The Difference Between Road Cycling and Triathlon Cycling

When I started triathlon in 2012 I felt confident I would be able to handle the cycling well as a I had cycling experience. However, this included riding a 12KM loop around the lakes near my parent’s house as fast as I could and not a lot else. When I discovered the world of road cycling I was drawn in. The clubs, brutal climbs, watching pro cycling, the cafe culture. It all felt like a world hidden in plain sight.

However, within these groups there were very few triathletes, and certainly no triathletes of a high calibre. It turns out, there’s a big difference between road cycling and triathlon cycling, especially when you start looking at middle and long distance triathlon. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the difference between the pinnacle of both sports

Image credit Yuzuru SUNADA

This is an image from the 2020 Tour de France. As you can see it includes over 100 cyclists inches away from each other on standard road bikes wearing standard helmets. They’re getting ready for a bunch sprint, where the first athlete across the line wins the stage and takes home the glory.

Image Credit Trevor Clark

This is an image from the Ironman World Championship where the world’s fastest Ironman athletes converge every year to take on the famous course. Riders here are keeping a minimum of 12 metres apart unless overtaking, tackling the course with specialised bikes optimised for aerodynamics, along with clothing and helmets optimised for speed while riding solo. Once they finish their 180KM they then have to run a marathon.

It doesn’t take a sports scientist to notice that these events are more different than a layman may give them credit for. Even if you are taking on a triathlon on your road bike, you still have to maintain the same distance between competitors, and still have to run at the end.

The vast majority of road cyclists aren’t really training. The definition of training is specifically structuring your riding for optimal performance at an event. Most road cyclists are just riding around, enjoying the cafe culture, trying to be the first to the top of the hill, and maybe entering the odd sportive. For them cycling is a way to socialise and see more the local area/world. This is absolutely fine, but as triathletes we have our eyes set firmly on race day, and we need to think about our riding very differently if we want to optimise our performance. Here are a few tips on how to keep your cycling triaining specific. We’ll be assuming for the purpose of this article you’re not racing a draft legal race.

Focus on Steady State

When you’re on a triathlon bike course nobody cares about your ability to sprint, throw yourself up a hill on fresh legs or drop other riders. A triathlon bike course is essentially a time trial followed by a run. Even the very fastest Ironman cyclists will be putting out pretty comfortable power outputs over an Ironman bike leg, knowing that it will start to hurt towards the end, and they still need to run a marathon at the end.

Triathlons either take place on closed roads or on roads carefully chosen to minimise the chance of you having to give way to traffic, and tend to be pretty flat. As a result, there won’t be much, or any chance for respite, except braking for corners or the dismount line. To allow for this, you need focus on a continuous, steady power output for the duration of the bike leg, so as not to accumulate too much fatigue. Especially when the road points upwards.

A highly effective workout for developing fatigue resistance in the base phase

There is absolutely a place for hard intervals to develop your FTP, but without applying your new FTP to longer rides which simulate race day, it’s mainly just a way to show off and inspires false confidence.

Get used to riding solo

I have no problems with athletes who occasionally join group rides on the weekend. It adds a nice motivational boost, especially in the winter with conditions not conclusive to long rides. The issue comes however when athletes become allergic to riding solo, and need someone to ride with them either from a motivational or anxiety perspective. While I don’t want to downplay people’s fears about riding on the road solo, if you ride carefully it’s no more dangerous than walking down the street and it’s something that needs to be addressed if you want to compete in triathlon where you can be on your own for long periods.

Riding solo allows you to focus on your own power outputs, get better at reading the road, and develop resilience to the boredom which can come with long, lonely miles, and results in a lack of focus if you’re not careful. By the time you get to within eight weeks of your race, at least every other ride should be done solo.

Become self sufficient

This is a continuation of the previous point, but in triathlon cycling you need to become self sufficient. You can’t cycle along praying that the puncture gods are on your side. You need to know that should the worst happen, you have the tools and know how to get yourself back on the road.

This also applies to carrying supplies, food and drink. You probably won’t be wearing a cycling jersey, so you can’t stuff your pockets with food and tools. You have to carry all the fluids, food, extra clothing and tools on your bike. There are aid stations providing you with water and selected sports nutrition, and big events will have roaming mechanics, but these can take over an hour to reach you, and won’t help with punctures or other minor mechanicals.

Image credit Tony Svensson 

Aerodynamics

When riding solo, your biggest enemy is aerodynamics. The benefit of group riding is that riders in front of you disrupt the air, where you can slipstream them, in the same manner Formula One Cars will. However, when you are riding on your own there is no windbreak, so you have to do what you can to reduce drag. The best way to achieve this is to narrow your profile as much as possible and use clothing/accessories which allow for the smoothest airflow possible around the rider and bike. The rider creates around 90% of drag, so the primary focus should be here rather than on wheels or handlebars.

The best way to improve this is with a pair of clip on aero bars which can be affixed to the majority of handlebars. This gives you a basic aero position, which will be worth minutes on most courses. This position is very different and intimidating for many, without access to the brakes, twitchy steering and the general feeling of feeling lower to the ground and an increased sensation of speed that comes with being lower down. It may also be uncomfortable to start with, decreasing the hip angle and recruiting more of the hamstrings than you’ll be used to. This is a definite learning curve and unsuitable for beginners, but worth sticking with as the gains will be significant.

Clothing

Choosing the right kit to wear is important whatever your sport, however what you wear during triathlon cycling is of paramount importance. Something like a flappy arm sleeve on a jersey could cost you several minutes over a 70.3 as it disrupts the airflow. Most racers will opt for a triathlon suit which is close fitting, quick drying, and with a thinner chamois pad than you’re used to. Sleeved suits are the choice of many as fabric is more aerodynamic than skin, as well as offering protection from the sun. Your helmet is also an important piece of equipment to get right, as it produces the most bang for your buck out of all aero upgrades.

Getting Intensity Right

Getting the intensity right during triathlon cycling is paramount. If you undercook the effort you give away a lot of time in what is easily the longest discipline. If you go too hard you lose a lot of time on the run. I see most athletes going too easy in shorter events and go too hard in longer events. you can find recommended intensity factors (percentage of FTP) in this article, under the intensity factor section: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/an-introduction-to-trainingpeaks-metrics/

You can use a heart rate monitor if you don’t have a power meter, swapping the power zones for heart rate zones. While power and heart rate zones aren’t completely interchangeable, they’re good enough for me given the variability of heart rate in the first place.

The Importance of Power

If you are a road rider a power meter could be a point of curiosity or something you use to brag to others about your numbers. Unless you are really training with purpose using a turbo trainer, there are probably better places to invest your hard earned cash. As a triathlete however power meters become all but essential if you want to compete at a high level. They are the best way to measure your intensity (see above), and combined with your heart rate mean you stay in the sweet spot for your race.

You will hear interviews with some of the most successful pros out there who don’t use power meters in races or at all, claiming that “racing is flat out”. This is all well and good if you’ve been training and racing for twenty years and know exactly what your body is and isn’t capable of, but if you don’t know your body well, power becomes very important to manage your training and racing more precisely.

Eating on the go

Most road cyclists will acknowledge the importance of eating on the bike, but most of the time this is pretty simple. They’ll often take on the majority of their nutrition while stationary, either at a feed station during a sportive or in a cafe at the halfway point of a ride. Triathletes are afforded no such luxury, and must get used to eating on the move. This may sound simple, but conditioning your stomach to take on hundreds of calories while tucked up in an aero position takes practice. When you get hungry towards the end of a ride you can’t put off eating knowing that you’ll soon be sat in a cafe tucking into a cooked breakfast, you still have the run where it’s even harder to eat, so you need to keep the calories coming.

Riding in hot conditions

This is a sweeping statement, but most triathlons take place in warm conditions, as the combination of water temperature and air temperature must be high enough that athletes are unlikely to suffer with hypothermia. Even if things are a bit nippy first thing, even late season races will warm up nicely an hour or two into the bike. There are of course some notable exceptions, but these are events generally geared towards more experienced competitors.

This means that you need to prepare for racing in warmer temperatures, which in some climates can be very difficult to replicate. If you are training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, it can be difficult to replicate the humidity and heat in a temperate climate. There are various ways you can acclimatise for the heat, but I won’t go into these here. The main takeaway point for the purposes of this article is that you don’t need to acclimatise to riding in the cold. If you’d like to ride outside through the winter then I’m not going to stop you, but you don’t need to invest in a full winter wardrobe and risk your neck on icy roads as a triathlete as you’ll never race in these conditions.

Conclusion

While the sports of triathlon cycling and road cycling are very similar, there are also a number of differences which you should pay attention to if you want to be competitive. You can complete any triathlon with a road cycling mindset, riding a standard road bike, stopping at feed stations, showing off on the hills, but those who overtake you at 40KPH looking very comfortable manage to do so because they have trained in a very specific way. Focus your training in the same way and you’ll take huge chunks off of your bike split.

To find out the best way to incorporate this into your training and the kind of sessions you can attempt to improve your triathlon cycling performance, check out our Coaching Consultation page.

One thought on “The Difference Between Road Cycling and Triathlon Cycling

  • Hey SimonOlney, Thank you for this amazing article !
    Puts light on most of the aspects needed for a triathlete confused between Road cycling training and Cycling for Triathlon trainings specifically.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.