What to look for when buying your first bike for triathlon

One of coach Soraya’s new clients asked for help her buy her first bike to use in her first triathlon. Her goal is to eventually complete a half IRONMAN, but she is currently inexperienced at cycling and feels overwhelmed with all the options out there. Whilst we cannot make the final decision for her (ultimately it's her money, and her decision), We can help her make sense of the information she sees. Perhaps this could help you too…?

Bikes come in all different shapes and styles…which one is best for you!?

Bikes come in all different shapes and styles…which one is best for you!?

When buying a bike, there are a number of factors to consider, including budget, if you plan on doing more than one triathlon, specs and type of bike.

Type of bike

There are so many types of bikes out there: road, time trial (aka TT), hybrid, mountain, cyclocross….etc. For a triathlon, the only ones that would make sense are hybrid, road, or TT (unless you are looking at an XC or Xterra event, but that is a separate blog altogether). So what's the difference?

The Hybrid: this will have thicker wheels and ride more comfortably in the city. The handlebars and gear changing will be familiar to you as you will probably have ridden something similar as a child. However, it will be heavier and have less efficient power transfer. The advantage of a hybrid bike is that you can use it for so many things, so if you only plan on doing one triathlon, then this may be a good option for you (although if your one and only triathlon is longer than an olympic distance, I would consider moving up in the bike World, and try a road bike instead).

The Roadie: this is what you see on the Tour de France (well during most of it except for specific stages). They have thinner wheels, drop bars (those curved handlebars) and are much lighter. In my opinion, if you are planning on doing a triathlon, this is what you need. Whilst you may not be able to go off road with it the same way you can with a hybrid, you will be far more efficient with a road bike, especially when it comes to going uphill.

The TT: a time trial bike is a very specific bike designed to be extremely aerodynamic and fast on mostly flat courses. These are usually a little heavier than road bikes, but they make up for it by reducing wind resistance for you due the position you are forced to adopt. This makes a difference because approximately 80% of the aerodynamic drag whilst on a bike is caused by the rider, not the bike. However, don’t forget that to get really speedy, nothing trumps training! In my opinion, a TT bike should be bike number two, so if you only plan on getting one bike, then I would start with a roadie. Having said that, if you are planning on doing long distance races with little climbing then it's worth considering. If you do opt for a TT bike, please be aware that you should never ride in a group whilst on your TT bars as you do not have access to your brakes from there and that is not safe for you or the riders around you. The TT bike is designed to be ridden solo, so no drafting with it please!

Bike specifications

When looking at bikes you are faced with an array of options, with technical words everywhere. For a first bike, I would say that there are only two main things you need to look at. The first is the frame material, and the second is the groupset.

The main frame materials available are: carbon, aluminium, steel and titanium. In short, you want your frame to be light (for obvious reasons) and stiff (to maximise power transfer - i.e. insure energy isn’t lost) - you also want comfort, but in theory, that is conflicting with stiffness. The best bike frames have a good balance between those three elements. However, let’s take a step back and try to keep it simple.

Carbon is a light material with good stiffness - of the four options above, it would be the best choice for triathlon. However, it does have a couple of disadvantages: it is expensive and it is brittle (i.e. it can break more easily). If you are planning on buying a second had bike, it is worth finding out if they have had crashes before as cracks may be difficult to spot.

Aluminium is cheap, light (not as light as carbon) and corrosion resistant. However, it lacks a bit of strength and stiffness, so frames tend to be a bit bulkier to make them stronger. It is a good option if carbon is too expensive for your budget.

Steel is cheap, stiff and strong, but it is also heavy! This is a good material for a commuter bike, where it may have to withstand all sorts of conditions, but perhaps a bit less optimal for triathlon.

Titanium is a bit heavier (but also stronger) than aluminium. It is a bit more expensive but is as good a choice as aluminium for a bike frame.

Observation: It is also worth noting that most triathlons are non-drafting, especially for the half IRONMAN distances. Therefore, unless you have chosen a really hilly course, a bike with an aero optimised frame will usually trump a slightly lighter bike.

What is a groupset? In short, the groupset of your bike is all the component parts of your bike that enable you to transfer power so that you can move forward (the drivetrain: chainset, bottom bracket, shifters, chain, cassette & derailleurs) or slow down (braking: brakes and brake levers). The main brands offering groupsets are Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. Whilst we are not going to dive into detail into all their different offerings, below is a list of groupsets you can be confident in purchasing from each of the brands (each going from least performing to best performing).

Shimano: Shimano 105, Ultegra, Dura Ace (avoid: Tiagra, Sora and Claris)

SRAM: Rival, SRAM Force (avoid Apex)

Campagnolo: Cetaur, Potenza, Chorus, Record (avoid Veloce, though it is the best one of all the ones I have listed to avoid)

Observation: It is also worth noting that Shimano and SRAM parts are mostly interchangeable and far more common than Campagnolo. If you travel often with your bike, or intend to…this can be something that helps you get to the start line or not!

For this client, We recommended she looks for a carbon frame road bike with a Shimano 105 groupset as this is is what we could get within the budget she had in mind (and as a new bike as she didn’t want a used bike). It is also worth noting that it is best to buy the bike with the mindset of upgrading some of the other moving parts. For example, this bike may come with wheels which are perfect for training and turboing on, especially in the winter. Come summer time and a new budget, with more experience, it may be we upgrade the wheels.

Finally, regardless of the spec of the bike, it is only worth buying and riding if it fits you. Invest in a proper bike fit and you will be faster on the person who blew their budget on the top of the range bike which hasn’t been fitted to them – every time!

Hopefully this helped you clarify some of your questions too. Happy bike shopping!