Bike Buying Guide for Triathletes

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Bike Buying Guide for Triathletes

Buying a bike is the single biggest investment a triathlete can make for their sport.
Choose the correct bike, and it will become your trusted companion throughout the
highs and lows of racing and training. However, buy the wrong bike, and it will
become a thorn in your side until you can afford to replace it, costing you money and
time. Speaking from personal experience, the wrong way to go about buying a bike is
to blow almost an entire student loan on a second hand bike belonging to an ex-pro.
Lured by its ‘top of the range’ status, I cast a blind eye over its thousands of miles of
previous use and the fact that it was too big for me. Three disastrous races, a broken
derailleur, a snapped chain and a broken seat-post later it was time to consign the bike
to the shed, and wonder where I would find the money to buy a new one. Fast-forward
10 years to 2008 and there is a far wider choice of racing bikes available.
With great racing-bikes from £500 upward, and a bigger then ever range of Triathlon
specific bikes to choose from, bike buyers have never had it so good.

If Money Were No Object
In an ideal world, where money and storage space were unlimited, we would all have
four different bikes.
1. Triathlon/TT bike
The first bike would be something like the Orbea Ordu Tri 1, a bike made
exclusively for triathlon racing and cycle time-trials. Steep frame angles place the
rider in an aero-dynamic position, whilst aero-bars and expensive deep-section
carbon wheels ensure the rider slices through the air with minimal drag, propelling
them to fast race times.
2. Road racing bike
The second bike in our collection would be a responsive, lightweight road racing
bike such as a Scott CR1 SL, ideal for training during the summer months. Roadrace
bikes give the rider a more comfortable ‘all-day’ position then TT bike with
less emphasis on aero-dynamics, hence there is real need for deep section carbon
wheels or aero bars. Add a pair of clip-on tri-bars and the Scott would make a
more then capable triathlon racing machine.
3. Winter training bike
The third bike in our dream list is a winter training bike or touring bike similar to
the Lightspeed Blue Ridge. Made from comfy vibration dampening materials
such as steel or titanium, and with mudguards, lights and thicker tyres, although
this won’t be the fastest machine on the road, it is purpose built for long training
rides in all conditions.
4. Mountain Bike
Bike number four in our well stocked shed is a mountain-bike. Something like a
Specialized Rockhopper will enable you to train off-road whenever you feel like a
change, also giving you the option to enter adventure triathlons like Xterra UK.
However, unless you have been particularly well behaved this year, it is unlikely that
Santa’s sleigh is ever going to be delivering such a great selection of bikes to your
door. For many people the ideal bike is one that can be used for not just racing, but
for training and commuting too. Mountain bikes and winter touring bikes do not really
fit that description. Whilst they can be great for long training rides they will not do
you any favours come race day. The choice is most likely to be between the versatility
of a road race bike and the out and out speed of a triathlon/TT bike.

Triathlon/TT Bike or Road Bike?
Although triathlon/TT bikes can improve aero-dynamics, they are not the most
comfortable machines when it comes to training. Their steeper position compromises
not only the rider’s visibility and comfort, but also their ability to climb steep hills. A
road race bike on the other hand gives greater comfort and control both on flats and in
the hills, making it the more versatile choice. However, even with clip-on tri-bars,
gains in comfort can be offset by losses in time during a race caused by increased air-resistance
as the rider sits in a more upright position.

Triathlon/TT bikes:
 Most suitable for triathletes for whom ‘every second counts’,
who live in a fairly flat area and do not need a bike for commuting or social rides.
Road Race Bikes:
Most suitable for those who train and race in hillier areas, those
that commute or road race, or those that don’t feel that a small increase in drag-factor
is going to affect their race.

Frames: Carbon, Aluminium, Titanium or Steel?
Aluminium bikes were extremely common 5 or 10 years ago, but are less so now. A
high-end aluminium frame can be extremely well priced, light-weight and responsive.
On the downside aluminium is prone to fatiguing over time, and also some people
find the ride too harsh. However, carbon forks and a carbon seat tube can help
dampen any road vibrations, making modern aluminium frames great value for
A well made carbon frame can be a joy to behold. Made from bonded layers of carbon
fibre a good frame offers an ideal blend of lightness, comfort and responsiveness.
Carbon fibre is anisotropic, meaning that its strength and stiffness falls along the axis
of the fibres. These fibres can be placed in any pattern so that they absorb the
variable stresses placed on the frame. Time and skilful engineering goes into making a
good carbon frame and some cheaper carbon frames do not offer this level of
engineering, losing many of the advantages of this material. Also, be aware that it is
easy to pierce a hole in a carbon frame, so be careful particularly when getting it in
and out of the car.
Titanium frames combine exceptionally low weight with strength and supreme
comfort, making them the ideal material for frame building. They will last years and
years without breaking or fatiguing. A well made titanium frame can make an ideal
bike for all aspects of triathlon, especially Ironman racing and training. Although
titanium is not an expensive material it is very difficult to cut and weld, meaning that
titanium frames come at a premium.
Steel has become less popular over time, partly because most steel tubes are too thin
for robots to weld - highly-skilled engineers are needed instead. Despite this, steel
frames can still cut it with the best, being light, long-lasting and very comfortable to

Off the peg, custom or made to measure?

Off the Peg

Off the peg bikes are ideal for your first bike purchase, or for anyone who prefers to
keep things simple. They come in standard sizes and most shops will measure you in
order to make sure the bike fits you correctly. Off the peg bikes can also represent
great value, and take the hassle factor out of buying a bike. On the downside, you are
limited in the choice of components and sometimes end up with certain aspects of the
bike that don’t suit your needs, for example an uncomfortable seat, or summer tyres
when you wanted something more puncture resistant for the winter.
Buying a custom bike involves buying an off the peg frame and forks, and then
separately choosing every other bit of kit from the chain and jockey wheels, through
to the wheels, bottom-bracket and bar-tape. Custom bikes can be bought and built
through one shop, or bought from several shops and built at home. The great thing
about a custom bike is that you can build it to suit the exact requirements of the racing
and training you do. You may want to build a light-weight, responsive bike because
you live in a hilly area, or you may want to combine expensive wheels and frame with
a more affordable group-set, with a view to upgrading over time. You can even have
pink bar-tape if you think it will make you faster.
Made to Measure
A made to measure bike is the next step above a custom bike. After carrying out a
detailed set of measurements, a frame builder will build a bike from scratch, made to
fit your exact body size and shape. The idea behind bespoke frame building is that no
two people are the same. Just like a well tailored suit, a made to measure bike is
tailored to fit the rider’s exact size and even takes into account such factors as joint
flexibility and riding style for unparalleled comfort and fit. Many frame builders also
offer a custom paint job, so that the rider can choose the colour and style, or even
have their own name sprayed onto it. Made to measure frames are ideal for anyone
who consistently feels uncomfortable on a bike.

Upgrading Your Bike
There are so many ways to spend money on cycling kit. New wheels, tri bars, pointy
aero-helmets, light-weight shoes, comfier saddles, lighter frames – the list goes on.
Before you know it you will be re-mortgaging your house just so you can buy some
new ceramic bearings for the jockey-wheels on your rear derailleur. However, we are
not all made of money, and getting the most out of upgrades requires some serious
thought. The first priority when buying a bike is to get a well fitting, high quality
frame and forks. After this there is a sensible order that you can apply to making
1. Clip on Tri-bars or Aero-bars
The biggest cause of drag on a bike is the cyclist. Attachable tri bars or all-inone
aero bars help the rider to become smaller and smoother to the oncoming
air-resistance, giving more speed for the same effort.
2. Wheels
Good quality wheels help in several ways. Not only can they be more
comfortable and improve acceleration, but their rolling resistance is less, they
are more aero-dynamic and they are lighter. Reducing weight on rotating
parts such as wheels is especially important, as their effective weight is
increased by their constant rotation.
3. Aero helmet
One of the first things to meet the oncoming wind is your head. The
smoothness and shape of a well fitting aero-helmet helps to reduce drag,
shaving up to a minute off a 25-mile triathlon bike split. This kind of
improvement is not to be taken lightly; it takes a lot of training to improve by
a minute. Just don’t wear it when you ride to the pub.
4. Gears that work
Choosing a top of the range Shimano Dura-Ace group-set over a lessexpensive
Shimano 105 group-set will not make a significant difference to
your training or triathlon race times. You would be better off spending your
money on regular servicing, and on having the right gear ratios for the races
you are doing. Trying to ride up a mountain pass using a front chain-ring the
size of a four-cheese pizza with gears that are constantly slipping could cost
you minutes.
5. Saddle
Comfort starts from the bottom up. Bicycle saddles are a very personal thing,
and what can feel like a sofa to one person can feel like a form of torture to
another. It is no good having a sexy bike if you can’t bear to sit on it for more
then five minutes. Try before you buy is the secret when it comes to
purchasing a saddle, even if it means annoying your friends by continually
borrowing their bikes. Once you have found a comfy saddle, never be
tempted to buy anything different unless you are really sure.

How Much Speed Can Money Buy?
£599 Boardman Comp VS £5000 Zerofour Works TT

The Test

With such a huge range of bikes and prices available, I wanted to
investigate how much difference a £5000 bike would make over a £599 bike in a race
situation. The venue was the P311 10-mile cycle time trial in Hampshire, organised
by Bournemouth Arrow Cycling Club. Known as the ‘Rumble Strip’ for its harsh road
surface, the P311 10-mile time-trial is a flat out and back course. This course was
chosen for testing because it is well sheltered by hedgerow on either side, providing
consistent times despite any change in wind conditions. Testing was carried out on
two consecutive weeks, using the £5000 Zerofour TT bike in week 1, and the £599
Boardman bike in week 2.
The Bikes
Boardman Comp. £599. Bike Hut, Halfords
  • Aluminium frame, carbon forks
  • Shimano 105/Tiagra groupset
  • Truvativ Elita Compact Chainset
  • Ritchey Comp Wheels
  • Continental Ultra Sport clincher tyres
  • Profile T2 Tri Bars (optional extra)
  • Look Keo Sprint pedals (optional extra)

Zerofour Works TT. £4999. Zerofour, Dorset.
  • Made to measure carbon time trial frame
  • Oval A900 carbon fork
  • Oval A700 brakes (fitted behind forks to reduce drag)
  • Easton Attack TT aero bars
  • Oval A900 carbon brake levers
  • Zipp 808 deep section carbon front wheel
  • Zipp 900 carbon disk rear wheel
  • Look Keo Carbon pedals
  • Shimano Dura-Ace/Ultegra groupset
  • SRM Power monitoring cranks and computer
  • Continental Tempo lightweight tubular tyres
The Result
  • • Week 1. Zerofour Works TT. 10 miles completed in 22minutes, 30 seconds (1st Place)
  • • Week 2. Boardman Comp. 10 miles completed in 24 minutes, 4 seconds (1st Place)

Despite its relatively low price the Boardman looked great, attracting admiring
glances from competitors on bikes worth several times more, whilst the brooding
Zerofour resembled a stealth-bomber on a runway, poised and ready to fly. Such was
the price difference between the two bikes that if you sold just the Zipp wheels and
SRM power cranks from the Zerofour, you could use the money to buy 5 Boardman
Comps, and still have change for some Tri Bars. That’s enough Boardman Comps for
an entire family of budding triathletes.
Lining up at the start the Boardman Comp felt comfortable, with the optional Profile
T2 tri-bars giving a good aero-position. Accelerating from the start was heavy and
sluggish compared to the Zerofour but once up to speed, the Boardman soaked up the
bumpy road surface with ease, allowing the rider to focus on pushing the pace instead
of thinking about road vibration. At the half-way turn point, a mini-roundabout, the
Boardman’s road-race position and comfortable handle bars showed their worth,
giving great confidence and control on the tight turn, compared to the low profile
Zerofour, which was fast on the straights and less assured on the hairpins. However,
when accelerating back up to speed the gears on the Zerofour accurately fired into
place in a millisecond, whereas the lower-priced components on the Boardman paused
for thinking time before reliably clicking into position.

Comparing these two bikes is a little unfair. It’s a bit like comparing a VW Golf GTi
with a Ferrari Enzo. After all, the Boardman Comp is a road-race bike, designed for
training rides and road racing, whereas the Zerofour is an out and out time trial
machine, with steep frame angles designed for speed, speed and more speed.
Although the speed and responsiveness of the Zerofour was exceptional, the biggest
reason that it was 1 minute and 34 seconds quicker was because it placed the rider in a
more aero-dynamic position, and because its wheels and handlebars created less drag.
The faster you ride, the more drag slows you down, so it is worth remembering that
not everyone will gain 94 seconds per 10 miles from a top of the range TT bike.
When all is said and done, is the Zerofour worth £4400 more then the Boardman
Comp? The Boardman makes a great all-rounder, versatile enough for training and
triathlons and perfect for a new triathlete. However, for more seasoned athletes the
time savings that you could gain from the Zerofour could make it worth selling your
Granny to buy one.
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