Road Bike vs.
Tri-Bike...What Should I Buy?
Hazen Kent -
One of the most frequently asked questions among
individuals new to the sport of triathlon is…
“What type of bike should I
buy…a triathlon bike or a road bike.”
A good question and one that
deserves some attention.
To begin with, let us take a look
at the differences between a triathlon bike and a road
The major difference between the
triathlon bike and the traditional road bike lies in the
geometry of the bicycle frame.
Specifically, I am referring to the seat tube
angle. The seat tube is the long tube extending from the
bottom bracket upward towards the seat.
And the angle of this tube relative to a horizontal
line drawn at the bottom bracket represents your seat tube
angle (refer to the diagram below).
For a triathlon bike, the seat
tube angle is typically 76-78 degrees.
A good bit steeper than the 72-degree angle found
on most traditional road bikes.
The steeper angle places the rider further forward
on the bike creating a more aerodynamic body position.
(See diagram below)
When the sport of triathlon was created in Hawaii back in
1978, otherwise known as the Ironman®, the 112 mile cycling portion of that
race took on
the flavor of a traditional “road race” performed
during most cycling events.
The “road race” is typically a longer Point A
to Point B bike race requiring both endurance and
usually takes a back seat until the latter part of the
race. And the
most famous event of this type is the Tour de France. A
three week bike race almost entirely made up of daily
“road races” covering over 100 miles per ride.
However, as the sport of
triathlon began to draw more participants, not everyone
wanted to or could handle the distances covered in an Iron
distance event – 2.3 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26
mile run. So
in order to make this sport more appealing to the masses,
the distance of the triathlon was shortened.
For the cycling portion of the triathlon, this
meant shortening the distance from 112 miles to 25 miles.
No longer was endurance and strategy a major component of
the bike ride. The new objective of the tri-cyclist was to
get from point A to point B as fast as possible.
The cycle leg had taken on an entirely new
personality resembling the traditional “time trial”
also held during cycling events. But the increase in speed
brought about a new dilemma for the triathlete: How to
overcome leg fatigue in preparing for the run after a
25-mile bicycle sprint.
Typically, a cyclist competing in
a “time trial” will perform the event aboard a road
bike with the standard 72-degree seat tube angle.
This angle places the rider in a position on the
bike so that he or she can utilize the major muscle groups
of the legs - the quadriceps and the hamstrings.
And when using these muscles to their fullest
extent, the cyclist can achieve maximum output or power
with the result yielding speeds in excess of 30 mph.
Not bad huh?
The cyclist, at the completion of
the “time trial”, will climb off the bike and REST.
Not so for the triathlete.
A triathlete has to hop off the
bike, strip off a helmet, pull on some running shoes and
take off on a run at any number of distances depending
upon the race. And the speed at which the muscles
acclimate to running legs from cycling legs is critical to
the outcome of the overall triathlon performance.
By the mid-to-late 80’s,
triathletes at all levels struggled to find a solution to
this problem. I remember viewing a videotape of the
infamous 1988 stand off between Mike Pigg and Mark Allen
during the National Championships held on Hilton Head
the cycling leg of the race, I notice something very
unusual and relatively radical at the time.
While riding his traditional road frame Pigg was
sitting on the forward tip of his saddle…OUCH!
The theory was (and still is),
that by riding at a more forward position, not only are
you are more aerodynamic on the bike, but you are also
putting less emphasis on your quadriceps muscles. Thus
saving your legs for the run portion of the triathlon.
Bicycle pioneers such as Dave
Empfield of Quintana Roo believed in this theory and
sought to create a product to satisfy the growing demand
of concerned triathletes.
Within a few years, the tri-bike
was created, offering the triathlete aerodynamics, speed
and muscular efficiency.
And let us not forget the use of the smaller 650c
wheels – a radical departure from the traditional 700c
wheels. These smaller, lighter wheels also proved
beneficial providing less rolling resistance allowing the
rider to accelerate faster.
So which bike is better for you
and your needs?
A great deal depends upon the
terrain in which you will be training and racing. For
those living in a hilly or mountainous region, a triathlon
bike may not be to the best choice.
However, for flatter terrain, a triathlon bike will
If you do live in a hilly or
mountainous area, you may want a bike that will allow you
the greatest physical output when facing longer, uphill
a traditional road bike with its relaxed 72-degree seat
tube angle is ideal for this situation.
As previously mentioned, the road bike places the
rider further back on the bicycle allowing for maximum
power. By contrast, riding uphill on a triathlon bike with
the steeper seat tube angle, may force you to hang off the
back of the saddle in an effort seek the same position.
This will not only prove uncomfortable but inefficient as
triathlon bike was designed to place the rider in a
forward position for aerodynamics and to ease the pressure
placed on the quadricep muscles of the leg.
Although aerodynamics is not a factor when climbing
uphill, utilizing the quadriceps is! Therefore a
traditional road bike and its geometry offers the rider a
comfortable and yet extremely efficient and powerful ride.
However, “Rocky Mountain”
proponents of tri- bikes may argue that the 650c wheels
make up for the geometrically inefficient frame.
Because of the smaller size, lightweight wheels,
climbing uphill on a triathlon bike is much easier than a
traditional road bike with larger 700c wheels.
If you do choose to purchase a
road bike, you can convert your frame to a tri-bike by
simply changing out the seat post.
Today, manufacturers such as Profile have
successfully created forward seat posts that place the
rider in the now “traditional” forward position.
That is not to say that choosing
a triathlon bike is wrong.
In fact traditional road bike manufacturers such as
Cannondale®, Trek and Giant have entered the tri-bike
market and with great success.
So really the choice is yours.
Just make sure you do your research.
Consider the area where you will be training and
racing and how you will be using your bike before making
any decisions. More
importantly, make sure you are correctly sized for
whatever bike you choose.
If you do choose to purchase a road bike, make sure
you tell the salesman at the shop that you will be
converting it to a tri-bike so as to ensure the proper
fit. For more
information on choosing your first bike and proper bike
fit please refer to Warren Green’s article, Choosing
Your First Bike, also found in this section.