Home > Bike Gear

What to look for in a triathlon bike

When it comes to buying a new tri-bike, fit is key.

With so many excellent choices available to triathletes these days, figuring out your next bike purchase can be complicated. Some tips on how to make the decision.

Before you can even start figuring out what you’re looking for in a triathlon bike, your first task is to decide what type of racing you’ll be doing.

“What is your race plan,” asks Ceepo’s Marc-Andre Perron. “Are you planning to do an Ironman? You need the right tools for the job.”

It’s not as simple as just figuring out what distance you’re aiming for, either. Perron points out that right now many triathletes are gravitating towards triathlon-specific bikes like Cervelo’s PX-Series or Ceepo’s Shadow-R.

Advertisements

“If you live in Switzerland where there’s lots of mountains, or if your planning on racing Olympic-distance events, a bike like that doesn’t make any sense,” Perron says.

For this story we’re going to assume that a triathlon-specific bike is what you need. That means you are a triathlete who competes in non-drafting events, races where being in an aero position using triathlon bars will make a big difference in your performance.

Fit

No matter who you talk to, the first priority when it comes to finding a triathlon bike is fit.

“You have to be comfortable in the aero position,” says Enduro Sport’s Dan Rishworth. “It is a very specific position, so the adjustability of the fit on the bike is key. Being low is fast if you can hold it, but you lose all those gains if you have to sit up.”

As things start to open up bike stores will be able to do bike fits again – if you’re looking to really nail your next bike purchase, heading to a reputable triathlon store or bike fitter is well worth the trip. An experienced bike fitter will ensure that you get the most out of your purchase in terms of comfort and performance. A good bike fitter will even arm you with a list of bikes that will work best for you.

Wheels

This is a tough one. After your fit on the bike, wheels will make the biggest difference in terms of your performance. So, do you buy a bike that comes with race wheels from the start? If you do, are you going to train on those wheels all the time?

If you need to, sure. In an ideal world you’ll have a set of wheels that you train on and have a set of race-specific wheels set aside for competition. If you can afford that, great. If you can’t, then purchasing a bike with a race-ready wheelset is definitely worthwhile. Wheels are tough – I’ve been handed a few sets of wheels to review over the last few years where I’ve been told by the manufacturer to push them to their limits. (I was mortified to find out that my son took one set of wheels I was reviewing on gravel roads during a national team trip a few years ago, but I needn’t have worried. The wheels handled all the punishment he could hand out with ease. I did say wheels are tough, right?)

Related: Road bike or tri bike?

Electronic shifting

Perron feels very strongly that triathletes, especially those looking to race at technical, short-course events, should look to getting a bike with electronic shifting.

“With electronic shifting you can get back up to speed quickly and push on the pedals while you’re shifting,” he says. Perron suggests that you are even better to go down a model that comes with electronic shifting versus a more expensive frame armed with mechanical components.

What you can carry – modular capabilities

Over the last few years bike companies have been very aware of the importance of being able to carry hydration and nutrition while training and racing. There’s no point having the world’s most aerodynamic frame only to strap a bunch of gels or bars onto it. Rishworth says that its worth evaluating the “modularity” of the bike you are looking at – what can you bolt onto the bike that will enable you to meet your nutrition, hydration or flat-changing needs without sacrificing aerodynamics.

Brakes

Were it not for the stall in triathlon bike sales brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rishworth believes that manufacturers would stop making rim-brake bikes in the next couple of years. That timeline has likely been moved out a bit thanks to the pandemic, but the bottom line is that disc brakes will be the norm in the future when it comes to triathlon bikes.

That provides a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to picking out a new triathlon bike right now. If you want to go with the latest and greatest technology, a bike with disc brakes is the way to go. Disc brakes provide impressive stopping power no matter what the conditions. It’s not so great buying a bike with disc brakes if you have a basement full of rim-brake wheels, though.

As companies commit to disc-brake triathlon bikes, you can get some pretty good deals on rim-braked models right now, which has to be tempting. If you tend to turn bikes around every two or three years, a great deal on a rim-braked tri bike might not be a bad choice in 2020.

Packability

It might not feel like it right now, but there will be a time again when we’re going to travel to races. When Cervelo developed its revolutionary P5X a few years ago, the company’s research had found that one of the biggest stressors for Ironman athletes was traveling with their bike. With that in mind, the P5X was designed to pack into its own case. Other companies have followed suit – the packability of a triathlon bike is often a big selling feature. If you’re likely to be traveling to either train or race, keep that in mind.

Colour and Graphics

Face it – you care. A triathlon bike is hardly an inexpensive purchase, so there’s nothing wrong with being very interested in how good it looks.

Versatility

Where do you ride? Is this going to be your only bike? Since I got my first tri-specific bike in the late 80s, I’ve only ever ridden a bike with aero bars. I’ve taken my bikes up Alpe d’Huez, through the various tour climbs in Morzine, France, training camps in Lanzarote, up all the climbs I could find while covering Ironman Nice and at numerous training camps through the mountains around Malibu and in Vermont. As far as I’m concerned, my bike needs to be as capable on those climbs as it is while riding on a dead-flat course in an aero tuck.

If you’re not like me and determined that you’re going to ride a road bike for that type of crazy climbing and save your tri bike for shorter, flatter efforts and racing, then you can dial in your purchase accordingly. If you’re like me, you’re likely going to gravitate towards a UCI-legal bike that’s popular with the world’s best cyclists like Cervelo’s P5 or Argon-18’s E-118 Tri+.

With so many options available to triathletes these days, picking a tri-specific bike is no easy task. Regardless of your budget, start by finding a bike that fits you. Find someone who can guide you in the right direction on that front, then work your way through all the other variables while staying within your budget.