After finishing a few events, newcomers may find themselves contemplating a bigger commitment to the sport. Training time is one consideration; the cost of equipment is another. Prices for even entry-level triathlon specific bikes can cause some sticker shock. For many, upgrading their existing road bike with parts to improve aerodynamic performance is a worthy compromise.
“While you can never turn a road bike into a triathlon bike, there are scenarios where the athlete doesn’t want a tri bike,” notes Dan Rishworth, manager of EnduroSport in Toronto. “Some can’t afford it, others may just want one bike they can do everything with.”
Chris Clinton, brand manager for Bontrager says, “Some riders may be better on a traditional road bike than a triathlon bike because of their physiology. Some riders may be more comfortable over a long distance triathlon riding on a traditional frame that has been fit for them in an aero position than riding a more expensive triathlon specific bike.”
With some well-thought out upgrades, such as adding aerobars, a modified seat post and wheels, a quality road bike can perform better. “The number one priority is aerodynamics,” says Rishworth. “The benefit of reducing drag is too high to ignore. Improving rider position is the number one objective. To improve performance it’s all about getting the rider into a more aerodynamic streamlined position out of the wind.”
Clinton continues, “The two primary upgrades should be wheels and aerobars. Wheels make a huge improvement in aerodynamics, especially considering that the front wheel is the leading edge of the bike. Better wheels also help with cornering stability, acceleration and saving watts on climbs. The aerobars probably make the biggest difference since the rider is the biggest factor in drag and they help place the rider in a more streamlined position.”
Clip-on aerobars are fairly simple and will fit on most road bike handlebars. Little modification, if any, is required of the bike. “I do suggest a slightly shorter stem for most riders as the aerobars place them further forward on the bike,” reports Clinton. “Upgrading to a full aerobar system may require a bit of money as brake levers, shifters, cables and bar tape would also need to be changed.”
Some triathletes may think a bike course with a lot of hills or turns discounts the performance characteristics of aerobars. Rishworth disagrees, “Even if you get into your aero bar half the time the benefit is huge. You need to have an aerobar. The advantage is too big to ignore.”
Prices for clip on bars range from $80 to $200. Finding the right model for your bike and riding style is worth the effort. Problems can arise if you aren’t fit correctly. “If you just slap a set of aero bars on a road bike, a lot of times you can’t put the rider in the right position. They will be stretched out too far,” explains Barry Smith, director of marketing for Profile Design / Bellwether / Titec. “People need to understand positioning is paramount. If you’re not set up properly it doesn’t matter how fancy your stuff is. You are going to get off the bike and wobble because your muscles are going to be tight.”
Smith recommends seat post adjustments to improve performance and alleviate discomfort. “Seat posts can be used to push the seat forward on the bike,” he says. “It changes the length of the bike in relation from the aero bars to the saddle and allows the rider to have the proper arm position and give them a little more effective riding position. Engaging your core saves your legs for the run.”
Using a properly adjusted seat position improves the rider’s ability to take advantage of an aero position. “Getting into aerobars can be uncomfortable in terms of the saddle,” explains Rishworth. “Your hips are rotated forward and that means you are sitting on soft tissue that were never intended to be sat on. There’s no cure-all for saddle discomfort, but we encourage people to make sure that they don’t give up on saddle comfort. There are lots of options out there.”
Sometimes overlooked, upgrading to clip-on pedals can also improve a road bike’s performance. Chris Wehan, Look Cycle USA’s marketing and product manager, explains. “The clipless pedal allows for better power transfer. When are engaged and clipped into the pedal you obtain the pull-up as well as the push down with your legs. You are maximizing the amount of energy your legs are putting out and that translates moving your bike faster. Another benefit is being in a locked, solid position that improves the security and feel of the pedal.