January 9, 2023

Zipper Team

Road Bike vs Tri Bike: What’s the difference and which is right for me?

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Every cyclist loves a new bike day. That first ride on the shiny new machine that’ll carry you to your goals is a feeling like no other, but what’s often not seen on social media is the buildup to that big purchase. Nowadays, bikes will run cyclists anywhere between $500 and $15,000 with a wide range of brands, styles and components.


Here, we’ll do a quick breakdown, in plain english, of what the bike purchase workflow should look like for triathletes. We aim to answer many of the questions that give triathletes, both new and veteran, a hard time.


What’s the difference between a Triathlon Bike and a Road Bike?


The most obvious difference between a road bike and a triathlon bike is the handlebars, or cockpit, leading to a difference in the placement of the rider’s arms and hands. When most people imagine a bike, they picture a road cyclist with his or her hands on the hoods (near the brakes). On a triathlon bike, you’ll often see riders in an ‘aero’ position, which involves the rider achieving a ‘tucked’ position with their forearms extended beyond the frame of the bike and torso much lower than a road cyclist’s. The unique geometry and bar setup of a triathlon bike allows riders to achieve this position, with the main benefit being less wind resistance. On a triathlon course, specifically, as race distances get longer, there tend to be far more straightaway sections where these aerodynamic efficiencies can be magnified. This, combined with the fact that most triathlons are non-draft legal, makes the rider’s position and aerodynamic efficiency extremely valuable.


Another benefit of this triathlon bike geometry is that, with a proper fit, it will set the rider up for a better run performance. Triathlon bikes have a steeper seat tube angle. The seat tube is the near-vertical part of the bike frame into which the seat post connects. On a triathlon bike, these seat tube angles will approach 80 degrees, while a road bike typically has a seat tube angle in the low 70 degrees. This means triathlon bikes will have the rider’s hips sitting a bit more forward, taking stress and tension off their hamstrings, quads, and calves. When it comes time for the run, these muscles will be fresher and ready to perform.


While the geometry of a triathlon bike favors the non-drafting rider who must run immediately after they ride, road bikes are often lighter, easier to handle, and more affordable. Additionally, the more relaxed geometry of a road bike often makes them more comfortable for longer rides.


Which do I need? A Triathlon Bike or a Road Bike?


Walking around transition at any triathlon will undoubtedly create ‘bike envy’ in even the most seasoned veteran. Seeing all those shiny, carbon machines that can rival the amount of some car purchases will make any athlete want to spring for the best bike they can get their hands on. Fortunately for athletes’ wallets, the rider makes more of a difference than the bike!


While the top-end triathlon bikes will certainly allow athletes to make marginal gains in their bike and run splits, we suggest triathletes purchase a road bike as their first bike. First and foremost, road bikes are far more versatile for the rider. As mentioned, they’re easier to handle and far more friendly on group rides or navigating city streets. Plus, as an athlete gets more comfortable on a road bike, they can add clip-on aero bars to save a few watts and make some aero gains. Most riders will do their first triathlons on a road bike to get a feel for the sport and determine if they see more races in their future. For those who fall in love with triathlon, a tri bike purchase can be easily justified. But how does one decide between a $2,000 bike and a $10,000 bike? It comes down to the components.


What are the Components of a Triathlon Bike vs a Road Bike and Why are they Important?


When bike ‘components’ are mentioned, generally athletes will be referring to the bike’s drivetrain and braking system (shifters, gears, and brakes to use more basic terms). We’ll keep this breakdown relatively simple by focusing on the main areas of focus when comparing bike parts:


Drivetrain: a bike’s drivetrain will generally consist of a main few parts:

  • Derailleurs, which are what change your gears when you shift
  • Crankset, which is the ‘front gear(s)’ where the pedals attach
  • Cassette, which are your ‘back gears’
  • Chain, which connects the crank to the cassette


There are two brands dominating the bike component market: SRAM and Shimano. Each has four tiers of components with wireless shifting options on the higher end. Our friends over at Pros Closet did an in-depth comparison of the two.


Brakes: There are two common types of brakes found on bikes: rim brakes and disc brakes. Historically, rim brakes have been more common and involve brake pads applying pressure directly to the rim of the wheel to slow the bike. Disc brakes, which have gained popularity relatively recently, have pads and a brake rotor in the axle (center) of the wheel to slow the bike. To keep it simple, there are three main differences between the two types of brakes. While disc brakes are often quicker and generate greater braking force, rim brakes are often lighter and less expensive.


Frame: a main frame difference when comparing two bikes of similar geometry would be the material used. Carbon and aluminum frames are the most common, but steel and titanium frames can also be found. Very basically, carbon fiber bike frames will be the lightest frames on the market, while aluminum frames tend to be more affordable, while still light and durable.


Wheels: cyclists will often upgrade their wheels for lighter, more aerodynamic racing wheels made of carbon fiber. These generally come with a hefty price tag, approaching and surpassing $1,000. While upgrading wheels on a bike is one of the most impactful aftermarket changes a rider can make, as noted above, there’s usually a large price tag associated with it. Often, upgraded wheels can be found as part of a bike purchase, justifying a slightly higher price tag.


Tires: there are two main types of bike tires on the market, tubed vs tubeless. Tubed tires are historically more common. As their name suggests, there is a rube running beneath the tire to hold the air. If punctured, the tube will need to be replaced. Tubeless tires also hold true to their name. There is no internal tube required. Instead, a sealant is poured into the tire which coats the inner portion of the tire. In the event of a puncture, this sealant should quickly fill the hole and allow the rider to carry on quicker than tubed tires. As with most components, there’s always a price tradeoff. Tubeless tires & compatible wheels are often slightly more expensive to run & maintain.


Is it Worth Getting a Bike Fit?


Our last piece of advice is to always get a bike fit whenever you plan on purchasing a new ride. A properly fitting bike will help riders avoid injury, perform better and maximize their output on their bike spit. They usually range from $200-$300 but many bike shops will offer a discount on a bike fit if you purchased your bike from them.


Overall, the best money a rider will spend is on a good, professional bike fit. The athlete on the low-end bike with a high-end bike fit will be far happier come race day than the athlete who bypassed the bike fit for their top-tier bike!


Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

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