Is Your Triathlon Bike Slowing You Down?

jan-frodeno-ironman-kona
A triathlon bike in its natural habitat of Kona, in the hands of Jan Frodeno on his way to another Ironman World Championship win in 2016. Photo Credit Unknown

 

Ahead of your big race have you invested in a triathlon bike? Are you surprised, confused or disappointed at the lack of improvement in your speeds, or are you even slower on it than on your road bike? Here we’ll delve into the reasons this may be, and hopefully offer some solutions.

If a triathlon bike was the outright fastest and most comfortable way to get round, why wouldn’t people ride them all the time? The answer is a triathlon bike involves a lot of compromises in the way of bike design, and they can be difficult to get comfortable on.

For those who need a basic explanation, a triathlon bike makes you faster by lowering and narrowing your profile against the wind. The bike frame itself is also tapered to make it cut through the air as fast as possible, but as the least aerodynamic thing on the bike is you, the focus is on getting yourself lower and narrower. Most have shifters on the end of the aero bars and electronic models also have shifters on the bullhorns to make it easier to change gear when braking, climbing or descending.

The compromise is that to improve airflow around the bike the frame, more material is needed to reduce turbulence, which results in a bulkier frame, increasing weight. On a pan flat course this doesn’t have much of an impact, but if you find yourself on an undulating course when you’re used to a featherweight road bike it can come as a surprise. Not only does a tri bike increase weight when climbing, but it makes the bike less stable on the descents due to the short wheelbase and deep section wheels, which combined with the fact that brakes on triathlon bikes are normally less efficient than on road bikes, can lead to you handing over minutes to those on the road bikes on the hills. If you can make that time back on the flats you’ll be faster overall, but if a course is relentlessly hilly, such as Ironman UK, you may be better off going for a light, responsive climbing bike.

There is also the question of wheels, most stock triathlon bikes will come with a very basic set of wheels to make the price point more appealing, but most triathletes will upgrade the wheels into something more aerodynamic such as a rear disk wheel or deep section rims. These are not only heavier and slower to accelerate but are a handful in crosswinds, to the extent that certain courses especially prone to strong winds ban them. If you are on a flat piece of road in good conditions they can shave valuable minutes off of your bike split, but they’re not always the right choice. If you are new to riding your triathlon bike, I recommend you use the stock wheels for a few rides, and if you plan to upgrade to deep rims for race days, make sure you get plenty of practice riding these on your long rides, and learning how they handle on the downhills/crosswinds.

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Sure it looks fast, but you wouldn’t want to get caught in strong crosswinds

You also need to be going at a fair rate of knots for the aerodynamic benefit to really kick in, around 30-35KM/H. Can you maintain that speed for the duration of the bike course? Chances are that on shorter distances you can, but over half iron or full iron distances you really need to be able to ride a bike well to reap the rewards of a tricked out triathlon bike. The reason for this is that as you get faster, your encounter more wind resistance and aerodynamics become more important, this is why you see Formula One  teams doing everything possible to improve air flow, but racing trucks still look like their road counterparts, they’re simply not going fast enough for aerodynamics to be an issue. A triathlon bike will always be faster on the flats than a road bike, but how much faster depends on how hard you can push those pedals round.

Along with ability to maintain speed is also the question of core strength. While properly setup aero bars can be very comfortable as your weight rests on the elbow pads, you need to make sure you have the core strength to maintain that position for the duration of your race, as you will be in a plank like position. If your core collapses in the bike leg your run will likely be a disaster as your can’t support your body in an economical position, adopting what many call the “Ironman shuffle”. The simplest way to improve this is to develop your core strength with exercises such as planks, but you can also look at adding some spacers to bring your bars higher up.

If you race on your triathlon bike you really need to train on it. That’s not to say that you should bin your road bike, as it is important for group riding sessions and those long off season miles, but you should stick your race bike on your turbo over winter and take it out at least once a week in the spring to get used to handling it on the road. You should get used to riding on all conditions in all terrain on your race bike, whether it’s descending down a steep hill in the rain or threading it through a series of fast corners, you need to be confident in your handling ability to ride with confidence on race day. If you keep your race bike locked up in your shed all year and only break it out for race day you’re going to struggle to convert your training into speed on race day.

You should also put it in for a full professional service at least once a year, clunky gear changes will not only frustrate you but lose you time hand over fist, not to mention the possibility of pieces falling off! It is also important to re-index your gears when you re-build your bike when you arrive at your race. Whether your flew it halfway round the world or stuck it in the boot of your car for the local sprint race, it doesn’t take much for your gears to take a knock and play havoc with your race.

Most importantly, make sure to get a proper bike fit to get yourself into a comfortable and economical position. Your super aerodynamic position may save you 25W, but if you’re putting out 50W less than on your road bike because you’re not used to the position (which engages your hamstrings and glutes far more than a road bike position) you’ll probably end up going slower than on a road bike. Your position doesn’t necessarily have to be as far forward and as low as possible, look at the picture below of the Great Britain men’s team pursuit squad at the 2016 World Track Championships.

2016 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
The Team GB men’s pursuit team. Photo credit unknown

Notice the variation in width of the aero bars and the height of the stack, there’s no ideal position as it’s very individual. Of course not all of us can afford £2500 to spend in the wind tunnel finding our optimal position, but notice how they’re not as low and as narrow as possible. I personally find having my bars closer actually makes me more stable than having them wide, but it’s very individual, and comfort is king. If you’re comfortable you’ll be able to put out more power for longer, if you’re scrunched up and can’t breathe properly, you’re just handing advantage to your rivals.

Just to add to the confusion, a lot of high performance athletes will take a triathlon bike even on a very hilly course. This is because they’re exceptional athletes who live on their triathlon bikes and can throw it down a hill or round a corner at speeds that makes my eyes water, and the time they gain on the flat sections more than makes up for the time they lose on the hills.

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Daniela Ryf climbs Solar Hill at Challenge Roth (Getty Images Europe/Stephen Pond)

In the Tour de France where they use both road and aero bikes in competition, some will even put clip on aero bars onto their road bike to offer the best of both worlds in mountainous time trials. This offers a sizeable advantage without the drawbacks of a full aero bike, but when using clip ons we have to reach away from the bars to the shifters to change gear, increasing our profile against the wind and slowing us down. You also have to make some changes to saddle fore/aft and your handlebars to get completely comfortable, so they can be tricky to setup. They’re a great option for hilly races or for trying an aero position without buying a whole bike, but it involves a number of compromises so should be carefully considered before taking to a big race.

richie-porte
Richie Porte rides clip on aero bars to 4th place in the mountainous time trial of stage 18 in the 2016 Tour de France (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Your triathlon bike may even be the wrong size for you, if you picked it up off a friend or from Ebay then there’s a reasonable chance it’s the wrong size for you. As the saddle sits further forward over the bottom bracket, the bike has a shorter wheelbase and you generally don’t reach as far forward, many people (myself included) ride a triathlon bike a size smaller than a road bike so if you simply went for the same size as your existing bike you may find you’re overreaching, and run the risk of developing lower back pain. Unfortunately even if you go to a bike shop for a sizing not many sales staff are trained to get you setup on the right bike, so if you’re spending a lot of money and really want to get it right I recommend getting a fit before you buy the bike to make sure you buy the right one.

So to conclude, if you’re disappointed with the speed of your triathlon bike, you can try the following:

-Get a bike fit
-Improve your core strength and flexibility
-Spend more time training with it
-Reconsider your wheel choice
-Train harder!

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