Q: Do I need a triathlon bike?
A: Any bike is a triathlon bike if you use it for triathlons
S: Thanks, jerk.
OK, you’ve decided to do a triathlon – congrats! But what the heck are these funny looking bikes, they don’t look normal. Do I need a triathlon (aka TT, Time Trial) specific bike to do a triathlon?
What is the difference between a triathlon and road bike?
Ask a triathlete this question and you’ll get the standard, two-word, snobby response: the geometry. Ugh.
Think back to grade school, what was geometry about? That’s right, shapes! The shape of a triathlon bike is different. Why do gear snobs gotta be so smug about it?
In short, a triathlon bike has 2 major differences from a typical road bike:
- It has aero bars which extend past the handlebars. Your forearms are resting where your hands typically do on a road bike.
- The angle of the seat tube is more upright. This allows you to reach all the way onto your aero bars thus making you more aerodynamic
Got it? It’s a bike that makes you more aerodynamic. And more aerodynamic typically means more speedage. And in the triathlon world, more speedage means more moneys. Yay!
Ok, so do I need a triathlon bike?
No matter what you read on the ole internets – you absolutely do not need one, even for an Ironman. The purchase of a triathlon specific bike is a complete luxury, and unless your racing for some qualification (i.e. Kona) or to earn some cash (prize moola, sponsorship), it’s not needed. Even in those instances need is debatable – Chris Froome could show up to a triathlon on a Huffy and destroy your yuppie butt. And how silly will you look then on your fancy bike losing to a Walmart bike?
Want proof that you don’t need one? During Ironman Mt. Tremblant, which is a pretty freaking hilly course (~5,000 ft gain), I saw a dude racing on a Citi Bike! Yea, zero chance he won but his Ironman effort is even more impressive having raced 112 miles on a bike that is intentionally designed to suck. I do want to point out, however, that I saw him while passing him – I ain’t losing to no Citi Bike!
So if it’s not needed then why do so many people have one?
- Triathlon bikes are faster
I’m not debating this fact (experiment to follow) and triathlons are races where the fastest people are the winners. So buying speed can help your overall time and placing. For those of us who are trying to podium, qualify for Kona, get sponsored or just whoop up on some people then I understand. That’s why I bought one – but am still waiting for that sponsor…anyone?
- They’re really into triathlons
Sometimes the triathlon bug doesn’t just bite you – it burrows itself under your skin and makes a million other triathlon bug babies which take over your mind and soul. Racing becomes a way of life and it’s much easier to justify the purchase of a triathlon specific bike if you’re constantly competing in them. First timer? Use that road bike you already have to see if you like the sport.
- The same reason people buy BMWs and unnecessarily large houses
It’s a way to flaunt one’s financial prowess – Yea, I bought a $14,000 Dimond cause I’m rich! Muahahaha.
- The other reason people buy BMWs and unnecessarily large houses
Because everyone else has them and the Jonses must be kept up with! My first half Ironman I showed up with my trusty road bike, Egon, and felt out-of-place in a sea of expensive triathlon bikes. My God, I don’t belong here. I’m gonna get destroyed. I finished in the top 10% overall.
- Because they read too much internet
Seriously, stay off some of the message boards. Gear heads and trolls exist everywhere who scrutinize every single ounce and look to achieve maximum aero. You can literally read discussions debating shaving legs, dimples on wheels and justifying spending $70 on a carbon water bottle cage instead of a $15 plastic one. C’mon man.
What are some of the disadvantages of triathlon bikes?
- You’re probably also gonna want a second bike
Enter into a century ride or bike race and your triathlon bike is probably illegal. A lot of cycling clubs won’t allow riders to use them on group rides because they don’t want riders drafting with their heads down. So that means 2 bikes are needed. Of course, we all know the correct amount of bikes to own is N+1. So no problem there, right?
- They’re dangerous
The aero position forces riders to have their heads down, peering just over the top of their eyebrows, which means they’re taking in less information with respect to potholes, cars, other riders, puppies, etc. Also, the brakes may not be on the aero bars so, in the event of a sudden stop, the rider is getting to the brakes a lot slower than on a road bike. Personally, I also find it’s harder to turn a triathlon bike than a road bike which can be the difference between crashing and avoiding an obstacle.
- They can actually make you slower
If you’re climbing a whole lot then a standard road bike may be better as they tend to be lighter and the “geometry” of a road bike allows for more power when climbing.
- They’re expensive unitaskers
Just google triathlon bikes, nuff said.
- They’re probably harder to sell
You don’t see a lot of people scrolling through Craiglist looking for a triathlon bike to commute to work in. So if you’re not sure you’re gonna wanna keep it then it’s probably not the best thing to own. It’s not like you can re-purpose it to a beach cruiser. You will absolutely get your face punched if you’re using a triathlon bike to ride with the family for ice cream at the shore.
- Getting passed by someone not on a triathlon bike
Oh man does it feel good to pass someone who is riding a more expensive bike. If you’re getting overtaken by a peer on an obviously inferior bike you can be 100% certain that they’re taking extra pleasure in passing your silly, spendy butt.
The best way to become a faster cyclist (or swimmer, runner, etc) is to practice. Put a lousy cyclist on an amazing bike and you’ll have a lousy cyclist on an amazing bike. No matter how fast the internet says that bike is, you won’t all-of-a-sudden become Tour de France worthy. That’s not what’s holding you back. Maybe you’ll be about 1 mph less lousy but the gains from practicing will far outweigh the gains from buying a fancier bike – and it’ll be a lot cheaper too. Sounds similar huh? Yes, couple the two together and you can really see the benefits but why don’t we wait until we know you’re gonna like the sport first, OK?
So to put a bow on this, NO, you do not need a triathlon specific bike to compete in triathlons. For most people it can be an outright silly investment. If you’re an enthusiast of the sport or a professional then I can make the case for owning one – as I do (and I’m not a professional). But really, it’s just a lot of money to ride about 1-2 mph faster. You don’t have to prove you take the sport seriously by owning one. You prove that when you whoop some people up.