Roadie or Tri Geek? You Decide!
After dipping your toes into the Triathlon scene on a borrowed bike, mountain bike, or hybrid you are probably still reeling in excitement from your first race! You trained hard and fully embraced your inner Tri Geek to reach the finish line at your first event and you are ready to take the plunge and invest in a machine worthy of your new speediness. After talking with some of your new tri-friends and looking around the transition area at the myriad of Tri and Road bikes you may be a bit lost trying to figure out which bike to get? Choosing between a Road and a Tri bike is one of the more common questions I get from those that are new to the sport or considering the jump into the Tri-lifestyle. Ideally, you would really want one of each, but that may not be in the budget. It’s a tough decision but, not to worry, there are a few guidelines you can follow when making this kind of investment in your new sport.
Get Educated. Before you get your cash out for a new racing machine, let’s cover a few of the basics that separate a road bike from triathlon bike. Starting with the frame, a road bike and a tri bike often look very much the same, but are actually quite different. The majority of the differences lie in the seat tube (tube between the cranks and saddle), the top tube (upper tube between the handlebars and saddle), and the head tube (tube between the top of the fork and handlebars). Road bikes are designed to accommodate a balanced and typically more upright position and have a more relaxed (reclined) seat tube angle, a longer top tube, and a taller head tube than a tri bike. The frame geometry is optimized for an upright riding position for balanced weight distribution and good visibility for climbing, descending, and flat roads. Whereas, a Triathlon or Time Trial frame is designed for a forwardly aggressive position and typically has a steeper seat tube angle, a shorter top tube, and a shorter head tube to accommodate a more forward fit. In addition, a triathlon bike has a shorter wheel base and is designed to have more of the riders’ weight distributed over the front of the bike. The forward positioning on a tri bike essentially rotates the road position more over the front wheel to accommodate use of the aero bars for better aerodynamics.
Secondly, the controls on both bikes are also setup differently. A road bike will have the brakes and shifters integrated in one unit and will allow for both to be done without moving your hands from the bars. This is ideal for quick shifting and braking when riding in a pace-line or busy city streets when you need quick access to make quick shifts or stops. Whereas, a Tri or TT bike typically separates the shifters and brake levers to make optimal use of the positioning. Tri and TT bikes are purpose built to be ridden primarily in the aero bars and on mostly flat road surfaces, so the shifters are located at the end of the aero bars near your hands. The brake levers are located on the pursuit bar (handlebar) near your hands to allow for breaking when a more upright and balanced position is needed for solid control.
Pro’s and Con’s. So, now that you are a bit more educated on what each bike was designed to do in terms of positioning, lets break in down into some riding specifics. Road bikes are primarily designed for versatility on most all paved surfaces. A well designed road bike will have a geometry that works well when climbing, descending, cornering, riding on flat roads, as well as being stable through a wide range of speeds. Not an easy feat of engineering when you think about the huge range of cyclists out there. Because the frame geometry is so well suited for general road usage, it is not optimized for any one particular discipline. On the flipside, a triathlon bike or time trial bike is optimized for a more limited capacity. Tri or TT bikes are best suited for flatter conditions where the aerodynamic advantage of the more forward position can be most effective. It typically does not climb or descend as well as the road bike and has a bit more limited visibility because of the forward positioning. The upside to the tri bike and aero positioning however is that you greatly reduce your aerodynamic drag, reduce the stress and usage of some of the muscles you use for running, and the aero bars allow you to rest your arms after finishing the swim leg. A road bike will certainly get you through the bike leg of a triathlon, but will not necessarily be the ideal set up for it.
Decision Time. Aside from the physical differences in the two bikes, the decision really boils down to a few simple questions. Are you buying this bike to train for and race triathlons competitively? Are you primarily riding with other triathletes? Do you have any desire to ride in the mountains, do some road or crit racing, or organized group rides? If this is you, then your new ride should be a sleek and aero Tri machine. On the other hand, if your interest in the tri scene is to have fun and enjoy the training and racing and the competition is between you and your inner athlete, a road bike may be the best fit for you. A road bike really excels when more versatility is required for your cycling needs. If triathlon is not the main purpose for you but rather just one of your outlets to exorcise a few of the inner demons, a road bike may be the best bike for you. Although not quite as ideal for the typical triathlon race course, it certainly will get the job done without cramping your other cycling goals
One More Option. Still struggling with the decision? As another option for the new triathlete who is still struggling with which bike to drop some coin on, a multisport fit on a road bike may be a good option. A multisport position utilizes a set of aero bars mounted to the handlebars and requires a different fit than the standard road set up. A multisport fit on a road bike combines a few of the ingredients of both styles of bike, and if done correctly can be a good mixture of both bikes. Not quite ideal for either position, a multisport fit on a road bike will give you most of the benefits of a tri position and some of the versatility of a road bike. It generally requires a different seat post and stem and an experienced fitter to make the set-up work well. Although, the position is not quite optimized for either riding style the end result can have some of the aero benefits of a tri bike without ruining all the versatility of the road bike. You may not have to give up your inner Tri-geek to keep pace with the roadies after all!