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What Bike Should I Buy for Triathlon?

Written by Fiona January 09 2015

A question that comes up time and again at local triathlon clubs is what first bike should I buy? Here is what bike mechanic and Glasgow Tri Club athlete Nick Green would advise.

Buying kit for your favourite sport is one of life’s great pleasures – and triathlon offers endless possibilities for getting more “stuff”. Swimming and running are pretty disappointing in this respect, but bicycle buying can be sufficiently time consuming to displace all other training activities.

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As a triathlon newbie, what bike do you need to take part?

If you go along to a race you might be surprised at the range of bikes you see. Maybe a third of people will be trying the sport for the first time and have brought along whatever bike they happen to own.

Mountain bikes and hybrids are common, in all states of disrepair. You probably you won’t win on these types of bike but no one is going to look down on you. Taking part is what matters.

Most people in the race will be riding standard road bikes with skinny tyres and drop handlebars. These are the most versatile machines that everyone in the club will own. You can train, race, commute and even tour on them. (More of these later.)

Many road bikes will have clip-on aero bars attached. These allow the rider to rest their elbows and hold an extended handlebar (a bit like a downhill skier) so that they are in a more aerodynamic position.

Beyond that, the ultimate is a special purpose-made time trial bike, where the rider is in an even more aero position. The top few per cent in a race will be using this type of bike.

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What should you buy and how much do you need to spend?

As I have said, most people own and race on standard road bikes rather than time trial bikes, for various reasons

If you have been riding a mountain bike or hybrid, even a road bike will take a bit of getting used to. They are faster and less stable, they have more sensitive controls and you will have your feet clipped into the pedals.

The riding position is initially uncomfortable with your bum higher than your handlebars. All of these factors require familiarisation and miles in the saddle.

TT bikes (time trial or aero or triathlon bikes, as they are sometimes known) have these same problems, but in an even more exaggerated form.

With a road bike you can participate in club rides, whereas a TT bike is not safe to ride with others.

Group rides are a great way to get miles in, socialise and push yourself a little against other triathletes. You can also use it for other events such as cycle sportives.

TT bike.

Time Trial (TT) bike.

While TT bikes are generally faster, this depends on the rider being able to hold a fairly extreme position for the duration of a race. This takes many miles of training to get used to. Indeed, on a hilly course the TT bike may give little advantage and even the best riders will opt for a road bike.

Clip-on aero bars are very commonly used as an intermediate step from road bike to the full TT position. They cost from about £50 and can be added to any bike, but may require some adjustment to the riding position.

My recommendation would be that you buy a road bike first and get a few races under your belt before buying anything more exotic. Many club members will achieve very high placings over years of racing without ever purchasing a specific triathlon bike.

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How much is a bike?

Your budget depends on your personal circumstances of course, but a sensible figure for a decent first road bike would be £500-800. This is a lot of money, but bikes below this price range will not stand up well to sustained usage in training.

There are good second hand bikes around on eBay, Gumtree and Facebook, but it should be remembered that bike components have a finite life and parts on a second hand bike are likely to wear out sooner than new ones.

It’s best to buy second hand from a trusted seller and other club members are a good source of quality used bikes.

Bikes at this price will probably have an alloy frame, which is perfectly adequate. Expect to pay more for a lighter carbon fibre frame.

It is best to go for alloy with the best quality components you can afford. The manufacturers such as Shimano and Sram produce ranges of components (gears, brakes, etc) at various price points. By researching and hunting on the internet you can find the better quality parts at good prices (Shimano Tiagra is a good benchmark in this price range.)

Another way to save on bike costs could be to opt for the Cycle to Work Scheme, if your employer signs up to this. It’s not available to self-employed people.

With the recent expansion of interest in cycling there are literally hundreds of manufacturers of road bikes, often sold online at good prices by websites such as Wiggle and Chain Reaction. A few makes worth considering are Canyon, Boardman, Ribble, Merlin, Dolan and Triban (Decathlon.)

musseuw-flax-bicycleRemember, though, that comfort counts for a lot and trying a bike before buying could save a lot of money in the long run. For this reason, local bike shops are a good first bet.

When, or if, you come to consider buying a TT bike it is likely that you will have developed some experience of your own and have preferences for particular manufacturers, components, materials, wheels, etc. It is quite likely you will find a good quality bike of this type second hand because they tend to be looked after well and do not get ridden in bad weather. Once drawn into this kind of “bike chat” there is no helping you!

I have included a fair few personal opinions here, drawn from experience as a mobile bike mechanic in the Glasgow area (Hammer and Cycle.) I can carry out repairs, servicing, pre-purchase assessments for used bikes, new builds and bike fitting.

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