It’s the question that has crossed the mind of every aspiring cyclist or triathlete, why is cycling so expensive? You may have had a budget in your head of £100 (or regional equivalent) for your bike, but it seems even that is unlikely to leave you walking away with a bike. Let alone a road bike. That’s before you even get to the clothing and accessories.
Why is cycling so expensive? Is the whole industry a rip off? In this article we’re going on a deep dive into the cycling industry to find out. We’re going to be focusing on road cycling as this is the area I’m mot familiar with. The majority of the points here apply to off road as well.
Why Shouldn’t I Buy a £100 bike?
These bikes are what I have seen fondly referred to as “bike shaped objects” by mechanics. This may come across as snobbery, but there’s logic here.
These bikes are designed to be taken out for a short ride on flat terrain a couple of times a year. The quintessential family bike ride. They’re heavy, sluggish and will break very easily. When it does break, you will probably pay 30-40% of the value of the bike to fix it. The tyres will puncture easily, the chain will probably fall off without much encouragement, and you’ll struggle to get spare parts.
What Should I Buy Instead?
In contrast, let’s look at the classic starting bike, the Specialized Allez. Like many cyclists, I started out on one of these dream machines. Other brands are available.
So, what does this bike offer which our bargain basement bike doesn’t?
For many cyclists, a lighter bike is a better bike. If you get passed on the hills by those on much lighter bikes, this is very demoralising as you feel powerless. An entry level road bike like an Allez could be twice as light as a cheap bike. It still isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of road cycling, but it’s a big step up.
I’m probably not exaggerating by much when I estimate that this bike will last 100 times longer than a cheap bike. I rode mine for the best part of 15,000 miles without major issue. Yes I needed to replace some parts, but when you consider you’re lucky to get 100 miles out of a cheap bike without needing to take it to a mechanic, the difference in longevity is remarkable. It’s actually cheaper to pay more up front in the long run.
The Specialized pictured above uses a Shimano Sora groupset. This refers to the brakes, gears, shifters, chain e.t.c.
When you shift a gear on this bike, it will jump to the new gear less than a second. When you shift a gear on a bike shaped object, it will make a slow, clunky shift. If you’re lucky it’ll end up in the gear you wanted to without jumping around. If you’re not changing gear much this doesn’t matter. But if you’re on rolling terrain and want to use your gears to make life easier, this can be frustrating.
In addition, when you turn a corner, the steering will feel silky smooth for a long time. Meanwhile, a cheaper bike’s bearings will wear quickly. Especially when it gets wet.
Once you’ve been riding for a year or two, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some upgrades for your bike. This could be more gears, better brakes or a new saddle. These upgrades are designed to fit traditional road bikes. Cheaper bikes often have non standard fixtures, as they don’t expect to be upgraded.
When you can be looking at £80 for a comfortable saddle, you will very quickly get to the place where you’re almost spending as much on single components as you did on a cheap bike.
If you buy a cheap bike and get bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether you ride with friends who leave you for dust, or it breaks down yet again at the furthest point from home and you need to call for a pick up; you’ll end up having to sell it for a fraction of what you paid for it, and buying a more expensive bike anyway.
So, where does my money go?
The Specialized Allez starts at £650, which is a lot of money to spend on a bike. So where does the money go? And why would someone look to spend £5000 on a bike?
Quality of Materials
The biggest factor which makes cycling expensive is the materials used in manufacture of the parts. If you want a cheap steel frame, you can get this for a song. However, it will be very heavy. There are Chinese factories which manufacture counterfeit bikes, which they sell on for a fraction of the cost. However, there’s a good chance these will break, potentially injuring you in the process.
When looking to purchase something it can be cheap and light. Or strong and cheap. Most bikes need to be both light and strong, but this doesn’t come cheap. For a bike to be able to withstand thousands of miles on the road without damage the materials have to be carefully chosen. They also have to be treated in a specific way to ensure performance and safety.
This extends beyond the frame materials to everything on the bike. Wheels are notoriously expensive because they have to both be incredibly light, and withstand huge forces from hitting potholes without buckling. There will always be a cheaper option out there, but this will come with a penalty to performance and longevity.
Research and Development
If you want to create the lightest and fastest bike on the market, this involves a considerable amount of research and development. This involves paying designers and engineers to build prototypes, time spent in a wind tunnel, stress tests on the frame itself, and dozens of other steps between concept and the bike appearing for sale at your local bike shop. These costs are passed onto the consumer when they purchase the bike, to help the bike manufacturer stay in business. And help them keep pushing the boundaries.
Pro Team Sponsorship
A bike sponsor will provide a World Tour team with hundreds of bikes over the course of a year. When you consider many manufacturers will sponsor multiple teams, you’re looking at companies spending hundreds of thousands over the course of a year to support professional teams. They hope to recoup the cost by inspiring customers to buy their bikes via the team. If you think recreational cycling is expensive, wait until you see the costs involved with running a professional team!
Running of the Business
Smaller bike manufacturers will only really make money from selling frames. The sale of bikes cover everything from the receptionist’s salary to the van they use for deliveries. If companies did not make a profit from each sale, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business, offer warranties or provide any customer service. While some products provide manufacturers and retailers with a large profit margin, bike frames are not one of them, and the whole industry relies on bike manufacturers staying in business.
But What About Expensive Cycling Clothing? Some Kit Costs As Much as Cheap Bikes
It’s true that you can get a cheap bike for the cost of some waterproof jackets, but it all comes back to performance. When cycling you build up a huge amount of heat. When you cover yourself with what is essentially a plastic bag, this traps the heat and causes the rider to overheat. You may keep the rain off you with cheap jackets, but you’ll get soaked with sweat, losing a lot of sodium in the process which hurts your performance in itself. A high end waterproof jacket will be far more breathable, while still keeping you dry.
Expensive cycling jerseys may be incredibly lightweight for summer riding, aerodynamic for use in time trials, or windproof for riding in poor weather. However, they may also be expensive simply for the sake of fashion. Where bikes themselves are all about performance, clothing is far more susceptible to trends, and you can get away with spending a bit less here. Cheaper kit will be heavier, not as breathable and won’t fit as nicely, but this will have far less of an effect on your ride than a bike which is constantly breaking.
Do I Need to Spend a Lot on a Helmet?
All of the helmets for sale will meet basic safety standards, so you don’t need to spend a lot on a helmet to keep you or a loved one safe. Money spent on an expensive cycling helmet can make it more aerodynamic (faster), lighter and more breathable. Cheaper helmets will feel like a block of polystyrene on your head, where you won’t notice you’re wearing a more expensive one. There are safety systems such as MIPS available on some models, which is suggested to improve safety for a small price increase.
Fit is more important than cost when it comes to safety. You shouldn’t be able to fit more than two fingers under the chin strap, and it shouldn’t be too tight, or too loose on your head.
Manufacturers Will Charge What People are Willing to Pay
This is true in many industries, but is especially true in cycling. Many people will walk into a bike shop, ask for the latest bike, and price won’t even be discussed. They might not even look at the total. Manufacturers will push the very limit of what current technology permits, because they know someone will buy it and justify the investment in developing the product. It will also win professional races, building their brand.
The good news is that these customers help keep manufacturers in business, which allows them to keep the price down on their entry level bikes. Top end bikes will rarely be discounted in a meaningful way, but many components and accessories will be discounted within a matter of months following their release.
There are many factors which make cycling expensive, but you don’t have to remortgage your house to get started. A budget of £1000 will get you up and running with a setup that lasts years, and prove to be more economical than going for the cheapest possible option.
Once you’ve completed your first event or two, you’ll be riding the high of achievement, yet also slightly downbeat. While you’re proud as punch of your performance, you can’t quite get over why you got dropped so quickly at the start, how fast the cyclists who lapped you were going, or quite how it’s possible for the announcer to be calling in the winner as you come into T2. You make a vow, it’s time to take your triathlon training to the next level.
But what does this mean? The intention is clear, you want to get faster, but how do you plan to achieve that? There’s a lot of information out there, but much of it is conflicting. What you may think makes you faster just exhausts you for no tangible improvement to your times.
What follows is a list of recommendations to help you improve how you train, and therefore your performance. We cover the very basics first, the low hanging fruit which will provide the greatest benefits, before we start digging in a little deeper.
The focus here is on improving the training process, rather than the best way to improve your performance. While there are all sorts of products, gadgets and tips to help you race 1% faster, consistent, considered training needs to be the foundation.
Follow a Structured Plan
This doesn’t have to be a complex paid for plan from a website such as TrainingPeaks, but having some structure to your training will really help you develop as an athlete. This could be as simple as knowing you will have a long ride and a long run on the weekend which gets progressively longer each weekend, with two swims in the week and other workouts dotted in as and when you can fit them in. Alternatively, it could be an incredibly specific plan, tailored for you as an individual with specific targets on each day.
The benefit of a structured plan is that it holds you to a kind of accountability, and if you follow the basic principles of periodisation, will help ensure you’re doing the right kind of training at the right time of year. There are plenty of free, basic training plans available online, the race organiser of your event may even have one on their website.
Consistency is king in triathlon, and following a plan ensures you stay consistent. This is a guaranteed way to take your triathlon training to the next level.
Take Rest Days and Recovery Weeks
Training breaks your body down, recovery makes it stronger. You may think that training for seven days a week proves your dedication and will propel you to greatness, but the chances are this will just result in non-functional overreaching and long term exhaustion. When we back off and allow our body to recover, we reap the benefits of our training, and are able to go hard at the next time of asking. One day of complete rest a week, and an easier recovery week every 3-4 weeks is recommended for the vast majority of athletes.
Get More Sleep
Most of us don’t get enough sleep. Between work, family, training and the desire for some “me” time in front of the TV, we can slip into the habit of getting less than six hours sleep per night. While rest days allow our body a break from training, adaptation to the training stimulus itself happens primarily during deep sleep. Ever wonder why you can do a hard session in the morning, feel fine for the next 12 hours, then upon waking the next day feel like the tin man? It’s only when we sleep that our body sends the signals to repair the muscles and generate more mitochondria. If we’re stingy with our sleep, our performance will suffer, and we increase the risk of burnout. There’s no point taking your triathlon training to the next level if you’re not receiving the benefits.
Eight hours may not be achievable for everyone due to work/family, but heading to bed at 10:30PM and waking at 6:30AM isn’t unreasonable for most people, and ticks the box of the magic eight hours.
Work on Your Weaknesses
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re not the world’s greatest swimmer. In fact the mere smell of neoprene may initiate a fight or flight response in you. I struggled with this for many years. I overcame this not by hiding from it, but by getting in the pool three times a week and slowly chipping away.
It’s human nature to focus on what we’re good at, however if we really want to succeed in triathlon, we need to focus on where we can make the most time. If I spent an eight week training block focused on running with weekly hill reps, track work and long runs, I might be able to save a minute over 5K. This is a huge amount of time, and I’d feel very satisfied. But I’m not a runner, I’m a triathlete. If I had spent the time swimming instead focused on my running, I could have saved 2-3 minutes over 750M, resulting in a much greater improvement to my overall performance.
Get Some Swim Coaching
Swimming is the most technical sport by a long way, and you can only improve so much by ploughing up and down on your own. Whether you want to hire a coach on a 1to1 capacity or join a swim squad where the coach provides intermittent feedback, having an experienced set of eyes look at your stroke will work wonders. Coaching for cycling and running is also very valuable if you feel you struggle, but swimming provides the most gains for the majority of athletes.
Introduce Strength and Conditioning
Strength and conditioning for triathletes? Sacrilege! Well, it may not be your idea of a good time, but an effective strength and conditioning plan will provide you with a number of benefits to take your triathlon training to the next level, including but not limited to:
Reduced chance of injury
Improved muscular force
Greater range of motion
Reduced rate of technique breakdown
Moving better in day to day life
This doesn’t have to mean taking out a gym membership and tackling the free weights if you don’t want, but taking the time to strengthen your core, improve your balance and stretch/roll your tight muscles, even if only for 10 minutes a day, will provide an invisible yet important benefit to your training.
Get a Bike fit
Hopefully when you bought your bike they helped you choose the right size bike, and may have raised/lowered the saddle for you to get it in the right ballpark. However there’s much, much more to being comfortable on a bike than this. From choosing the right saddle, right handlebars and right shoes to getting these setup millimetre perfect, a professional can really help you get dialled in. When we’re comfortable on our bike we can put out more power for longer, and run better off the bike. Visiting a fitter based in a shop comes with benefits as they have lots of different components on hand for you to try out. Expect to pay £200 for a comprehensive experience, before parts or labour installing them.
Take Your Bike Training Indoors
Chances are we took up triathlon because we love the outdoors. But if it’s February, raining, and we only have an hour available, by the time we’ve bundled up and head out the door, we’re not going to get much of a session in. Combined with the risk of ice and low light levels in winter, training indoors becomes a very efficient alternative. The benefit of riding hard without worrying about traffic is not to be underestimated, which combined with software such as Zwift can provide an engaging experience.
Riding inside help maintain consistency, and consistency breeds success. This combined with the ability to ride intervals is essential when taking your triathlon training to the next level.
Monitor Training Intensity
Swimming, riding and running to feel will get you a long way. However if you really want to get fitter, you need a gauge to tell you what’s easy and what’s hard. Whether you use heart rate, power or pace isn’t of huge importance at this stage in your triathlon journey, but measuring your data, understanding it and reviewing it is key to high level triathlon performance. I recommend picking up a book on training to help you understand the data and decide what to do with the results.
Get Race Specific With Your Training
You’re swimming in open water on the day? You’d better get to your local lake once a week. If you’re planning to ride 180KM on a triathlon bike, you need to be doing your long rides on it. If the on course nutrition is a brand you’re not familiar with, you’d do well to try training with it ahead of race day to see if it works for you. When training for a hilly race, you’d better get some climbing in your legs. Once you get within a few months of your event, you need to start thinking about your workouts and how they help prepare you for race day.
Work With a Coach
Triathlon is an incredibly complex sport where we have a lot to fit into our training schedule, and need to learn to pick our battles. Working with a coach who understands you, communicates well with you and knows how to get the best out of you is the best investment you can make in your triathlon training, and will help you race much faster than spending thousands on fancy wheels for your bike. There are hundreds of coaches out there, offering different levels of service for different budgets, so don’t assume you can’t afford it.
We offer very comprehensive training programmes, as well as consultations for athletes looking for someone to point them in the right direction. Take a look if you’re dedicated to taking your triathlon training to the next level.
As with everything in life, what once raised our pulse and dominated our every thought becomes slowly mundane. When we started out in triathlon we were all smitten with the bike tech, wetsuits, different events and all the toys we never knew we needed. We completed our first race, got faster quickly, raced progressively longer distances, until a day came when we no longer jumped out of bed to train every morning. How can we fall back in love with triathlon?
It could be that your performance hit a plateau, you picked up an injury, or you achieved everything you wanted to. For whatever reason you’ve lost your mojo and triathlon no longer gives you goosebumps. While you can never recapture the thrill of the first year or two in the sport, there are steps you can take to remember why you started, and hopefully get back to enjoying training. These tips are very generalised, and depend on why you’ve found yourself out of love with the sport, but should hopefully help you get back into the swing of things.
Find New Training Routes
To start with, exploring the roads in your local area by bike was a real buzz. Whether putting in a big training ride or simply saving money on petrol/public transport, it was a new way to see the world. Fast forward five years and you know every pothole, every corner and every gradient change within 10 miles of your front door. The list of places to explore is dwindling and with it the satisfaction of achieving something new.
To start with, look into some route planning software such as Komoot, Strava or Ride with GPS. These can help you both find new routes uploaded by others, or help you create a new route based on a destination such as a cafe or a piece of coastline. Be careful here though, as some software will try to take you down overgrown bike paths, through muddy forests or a really convoluted, slow route using cycle lanes, so it’s worth checking the route before you blindly set off.
Focus on a Single Sport
If you’ve always been a pure triathlete, you’ve probably missed out on a lot of events. It may be worth looking into cross country running, time trialling or long distance swimming. These events are usually much cheaper than entering a triathlon, and you can train for them alongside the other two disciplines. They may push you out of your comfort zone, but this is a good thing, as being outside your comfort zone was probably one of the things that appealed to you about triathlon in the first place! You may not even need any new equipment, just a sense of adventure.
Mix up Your Multisport
Triathlon is great, but so is duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, swimrun, quadrathlon, off road triathlon and other variations that I’ve no doubt forgotten or have yet to be invented. If you are struggling with a running injury? Have a go at aquabike. Always way behind in the swim? Spend your off season racing duathlon to see how you perform there. Triathlon may still be your ultimate goal, but this is a good way to shake things up a bit. Falling in love with other multisports for the first time will probably help you fall in love with triathlon again.
Just Sign up for a Race
This is a high risk, high reward strategy. You need to put money on the table here, but there’s nothing quite like a race on the calendar to focus the mind and get you out the door, which can be the hardest part of some workouts. Make sure it’s something which is challenging enough to feel you have to train for it, but it’s also achievable within the time you have to train for it. Signing up for an Ironman with three months to go and minimal fitness probably isn’t going to end well.
Treat Yourself to Some New Kit
Let me make this clear, I am NOT suggesting you go out and drop four figures on a new bike to help motivate you. The chances are this motivation will be short lived, and very expensive if it doesn’t work out. Instead, think about buying yourself some new sunglasses, replacing your worn out bib shorts, or getting some new goggles you can actually see out of, things like that. This is unlikely to have a huge effect on its own, but should help make your return to training feel that bit more exciting, and different to last time.
Try a Structured Training Plan
Many clients I have coached have commented on how I have helped them fall back in love with triathlon by delivering flexible, detailed plans. The sense of specificity and the accountability of a coach who will ask questions if the training isn’t done and the knowledge that they’re working towards something special help motivate them. If you burned out in the past, failed to finish your big race or trained randomly with mixed results, structured training can help refocus the mind and get results. If you’re not looking for a coaching relationship, a training plan is an affordable way to bring structure to your training.
Step Away from Structured Training
If you have spent the last four years moving from coach to coach, or training plan to training plan, and you’re just feeling drained, taking some time away from a structured regime may be what you need. This could be for an entire season of self discovery or just for a few weeks, but it can really help you recharge mentally. Once you are back into the swing of training 5-6 days a week, you can if you wish look at returning to a more structured plan.
Join a Club
If you are used to training solo, which definitely has its advantages, it can be a lonely existence. While training in a group may be less effective at getting you race ready for a non drafting event than a solo ride on your race bike, it’s better than no ride, and can bring joy in its own way. Whether it’s the mid ride banter or getting to know other members at a cafe stop, it can be a reminder of why we started riding our bikes in the first place. After the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns, this is a good way to re-engage with the human side of the sport.
Squad swim training sessions can be a good way for someone to have a look at your technique, while running sessions at a track add a competitive aspect to your intervals. Even if you only join in with the group workouts for the off season and early base period, it can help you build the momentum you need to get back on the triathlon wagon.
Sign up for an Event That Scares You
You’ve already achieved more than you thought possible, but what else could you achieve? Perhaps you could step up to a half or a full Ironman, or if you’ve already done that, perhaps an extreme triathlon, an off road triathlon, or just a tough Ironman course like Nice. If you’re genuinely unsure whether you’ll be able to complete a race or not, this can put the fear into people and encourage them to train with the same urgency as when they signed up for events earlier in their triathlon career, and saw the experience as a huge step into the unknown.
Aim to Qualify for a World Championship Event
This may not be in the reach of everyone within the next 12 months, but aiming to qualify to represent your country at a world championship event, or qualifying for the Ironman/70.3 championships as an individual is an admirable goal you can apply yourself to. While the qualification itself is never guaranteed and depends on who else turns up on the day, it’s a good way to really apply yourself and aim to perform to the best of your ability, rather than simply ‘good enough to get round’. To qualify you will normally need to be one of the top 3 in your age group to finish.
Choosing the right target race is also very important to maximise your chances of success. If you target a big early season race such as Ironman 70.3 Marbella you’ll struggle to make an impression, where if you find a less popular race in late summer your chances of success are much greater. Aquathlon and duathlon are also less competitive, and a good way to snag your first spot on the age group team.
Even if you don’t manage to achieve your goal of qualifying, you’ll probably be in the shape of your life and be able to place very well at some more local races as a result.
Attend Races as a Spectator/Support Crew
I encourage all athletes to attend at least one triathlon they’re not racing at. This may be a local race you’re not targeting, or supporting someone at a bigger race, but watching from the sidelines really helps give you some perspective. Not only can you learn from other athletes by watching what they do well (or not so well), chances are it will give you the itch to compete yourself. When I attended the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa in the early days of my coaching career, it really helped me fall back in love with triathlon. Not only was there the fact I got to travel out to South Africa, but the buzz of the event, watching athletes prepare, spectating the pro race, attending the expo, it inspired me so much I signed up for a 70.3 myself the next weekend.
Follow Professional Triathletes
Professional triathletes are some of the fittest athletes in the world. In this age of social media we can gain an unparalleled insight into their lives and their training regimes, as well as their lifestyle. Instagram is an especially well used platform by the pros, where you can find plenty of genuinely inspirational photos, videos and advice to help get you down the pool or out on a run. Watching professional athletes race is an acquired taste, especially over the Ironman distance, but is a fantastic way to see just what the pinnacle of the sport looks like, and what the human body can achieve. It may even help you identify the location of your next event!
Consume Triathlon Media
You can find triathlon themed documentaries, magazines, podcasts, books, videos and more to help teach you about the sport and engage with it more fully. This can be time consuming, and you’ll never finish them all, but it can give you ideas for new training sessions, new target races or simply entertain and inspire you. You need to take it all with a pinch of salt (everyone can’t be right), but broadening your horizons and finding new ways to enjoy the sport goes a long way to getting you out the door.
Sort out That Injury
You know the one, that niggle in your knee which stops you running fast, or that tightness in your hip which makes cycling progressively more uncomfortable after you hit the three hour mark. Not only do these injuries affect our ability to train the way we’d like to, they also present us with a big psychological roadblock. You may tell yourself “If I can’t run pain free, why bother with the cycling and swimming?” Suck it up and spend some money on a physio who can help you identify the cause of the injury, then do the exercises required to address the cause of the issue. Having a glass ceiling placed there by an injury which doesn’t allow you to train to the best of your potential causes the best of us to fall out of love with the sport. If you’re based in London, we recommend https://physioonthegreen.com
Are you struggling to fit training in because you feel so run down all the time? Are you working hard but not seeing results? There’s a good chance your issues stem from poor recovery. Most triathletes should aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, with many pros getting closer to 9 with a nap in the afternoon. The best way to achieve this is to simply get to bed earlier, forgoing that last episode of The Next Generation or that glass of wine and heading straight to bed instead. Getting to bed by 10:30PM and up at 6AM to train should be achievable for most, and nets you a decent 7.5 hours of shut eye. Sleep is the only time the body can truly adapt to exercise, and no amount of caffeine will offset the damage done by consistently failing to get enough sleep.
Ensuring you refuel after workouts by eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrate and protein as well as allowing sufficient time between hard sessions are key to allowing your body and mind enough time to recover well. Without sufficient recovery you won’t really get any fitter, just dig yourself a hole which will take months to recover from.
I’m not suggesting a career change here, but coaching people, formally or informally, is a great way to reconnect with the sport. Whether you’re a qualified coach on poolside with a whistle or simply teaching a club mate how to fix a puncture, sharing your knowledge/expertise with newcomers not only helps them out, but gives you a sense of satisfaction that you’re helping the next generation of athletes.
Take a Break From the Sport
Have you been in a constant state of training for several years? Does the sight of your bike fill you with a low level feeling of dread? Do you check what today’s workout is while cowering behind the sofa? Is there a picture of your coach’s face on a dartboard somewhere in your house? The chances are the most productive thing you could do to help you fall back in love with triathlon, is take a break from triathlon. Distance makes the heart grow fonder as they say, and taking a step back from training may help you realise how important it is to you. I recommend athletes take at least one full week away from training at the end of a season, and normally a few more weeks away from proper structured training. Neglecting this can result in burnout and a loss of interest in the sport.
What if None of This Works?
I’ve listed some of the techniques which work for myself and those I’ve coached, but we’re all individuals at the end of the day. Ask yourself why you got into the sport in the first place, and how you can reignite that. If you started the sport for a sense of adventure, think about how you could make your training more dynamic. If you enjoyed using it to push your limits, find a race which will push you further than any event before. Perhaps you started the sport for its social reasons, but moved towards solo training over time, it might be worth reconnecting with other athletes, even if just for your easy workouts.
Sometimes though, no matter how hard you work at it, how much time you invest or money you throw at the problem, you won’t be able to get back in the groove of training. It may be that your priorities lie elsewhere now, you have too many responsibilities in more pressing areas of your life or recent events in your life have rearranged your priorities. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy exercising occasionally or that you can’t return to the sport properly at a later date, but sometimes it’s better to accept that you need to park your triathlon hobby for now and wait for the right time to restart. After all, not training every week for the rest of your life doesn’t make you a failure.
Falling back in love with triathlon is unlikely to be a life changing experience like when you first discovered the sport. It will be more like putting back on a favourite pair of slippers, or rediscovering one of your favourite hangouts as a child. It will motivate you to get outside and make the right choices for your mental/physical health, and help fortify your identity as a triathlete. Even professional athletes lose motivation sometimes, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I hope this has helped you find your triathlon mojo again, if you have any tips that worked for you, leave them in the comments below to help others.
Covid-19 is still a problem in many countries, and will continue to be for many years to come. If you decide to travel outside of your local area for training or racing ensure you respect local restrictions at all times, regardless of your vaccination status, and research entry requirements for different countries if you plan to travel internationally. It is also worth researching the covid-19 refund policies different race organisers may or may not offer.
When I started triathlon in 2012 I felt confident the bike would be my strongest discipline. However, my background included riding a 12KM loop around the lakes near my parent’s house 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. I discovered, 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
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. Within each team you have specialists. Whether they are good at long climbs, short climbs, sprinting or are just all rounders, each rider has a role to play.
This is an image from the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The world’s fastest Ironman athletes converge here every year to take on the famous course. Riders here are keeping a minimum of 12 metres apart unless overtaking, tackling the course with special triathlon bikes optimised for aerodynamics. They also wear 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 very different. Even if you are taking on a triathlon on your road bike, you still have to keep a distanvce 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. 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. You won’t impress anyone by being the first to the top of the hill. Finishing with the fastest bike split doesn’t actually mean very much. It’s far more about setting yourself up well for the run without losing too much time. 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 sting towards the end, and they still need to run a marathon.
Triathlons either take place on closed roads or on roads carefully chosen to minimise encounters with cars. Most courses tend to be pretty flat. As a result, there won’t be much chance for respite once you’re on the bike, except braking for corners. To allow for this, you need focus on a continuous, steady power output for the duration of the bike leg. This prevents us from building up fatigue as a result of pushing too hard at any given point. Especially important on hills when it’s easy to get carried away.
There is absolutely a place for hard intervals to develop your cycling fitness. But these need to be chosen thoughtfully and with purpose. Simply exhausting yourself every ride by pushing hard isn’t the best use of your time.
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. While I don’t want to downplay people’s fears about riding on the road solo, if you ride carefully it’s mathematically no more dangerous than walking down the street. You’ll probably be on your own at points on race day, so you need to feel comfortable in this situation.
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 everything required to get back on the road.
This also applies to carrying supplies, food and drink. You probably won’t be wearing a cycling jersey on race day, so you can’t stuff your pockets with food and tools. You have to carry all the fluids, food, and tools on your bike. There are normally aid stations on course providing you with water and selected sports nutrition. At 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.
Aerodynamics For Triathlon Cycling
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. Just like in Formula One Cars will. However, when you are riding on your own there is no windbreak, so we have to do what we can to reduce drag. The best way to achieve this is to narrow your profile as much as possible and use clothing/accessories. These 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 fancy wheels or handlebars.
The best way to narrow your profile 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 feeling closer to the road, it can be intimidating. It may also be uncomfortable to start with, decreasing the hip angle and recruiting more of the hamstrings than you’re used to. This is a definite learning curve and unsuitable for beginners, but worth sticking with as the gains will be significant.
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 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. They also offer more protection against the sun. Purchasing an aero helmet is another cost effective way to get faster.
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. Just swap the power zones for heart rate zones. By incorporating race simulation rides in your training you can set a target intensity.
The Importance of Power
For road cyclists power numbers can be a point of curiosity, or a bragging point. Unless you are really training with purpose, there are probably better places for them to invest their 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). Combined with your heart rate mean it’s easy 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. They claim 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 the bike 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.
Practice retrieving your food and eating it without slowing down. The more you get used to this, and digesting while on the move, the easier it will be.
Riding in hot conditions
Most triathlons take place in warm conditions. 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 during 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. In some climates this 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.
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.
Also known as a sprocket or rear block by newer riders, choosing a road cycling cassette is probably one of the most underrated ways to improve your riding, especially on the hills.
So, what are the most important factors here? We’ll look at the following factors:
Range of cassette
Size of biggest/smallest cogs
Range of cassette
A cassette will either be described by cyclists as wide or narrow. A wide cassette has a large range, meaning the differences between your biggest and smallest gears will be large. This allows you to ride fast on the flats and still ride at a sensible cadence on the hills. Meanwhile a narrow cassette will make it much harder to ride up hills, as the rings tend to have fewer teeth.
If a cyclist is looking for one cassette to use in all situations I recommend a cassette with a wide range. You never know when you might find yourself at the bottom of a leg sapping climb on tired legs with no gears left. A narrow cassette is generally only used for specific events like flat triathlons or time trials. The small gaps between gears helps you find your “Goldilocks” gear while wide cassettes can make it hard to get comfortable if you’re forever in a gear slightly too hard or too slightly too easy.
As an example, an 12 speed 11-23 has rings with the following number of teeth: 11/12/13/14/15/16/17/18/19/21/23. In comparison a 32-11 has 11/12/13/14/16/18/20/22/25/28/32. If I was riding on my 11-32 at a power which suited a 15 tooth cog gear on the back, I’d have to choose between a 14 tooth or a 16 tooth, where if I was riding an 11-23 I could ride in the 15 tooth cog I was after. If you’re riding on rolling terrain this isn’t such an issue as you’ll never be in the same gear for long enough for it to be noticeable. But if you’re taking on a flat course such as Ironman Barcelona, you don’t want to spend 180KM unable to find a comfortable gear.
Range is intrinsic to the size of your biggest ring, which we’ll look at next.
Size of biggest/smallest rings
Cassettes are expressed numerically, such as 12-28 or 11-32. The first number refers to the smallest ring, the larger number to the biggest ring.
If choosing a road cycling cassette for a series of punishing climbs you’ll want to take a 28 at the very least. Potentially even a 30 or 32 if it’s an especially hilly ride.
23 is the lowest number of teeth you’re likely to find on the biggest ring of most cassettes. This is only recommended for strong cyclists riding on flat courses. 25 is traditionally what a lot of professional riders will use, dropping to 28s on mountain stages. For us mortals however 28 is a sensible all round cassette as we don’t have the power to push round a 25 tooth cog on a steep grade without wobbling all over the road.
The smallest rings are generally 11 or 12t (the t denoting number of teeth). These won’t make an enormous difference to your riding unless you’re planning to ride hard on the downhills.
Weight of cassette
Some cassettes cost £50 and some cost well over £300 (Campagnolo we’re looking at you). So what’s the difference? Assuming it’s the same brand and has the same number of gears/teeth, it’s just the weight. You can buy an expensive cassette to shave off a few grams, but that really is it. Shimano’s cheapest 11 speed 11-28 cassette, the 105, weighs in at 284g, with their top of the range Dura-Ace equivalent topping the scales at 192g. The 105 cassette retails at £50, the Dura-Ace at £199, so this is a very expensive way to save <100g. There may be minute differences in shifting performance, but you’re unlikely to notice them if your gears are indexed properly.
If I were to advise a new road cyclist, I’d recommend an 11-28 at the very least to help them up the hills. As they get stronger or if they live somewhere with very few hills they might consider a 25. I would only recommend a 23 for competition day, or race simulation rides, as the ability to get up a hill efficiently far outweighs the benefit of the smaller jumps in gears for me.
Most road cyclists will acquire a collection of cassettes over the years. This gives them the flexibility to choose the right cassette for different rides. I wouldn’t necessarily swap between a 30 for my hilly training rides and my 25 on flat training rides, but if I had a big ride (100 miles plus) or a race, I’d take the time to choose the right tool for the job.
Hopefully we’ve enlightened you to the benefits of choosing a road cycling cassette. But before you go and place your order, some really boring stuff. It’s easy to buy a cassette incompatible with your bike, so make sure you avoid the following pitfalls
Manufacturers are generally not cross compatible. Some Shimano and SRAM products will work with each other, but check with your bike shop before buying. Campagnolo is not compatible with any other manufacturer.
Make extra sure you’re buying a cassette which has the right number of gears. As both 11 and 10 speed cassettes are still expressed as 12-28, this is an easy trap to fall into. To complicate matters, older versions of group sets have less gears, so make extra certain it’s the product you’re after before ordering. Each generation of a groupset will have a code (such as Shimano R7000), so make sure you’re getting the right kit. It’s worth checking with your bike shop if you’re unsure what you have on your bike. As long as you order it through them, they’ll be happy to help.
The cassette that was on your bike when you bought it is often the largest it can take. If you want to go above this you’ll need to upgrade to a long cage rear mech. This isn’t an expensive upgrade, but it’s best to order and install the parts together to save on labour costs if you’re unsure how to do it yourself.
Finally, your cassette is a consumable part and will wear over time. The best way to prevent this is to keep your drivetrain clean. Find out how in our article here
Ergometer mode, or ERG mode as it is more commonly known, is a function of most modern smart trainers which allows the trainer to set the resistance for you. If your target is 200W and you go above this, the trainer will reduce the resistance to stop you from going any higher. If your wattage drops below the target it will increase the resistance to encourage you to put more force through the pedals and get back up to target.
To many cyclists this sounds ideal. It allows them to relax for a bit and watch some TV while they train or listen to an audiobook. Safe in the knowledge that their trainer won’t let their power drift too high or too low. However, it’s not without its problems, which I’ll go into here.
Riding in a vacuum
When riding in ERG mode you don’t have to think about gradients and changing gear. However as your target event is probably outside, this does not prepare you for the realities of racing a bike outdoors. Make sure you do your steady state rides outside of training mode on a virtual course to prepare you for this. This is especially important in the last eight weeks before your event.
The Spiral of Death
If your cadence drops significantly or you stop pedalling ERG mode will instigate what many call the spiral of death. This is when it increases resistance dramatically as you’re not putting out enough power. If you’re in the middle of a tough interval, this can feel like riding through wet cementas you try to pick the pace up again. We all drop our chain, have to answer the door or adjust the fan sometimes, so this is something to be conscious of. You may end up having to skip an interval or even abandon the workout as a result.
Problems with Power Meters
If you own a power meter you should be using it for all your training to make sure all the numbers match. This helps to keep your data clean and ensure all your intervals are accurate. There is something of a problem however as the training software will listen to the power meter, check the power output against the target, and then tell the trainer to increase or decrease the resistance. When the device creating the resistance isn’t the same as the device measuring the power, the ERG mode isn’t nearly as accurate or immediate to change reistance. This means you need to focus much more on holding targets, offering the worst of both worlds.
For harder workouts this can be beneficial if you feel you would struggle to complete it otherwise. However I find that more often than not it’s more effort than it’s worth.
Inability to change gear
You can physically change gear in ERG mode, but the trainer will pick up on this pretty instantly and change resistance. If you find yourself pedalling squares desperate to increase you cadence, the only way to do this is by pedalling harder to lower the resistance. If you’re really struggling in a workout however, your ability to hold this cadence may be compromised. This will likely result in your cadence slowing again and ERG mode “carrying” you through the rest of the interval at 40RPM. There is a time and place for this, such as a ramp test, but you can’t get through every hard interval this way. Disabling ERG mode will give you a more authentic training experience.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with ERG mode is the way it encourages a slow, lazy cadence. Riders who start to fatigue will naturally slow their cadence, yet ERG will push back to ensure they stay within the power target. This can result in riders associating harder efforts with a slower cadence and ultimately spending most of their time in tempo and sweetspot at 70RPM, well below where I’d want to see athletes riding, even the low cadence advocates will race at 80-85RPM. You can’t afford to spend time fiddling with your gears trying to find the narrow cadence window you’re used to riding in from training.
Uneven wear on cassette
If you do a lot of riding in ERG mode, you will be doing a lot of riding with minimal (if any) changing of gear, which can create a lot of uneven wear on the cassette, wearing one or two cogs excessively which will lead to shifting issues.
I’ve given ERG mode a bit of a bad rep so far, but there are some definite benefits to using it.
No need to concentrate
If I have to use the turbo for my steady state rides, I’m happy with the entertainment provided by the scenery and the changing gradient, but that’s me, and I know not everyone is as easily entertained. For many, turbo training is the perfect time to catch up on the latest Netflix series or watch a film their partner isn’t interested in. With a pair of bluetooth headphones they can enjoy some televisual entertainment while riding, and ERG mode keeping them within the power boundaries. This is more useful for steady state workouts than intervals, as most software does not integrate with video, so you may end up being caught unawares by a sudden increase in resistance.
Helps you complete tough workouts
The mental element of training is just as important as the physical element of training, and for many the presence of ERG mode is the difference between them completing or failing a workout. I’d much rather someone limps over the line and completes a workout at a low cadence than they have to give up and bail twenty minutes in because they can’t hold the power without their trainer pushing back. This provides a safety net for many cyclists, and as long as they’re conscious of the shortcomings of ERG mode (not to let cadence drop too low, don’t stop pedalling, e.t.c.) then they should do whatever it takes to complete the workout.
So, should you ride with ERG mode? As ever… it depends. For workouts which include lots of micro bursts or short sharp increases in intensity such as V02 or sprints, absolutely not. If it’s an easier workout where you’re more concerned about going too hard than too easy and want to watch Breaking Bad while you do so, then it’s a good choice.
The difficulty comes with the middle ground, the tempo and sweetspot rides where riders may find comfort in the knowledge ERG mode will help them complete the workout. For this, I would look at how close to race day you are, if you’re six weeks out from your A race, then switch it off and learn how to control the intensity yourself. If you’re nine months away from your next big event and just doing some base training, then do whatever it takes to get you through the session.
Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.
Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.
What is a road bike?
This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:
Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.
You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.
Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.
You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.
Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.
You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.
The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel.
You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.
I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.
You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.
Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!
Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix
These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.
Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane
These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.
Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series
This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.
Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing.
How much should I spend?
This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.
These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.
This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration.
These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.
So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.
Where does your money go?
It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:
There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons.
“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.
Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap
Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option
This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well.
Pros: Light, responsive, durable
Cons: Slightly harsher ride
“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.
Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride
Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials
Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.
A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c.
As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.
Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.
This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably.
Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.
In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.
The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.
This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.
One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.
Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano.
With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.
There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes? They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.
It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.
This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you.
Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.
Research and Development
As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.
To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike.
Geometry and fit
Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.
This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there.
The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer.
The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle.
This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.
Shape of saddle
Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.
The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.
This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level.
How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale.
Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.
Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.
You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.
A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.
Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.
Choosing the right bike for you
By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:
Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.
I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.
If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.
Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.
Budgeting for extras
Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.
Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency” C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”
This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:
This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.
Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.
Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat.
The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here
Saddle bag and basic tools: £40
You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient.
I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.
Bottle cage and bottle £20
This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders.
Cleaning products and lubricants £30
A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.
Cycling shorts and jersey £100
Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)
Rain cape: £50
It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations.
Arm and leg warmers: £40
Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.
You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.
If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time.
Where to buy the bike
One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable.
Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.
Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support.
I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of 99 questions.
I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:
A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
Budget for accessories
Get a bike fit
Buy the bike which speaks to you
Bikes have very different geometries
Make sure you’re buying a road bike
Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
Remember to buy pedals
Upgrade your tyres
I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?
Are you struggling to complete workouts? Has it been suggested you may have a vanity FTP? Confused as to what this may mean? I’ll try to explain in this article what a vanity FTP is and what you can do about it. Firstly we need to look at what Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is, or more importantly, what it isn’t. FTP is not (always):
The highest power you can sustain for 60 minutes
95% of your best 20 minute power
Your aerobic threshold
Your anaerobic threshold
The definition of FTP that most coaches and sports scientists now use is:
“The highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour” – Andrew Coggan
That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s have a look at it visually on a chart created using WKO5 from two athletes:
What you’re looking at is each rider’s power duration curve for the last 90 days. Without going into the details right now, you have time on the X axis and watts on the Y axis, so you can see that both riders can hold higher power over shorter durations, and the power they maintain drops over time, as you’d expect! The yellow line shows personal bests for each timeframe and the red line joins the dots to create a mathematical model that is used to calculate modelled FTP, or mFTP, which is denoted as the bottom dotted line.
Between around 10 minutes and 60 minutes (depending on the rider) the line starts to level off, this is where we find your FTP, the maximum power you can hold in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for around an hour.
Rider A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and rider B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. Most riders will have a TTE between 30 minutes and 70 minutes, which gives us an insight into how well trained an athlete is at holding high power. As a coach looking at each of these athletes I can work out how to develop each athlete and improve their training. Athlete A needs to lift his chart upwards, he’s unlikely to get much benefit from trying to increase TTE at this point, so we’ll look to increase his power over shorter durations such as 20-30 minutes, then when he increases his FTP significantly we could turn our attention to increasing TTE again. Athlete B however would benefit from extending the time he can hold his FTP for by spending extended periods at higher intensity (tempo, sweetspot) allowing him to hold 215W for longer, vastly improving his performance over an event such as an Olympic triathlon or standard duathlon.
Now we understand what FTP is, we can start talking about vanity FTP. As a coach I want my athletes to have the highest FTP possible, and every athlete wants to have the highest FTP possible, however this is where a lot of athletes get into trouble, and find themselves training to a vanity FTP, which is an overinflated estimation of what they’re capable of, let’s have a look at this and why it happens.
One of the many benefits of using WKO5 is it estimates the effect the anaerobic system is having on your efforts. FTP is an aerobic effort, as is everything up to around 120% of FTP (depending on the athlete), after which we start working anaerobically. This is where our muscles are demanding oxygen faster than our body can provide it, and we start to create an oxygen debt. This is our body’s fight or flight system and allows us to put in a huge effort up a short hill or sprint for a finish line, but leaves us gasping for air afterwards. As triathletes this is of limited use to us during most events as we opt for a steady, smooth application of power, but we can’t ignore it and the effect it has on our training. This chart for athlete B looks at the contribution the aerobic and anaerobic system makes to their effort.
The blue shaded area represents the contribution of the anaerobic system to the effort, the green represents the contribution of the aerobic system to the effort. As you can see, up to the 50 second mark the majority of energy being used to fuel his effort is anaerobic, beyond 50 seconds the aerobic system takes over pretty quickly, although the anaerobic system still makes a small, yes statistically important contribution beyond this point.
Using 95% of your average power from the standard 20 minute test is designed to account for the contribution made by your anaerobic system. This athlete however isn’t an especially gifted sprinter so at 20 minutes, only 3.3% of his energy is coming from his anaerobic system. Using the standard 95% equation he would only get an FTP of 210W, the 5W he’s lost here could be worth a lot of time over an Ironman and result in them wasting time with ineffective training.
On the other hand you could have a very talented sprinter, who has either come from a power lifting background or is simply blessed with a high number of fast twitch muscle fibres genetically. In this situation, they could well generate 10% of their 20 minute power anaerobically. Let’s say they put in 300W during their 20 minute test. As 10% of their power was generated anaerobically their FTP should be 270W, but using the median figure of 5%, they would get an FTP of 285W. They’d no doubt be able to smash short, hard workouts with their strong anaerobic system, but ask them to spend prolonged time at the high end of their aerobic zones and they’ll really struggle. This is because their FTP is too high, which can result in them working in zone 2 when they should be in zone 1, zone 3 when they should be in zone 2, e.t.c.
Many athletes out there may not have such a problem with this, they think that if they train at an FTP which is higher than their ability level, they’ll get fitter sooner. This is possible, but it’s far more possible they’ll burn out after several days of struggling through easy workouts and failing difficult ones, feeling demotivated and no doubt blaming the training plan for being too hard, especially if they’re following a standalone training plan where a coach can’t spot these trends and the athlete can’t feed back on how hard they’re working.
The bigger issue however is race planning, the vast majority of age group athletes will race to a set intensity factor, or IF. For an Olympic distance this may be 0.9, for a 70.3 this may be 0.8, for an Ironman this may be 0.75, this helps ensure that we get the most out of our bike leg, without burning our legs out ahead of the run. This is all based on the assumption that your FTP is accurate. If you are working to a vanity FTP you’re not willing to lower, you could find yourself riding an Ironman at 80% of your FTP instead of 75%, which is unlikely to end well for you, perhaps even resulting in a DNF. This is all because your FTP is based on the assumption that the anaerobic contribution to your 20 minute effort will be available to you indefinitely.
To understand why this is a problem, think of a racing driver who runs nitrous oxide in his car. By flicking a switch on his gearstick he can get a short, high powered, likely illegal injection of speed, but he only has enough for a 30 second boost. He could post a 1:45 minute lap when using his nitrous oxide, and 1:50 without using his nitrous oxide. If he was pacing a 12 hour endurance race he would be a fool to base his fuelling strategy on the lap time of 1:45, as this is only available to him once. For this same reason, a cyclist would be foolish to base his pacing strategy for a long event based on a figure which don’t account for the anaerobic contribution to their FTP.
This isn’t a perfect metaphor as cyclists will recharge their anaerobic battery slowly, and sometimes you need to dip into that reserve on a steep hill, but it should help you understand the dangers of having an FTP that’s not actually useful to train to or pace with.
Now that you understand why we need to account for this anaerobic contribution we need to understand how to account for it within our FTP. The best way to do this is using modelling software such as WKO5 (my preference), Xert or Golden Cheetah, but these can be truly overwhelming for the novice cyclist. You could use the Suffertest’s 4DP which tests you over 15 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes back to back, to give you a figure which accounts for anaerobic contribution, but these aren’t ideal as you’ll already be cooked by the time you start your 20 minute effort. Finally, if you want to keep it as simply as possible, you can aim to empty your anaerobic tank by doing a five minute all out effort, followed by a few minutes rest, before you start your 20 minute test, of which you can use 100% of the average 20 minute power.
If this is all sounds a bit too complicated but you struggle to complete workouts, try reducing your FTP by 2-3%, a vanity FTP is rarely a conscious decision by an athlete, rather an overestimation by a piece of software or algorithm, and an athlete who isn’t willing to accept the figure may not be accurate.
FTP Doesn’t Win Races
If you’re still refusing to reconsider your inflated FTP, let’s look at why FTP isn’t the be all and end all of racing success.
You would be forgiven for looking at the podium of a time trial or the top three of the bike leg of a triathlon and thinking the rider in first had the highest FTP, followed by the rider in second place with the second highest FTP and so on down the positions.
However there are dozens of other factors which can affect the results of an event, the athlete’s bike, aerodynamics, W/KG, clothing, bike handling skills, start time, V02 max, time to exhaustion, ability to resist fatigue, nutrition, hydration, weight, these are all factors which will affect their finishing position.
Let’s return to athlete A and athlete B from earlier. Athlete A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and athlete B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. They both took part in an 20K time trial yesterday on the same course pancake flat course on Zwift (removing a number of the variables), so who do you think won?. It would probably surprise you if I told you it was athlete B, who averaged 218W for a time of 29:29, while athlete A averaged 210W for a time of 34:16. Let’s start by expanding on the quantitive data:
V02 Max: 38
W/KG at FTP: 2.4
CTL on day of TT: 55
V02 Max: 61
W/KG at FTP: 3.8
CTL on day of TT: 33
Ultimately athlete B set the faster time because he’s won club championship titles, finished over 100 events, is an Ironman finisher and has been training for eight years where athlete A is training for his first 70.3 distance event. There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors which influence your performance, your FTP does not determine your value as an athlete.
I hope this has illustrated to you that higher FTPs do not win races, and that it is instead a combination of many factors.
To get the most out of your training, you have to be honest with yourself about your ability. Training to an accurate FTP will allow you to really develop as a rider, improving all areas of your fitness quicker, resulting in faster times.
If you would like more help with your FTP, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for a coaching consultation session where we can analyse your data, ask you to perform additional tests where required, then provide you with a rider profile, along with workouts designed to improve your riding.
As someone once said to me, “Training for a sprint is a hobby, training for an Ironman is a lifestyle”, something many of us can relate to. You likely started out at sprint and Olympic distance where a long ride was three hours and you rarely ran for longer than an hour. However when taking on an Ironman, this just won’t cut it, and your longer workouts tend to dominate the day once you include the preparation, execution, recovery, cleaning/washing and the obligatory nap afterwards.
All of this can take a strain on your relationships, which can leave your other half feeling neglected and overwhelmed with jobs such as looking after kids and food shopping which you can’t help with while you’re out putting in the miles. Training for an event like an Ironman will likely change the dynamic of your relationship, but there are some simple steps you can take to stop it being a change for the worse.
Choose your moment
If you’re moving house, expecting a new arrival, your workplace have announced redundancies or a family member is unwell, you have to ask yourself whether this is really the best time to engage in an expensive and time consuming challenge such as an Ironman. When you get closer to the race you may be out of the house for six hours at a time on your long ride, you may find yourself stressed if things aren’t going to plan and the physical exhaustion you’ll experience towards the end of the hard weeks can make the best of us come across as a bit short tempered and surly. The Ironman distance isn’t going anywhere, so don’t feel you have to cram it into an already stressful period in your life.
Make time for them
If you love someone the greatest gift you can give them is your presence, just to be around, even if it’s just sitting on the sofa watching a film together. Ironman training will reduce the time you can spend together, and your other half may take this personally if they believe you are growing tired or bored of their company. Even if you’re not able to spend as much time together as previously, making an effort to put time aside for them, and following up on this goes a long way. If you can’t spend an evening sat on the sofa browsing Netflix for five hours together, take them out to dinner for a couple of hours to make them feel special.
Involve them in the process
If your partner is less than keen on your Ironman habit the best way you can turn it around is to involve them so they feel some ownership over the process. This doesn’t mean forcing them to train with you, but it can be something as simple as asking them to hold you accountable to your training plan, asking them which event you should enter or combining your training/racing with a family holiday. If your partner is a stickler for organisation, sharing your precise schedule with them, or inputting the times you plan to train into a shared calendar can help ease any anxieties about you disappearing at short notice.
Keep the sex life going
If you’ve already spent six hours sweating away on the bike in the morning, the thought of spending more time getting sweaty between the sheets can be less than appealing, especially for male athletes as prolonged aerobic exercise decreases levels of testosterone. While every couple has their own preferences on how regularly fornication should occur, it’s important not to let this slide too much when you start training. Your intimate sessions may be shorter than normal and you may have to adapt if you’re feeling truly exhausted, but leaving your partner to their own devices for several weeks or even months because you deem your training to be more important is unlikely to go down well.
Your training may mean the world to you at this point in time, but the saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If you duck out of seeing your in laws for the sake of a big swim session or refuse to spend time with your sick children because you’re afraid you’ll catch a bug that will stop you training this can add up over time. No single session in your training plan will make or break your race, but the anxiety and stress of relationship problems that stem from being inflexible and selfish will have a far greater effect on your performance as not only will you struggle to keep a clear mind, those around you may remove their support for your quest and that run down the finishing chute will feel very lonely.
Show them the Strava file from your run, show them the photo you and your friends took together at the top of the climb, maybe let them track you while you ride/run for safety purposes (most devices allow this), and just generally keep them up to date with what you’re doing. This will help ease any anxieties about where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with.
Pick up the slack on your rest day
Most athletes should be taking one day completely off a week. If you have a young family you should see this as an opportunity to pull your weight and pick up the slack; looking after your children to allow your partner some time to to socialise, relax or exercise themselves. Even if you don’t have children, this is a good opportunity to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold the laundry, all jobs which you’ve probably let slide in favour of ploughing up and down the pool. This gives you the double header of a grateful spouse and a clean, organised environment to train and live in.
Look into home training solutions
In this day and age there are several solutions for training indoors; treadmills for running, smart trainers for cycling and endless pools for swimming. While some of these are more affordable than others, something affordable like a turbo trainer not only allows you to work in a very efficient way, it also allows you to be in the house waiting for that parcel, keeping an eye on the kids or allowing you to stay on standby if your other half is in bed feeling unwell. It’s often preferable to train outside, but sometimes this is unrealistic, and it’s better to take your ride/run indoors than to miss a session.
Go easy on the credit card
Yes, triathlon is an expensive sport, there’s no getting around that, but you really don’t need to spend £100 on titanium skewers, £700 on a wetsuit, £10,000 on a bike or £70 on a carbon fibre bottle cage. We all like toys, but there comes a point where you have to put the family budget first. It’s only a hobby at the end of the day and most of the equipment won’t actually make you that much faster. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re able to splash some cash, don’t be surprised if your other half wants a new set of golf clubs, a weekend skiing, or for you to finally get round to replacing the dated three piece suite.
If you spent more on your new bike than you said you would, fess up. If you’re going to be out for seven hours then don’t tell them you’ll be back for lunch. If you know you’ll be exhausted after your long run, don’t make plans you know you’ll probably have to cancel when you get home and collapse onto the sofa. Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship and being flexible with the truth or hiding receipts from them is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Talk problems over
If you can tell there’s a sense of resentment growing at the time/money you’re investing, rather than ignoring it, ask them what you can do to make things work better. This also gives you a chance to explain why you’re disappearing for six hours every Sunday (You need to get your long rides in to boost your aerobic capacity as part of your base training, these rides will become less frequent in the build phase which starts next month). If your partner vocalises concerns about how much you’re spending, explain your rationale behind your decisions and talk them through any more expenses that are due before the big day. By explaining the rationale behind your decisions you can help them understand why you’re making the decisions you are, and that there’s no ulterior motives.
Successful relationships are all about give and take, and while training for an Ironman there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a lot more than you’re giving; making a few adjustments to time management and how you go about your training can help prevent any conflict.
I always take my client’s family life into account when setting training, arranging days off and hard workouts on days that suits them best. If you’re struggling to balance training and family life, head to our apply page to find out how we can help you successfully train for your event while keeping everyone on side.
When I first started working with Naval in the early summer he had two middle distance events booked, the Owler which he wanted to use as a sighter, and Challenge Almere which he wanted to use for a big performance. Luckily I had already known him for a couple of years by this point through the club, so knew a lot about him and his training from day one.
We changed his training quite significantly, not so much the number of sessions but the length of them and the content. He is an incredibly strong cyclist and is one of the few people who can hold my heels during a hill session, but this doesn’t translate into a strong half marathon after you’ve already been racing for around three and a half hours by the time you put your running shoes on. He was told to either sit in the wheels on group rides or keep his heart rate below zone 4 when on the front. By spending less energy showboating on the hills and sprinting allowed him to both maximise the aerobic benefit of these sessions, run well off the bike when he got home and keep training well in the first half of the week rather than spend the time recovering from a very hard ride. We also changed the majority of his run training from intervals to longer runs, as with a month to go he hadn’t run much over 12K before.
We only had a few weeks to prepare for the Owler, so when he lined up we hadn’t got close enough to 21KM in training as I would have liked, but he pulled it off and managed an impressive 1:50 run split off the back of a 2:51 ride. With some speed work and tempo runs we could get that run split down to 1:40, and hit the bike harder, taking 15-20 minutes off in the two months we had wasn’t out of the question.
Then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Naval. Instead of beating his PB in Almere, he wanted to step up to the full distance.
He explained that he was unsure if he’d have as much time to train next year due to other commitments, and worried that this may be his best chance of completing the distance, a long term ambition of his. While I always do my best to help people achieve the goals they come to me with rather than tell them what they can and can’t do, this was a big ask.
I decided to look at the facts, for a start the swim would be manageable. He’d completed Ride London in well under 6 hours, and had ridden the hilly 200KM Ditchling Devil audax, so 180KM of riding on flat roads were unlikely to cause him a problem. Using the conservative estimate of 90 minutes for the swim and 7 hours for the bike, this gave us around 7 hours to run/walk 40KM. I’ve learned to never take completing the run course for granted as cramps, digestive issues or sheer exhaustion can leave someone weaving across the road, but I thought he could do it.
Naval really wanted to step up the running distances which is understandable, but as he has a history of running injury, increasing the distance dramatically would most likely result in injury and crush his dreams, although we did need to increase the run volume to give him his best chance of success. I decided the best way to do this was to include two middle distance runs during the week to increase his weekly volume rather than jump straight up to 30KM long runs. The marathon was going to be brutal, we both acknowledged that, but there wasn’t a huge amount we could do otherwise. It seemed a risk worth taking
He pulled it out of the bag, finishing in a highly impressive 12 hours and 53 minutes. Coaching isn’t a silver bullet, but this is a perfect example of how good communication and thinking outside of the box can create results.