Buying a Road or a Tri Bike: How to Choose

So you want to buy a bike? Great! I’m sure you’re excited just thinking about a shiny new toy sitting in your living room.  But how do you start? There’s a lot to learn to understand what you’re buying. My goal is to put together a series of posts that shares some foundations of general bike knowledge.

In the first part of this series let’s look at some of the factors that go into choosing between a standard road bike and a triathlon bike.

There are a lot of dailymile users who are interested in getting into biking with an eye towards doing a triathlon. If that’s the case for you, deciding if you want to buy an all-purpose road bike or a dedicated time trail/triathlon bike is an important first step in getting a bike. If you are just looking to “try out biking”, and thinking about maybe doing a triathlon someday, most people in your position will choose to go with a road bike. But if you’re a little more serious about triathlons in your future, or are just curious about what exactly a time trail (TT) bike is, lets go through some things to consider.

First of all, lets get on the same page with some basic terms. Though both TT bikes and road bikes are ridden on the road, when I say a “road bike” I mean a standard “racing bike” with “drop” handle bars (the kind that curl down at the ends). Also, triathlon and time trial (TT) bikes are actually slightly different types of bikes with slightly different frame geometries, but for the purposes of comparing them to road bikes I’m going to lump them together and refer to them both as TT bikes since both use aerobars to accomplish the task of putting you in an aerodynamic position similar to the tucked position of a downhill skier. Finally, a road bike with clip-on areobars is … a road bike with clip-on areobars, not a TT bike. Clip-on bars have their uses, namely keeping you from going broke if you only do the occasional triathlon or time trial, but in this post when I say TT bike, I mean a dedicated TT bike.

A TT bike with areobars was a perfect choice for dailymile Team member Kristin K at the 2009 Ironman World Championships where the flat windy course and her fast pace made aerodynamics key to a good performance.

In thinking about the decision between a road and TT bike it’s important to keep in mind that a TT bike is a very specialized type of bike while a road bike is a more “all around” type of bike. As you’ll see, there are situations, both in training and racing, where that specialization helps and others where it hurts.

It’s a common misconception that TT bikes are “faster” than road bikes. It’s more accurate to say that on a course where you can hold a high average speed, one that’s mostly flat or rolling with few technical corners, TT bikes are more efficient than solo road bikes because they are more aerodynamic. The faster you go, the more aerodynamics matter, the more a TT bike can help you.

It’s all about finding the right tool for the job. So before you go out and buy a carbon TT rocket here are 3 things to consider: your training, your racing goals and your body type:

Road racing and group riding require more stability through corners and quicker access to brakes and shifters making a road bike the ideal choice. The intentional close proximity of the riders to one another (called drafting) also makes aerodynamics less of concern. The author is on the left edge on the red bike.
  • Training. In time trial situations (like the bike leg of a triathlon), TT bikes are unparalleled, but you have to make some compromises for this performance. When you are in your areobars on a TT bike you will be less stable than on a road bike, largely due to the narrow separation of your aero bars as well as your body position. As a result cornering is also more difficult on a TT bike. You also cannot easily reach your brakes from the aero position as your shift levers are on the ends of your areobars but your brakes are on the ends of your “flat bars”. All of these factors combine to make TT bikes a bit “sketchier” to ride. This is something to consider if you are not comfortable with your bike handling. Also, are you going to be doing most of your training alone or in a group? You can certainly ride a TT bike in group but the handling characteristics I just mentioned make it a more challenging endeavor than on a road bike. Riders who do a lot of group riding almost always chose a road bike as their primary training bike.
  • Racing. What’s your race scheduling going to look like for the next couple of years? If you are looking to do both cycling and triathlon racing you should be aware that TT bikes are not allowed in mass-start cycling races (e.g. anything that is not a individual or team time trail). On the other hand road bikes are allowed in triathlons and clip-on aerobars are always an option.If you are only looking at triathlons what kind of speeds are you expecting to hit? If you are are not expecting to go very fast either because you are a beginning athlete, or because your races are very long or very hilly, aerodynamics become less important and a TT bike becomes less beneficial.
  • Body Type. Different people respond differently to riding in the areo position on a TT bike. If you have a tight back, glutes or hamstrings the areo position might not be comfortable for you, especially for long periods of time. Also, if you have a broad chest, a fuller bust or a larger waist you might find the areo position uncomfortable.
Shared Photo
University of Wisconsin cyclist and dailymile member Jenny B. gets ready to head out on her road bike for an individual time trial (ITT); a timed solo effort similar to the bike leg of a triathlon. Course conditions, financial constraints and general comfort on a road bike can all affect bike selection.

All that being said, a properly-fitted TT bike will feel like a rocket ship on a flat or rolling course. Think about how you want to use your bike and talk to local cyclists and employees at a couple of different local bike shops to get some more insight. When you’re done you can be confident you’ll have the right bike for your needs.

Keep the rubber side down!


Alex Viana was raised in Chicago and attended the University of Wisconsin. He has competed in running, triathlon and cycling races since 2000. He now works as a scientist in Baltimore, MD where he races road and mountain bikes for Kelley Benefit Strategies / Lateral Stress Velo. You can read about his training, racing and antics at chasingsomething.blogspot.com.

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