of the best upgrades you can do on any level of bike. If you have a nice frame, you will benefit from upgrading the wheels because you are pushing that wheel weight all the time when you are pedaling. If you can upgrade to lighter or more aerodynamic wheels, that will make you a faster more efficient rider with better acceleration."
Since the bike leg is the longest in a triathlon, improvements in your equipment can bring down finishing times significantly. A more efficient bike means you'll spend less time on that leg of the race and leave you with more energy and ability to finish the run leg faster, too.
"At a longer distance, like a half or full Ironman, you are not just looking at aerodynamics but how much effort you can save while riding fast so when you get to the run you have more energy available," Clinton says.
Either adding triathlon-oriented clip-on aero bars to a road bike or investing in a triathlon-specific bike will improve your times and likely draw you ever deeper in the sport.