Why Triathletes Need A Road Bike

(Reposted this after getting so many requests for it. Specialized moved to a new platform and it was lost.)

As much as you might read the title and expect that this is going to be a compelling (or fluff) piece on why you must buy a Specialized Tarmac SL3, that is not actually the case. Though, in the words of Ferris Bueller, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” No, this is simply about why you – the regular triathlete – needs *a* road bike. Before we get into why you need a road bike, there are some of you who do not need one. If you are this person, you can stop reading right now. If you never ride more than an hour and if you never ride less than 25mph (40kph for you sensible metric folks) and if you view your bike simply as a necessary evil to get from swim to run, then you are 1) very atypical in the triathlon world, 2) probably an ex-swimmer or ex-XC runner, and 3) not the kind of person that needs a road bike. There are a few of these folks in the world. They are not the norm.
Assuming you are still reading along, I will assume that you are not one of those types of people. There are two primary reasons to own a road bike. The first is simple – if you ride with other people, it is not optimal to have your brakes and your shifters in separate places. It’s also very much not optimal, unless you are participating in a Team Time Trial, to ride in your aerobars in close proximity to other people. Now, you may have an easy answer (in your own mind) to this “problem.” You will just ride in the “pursuit position,” which means with your hands on the brake hoods. And this is what brings us to the really real reason that you need a road bike.
Whenever you are NOT in your aerobars, you would better off on a road bike.
The reason for this has to do entirely with biomechanics. People who primarily ride their tribikes use the following argument, “I race on my tribike, so I should train on my tribike.” While this is true, most people do (or at least should, assuming they have been properly fitted to their bike and their saddle) race in their aerobars. If you do not race primarily – 90%+ of the bike portion of your race – in the aerobars, then you need a fitting on your tribike, in addition to needing a road bike. But let’s assume that you do have a good position on your tri bike and you do race in your aerobars. That’s a big assumption, but we will make it, especially since I spent the last two posts encouraging you to get the right saddle. The position that you are fitted to when you go in for a tribike fit is your aerobar fit. It doesn’t matter, really, how comfortable your pursuit position is. It just has to be “good enough.” There is only ONE position on a tribike, and that is the one in the aerobars. Everything is a compromise position. The reason is that the body angles (specifically the angle of your hips relative to your torso) change a LOT when you are not in the aerobars. 
The position of your hips – your hip angle – in this position:

Is very, very different than in this position:
And that is why you need a road bike. Because the latter position – the correct position –  is much more similar to this position:


It’s quite easy to see when you look at the pictures. 
Road bikes have three positions. Hands on the hoods (Fabian in yellow), hands in the drops, and hands on the tops. In all cases, your hip angle remains largely constant, because you will slide back in the saddle when your hands are on the tops and forward when your hands are in the drops. Furthermore, you can also bend your elbows to create the appropriate hip angle. Technically, you can also bend your elbows on a tribike, but this puts a LOT of weight on your hands, which ends up being a very uncomfortable (untenably so) position, and you still aren’t likely to get nearly as low as you would if you were on your aerobars. 
So what this means is that every time you come up out of your aerobars, you are training in a position that is VERY different from the one you want to race in. And, ironically, in these moments, were you riding a road bike, it would be your position on that bike that would be most similar to the position you aim to race your tribike in. This is the position that will allow you to generate the most power, recruit the most musculature, and be the most comfortable. But you need to train in this position. Especially on a steep seat angle position, riding a tribike in the pursuits/hoods is really much more like this:


than like this:


It’s this versatility of positions – all of which allow you to preserve a common hip angle – whether you are climbing, descending, sprinting, pack riding, or just out training that make a road bike so useful. You can train in the same position you will race in, only without needing to put your weight up on the nose of the saddle, crane your neck to see the cars and traffic lights up the road, or do any of the other things that make a tribike less than ideal for doing anything other than riding hard against the clock. And any road bike will do this for you. You can spend less than 1000. You can get entry level parts. You can even have (gasp) a triple! It doesn’t matter. The most budget, non-carbon, simple roadbike is going to be the best training tool that you can buy. And it’ll make you feel that much faster (because you’ll actually be faster) when you do take your tribike out for the kind of ride it was designed for – a hard and fast one. Of course, a really, really, really nice road bike also works well too! But it’s the positions that it offers you which make it so useful. So if you want to end up like this, well then you need to train that way, which means you need a road bike…



9 thoughts on “Why Triathletes Need A Road Bike

  1. Some great points. I have a road bike but I did get a Retul fit so with a FF seatpost and some aerobars I'm in a TT position on the roadie. But for group rides I remove the aerobars but do not adjust the seat/seatpost to get back to the road position. Am I losing something here? I'm on a very limited budget, only have one saddle, one bike obviously so should I find a good used saddle and get myself to the optimal road position when riding without the bars?


  2. @Reece – short answer – yes. A TT position without aerobars is definitely not ideal. It's very hard to make a road bike work as a TT bike and also as a road bike. At least, you should have two seatposts, so you can put a slacker post on for road riding. But clip-ons present their own problems, namely in terms of height. There's no way your aerobars can be at the correct height if your handlebars are also at the correct height. The clip-on hardware just adds too much height.

    But we are talking about “optimal” here. Clip ons and a FF post serve a purpose. Part of the point of this post is that pedaling a bike is pretty much pedaling a bike…


  3. I'm in the same low-budget situation as Reece and at 6'6″, a tribike for me would be custom and north of $5K! So, what are these slacker and FF posts you mention?
    My setup is a 65cm steel road bike with aerobars and my fit is not too aggresive. Even in a race, I'd be surprised if I was in my aerobars more than 50% of the time. I just don't want to be in that position all the time, yet I also find it comfortable to be in that position sometimes to give my back a rest from when I'm on the hoods. However, I want to have the optimal fit and be ready to run coming off the bike, so what are these posts and what can they do for you?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. @cashonly – fundamentally, it all started with the Profile Design Fast Forward seatpost – http://www.profile-design.com/profile-design/products/seatposts/aluminum-seat-posts

    Technically, that's a half truth, because it started with Mark Allen having such seatposts made for him custom. But from an off-the-shelf perspective, the Profile was the first (I think). It still exists today, though as more and more bikes go away from traditional round seatposts – and of course tribikes get cheaper, it's much less prevalent.

    But the basic idea is that it allows you to mimic the steep seat angle of a tribike on a road bike, allowing you to then put aerobars on your bike in an appropriately low position. The problem is that it changes nothing else. It does not change the geometry of the bike as a whole, in particular, the front-center. For a bigger guy, this is especially problematic.

    In all honesty, the best bet for you is to look for a used aluminum P2 or P3 in size 61. That is the bike you need. And it's less than $5k.


  5. This is a great article, because it goes against what many believe is best for TT position training in triathlon.

    Am I following you correctly here, if you were to ride 99% of the time in your aerobars, then you do not need a road bike. However, most people do not, and with this assumption, the upright pursuit position on a TT/tribike is not good for training because of the awkward position it puts your body in?

    Many seasoned triathletes believe that you should train the way you race. But I guess you assume that pro cyclists race just fine on their TT bike but are training majority of their time on their road bike. Its about a good fit with the correct hip angle on both tri and road bikes? Thanks rappstar


  6. @Dr. Michael Manley,

    Doesn't need to be 99% of the time. More like 80%. If you ride 80% of the time in your aerobars, then, sure you don't need a road bike. There were a bunch of guys that used to train this way. Short course guys back in the day, at least according to Dan E. Most of these folks didn't do a ton of volume, they just rode hard. There are still some guys down in San Diego that ride this way. Only ride a few hours a week, all of it hard, all of it in the aerobars. In that case, just one bike is fine…

    However, I won't say that this goes against the grain of what people who actually understand biomechanics of cycling believe. It may go against what “most” people believe, but not against what most good bike fitters believe.


  7. Great article! So what bike would you recommend to the triathlete that loves the rigidity of a tri-bike? I am finding it hard to find articles that break down the stiffness in a road bike. I am aware that the cost will be high, which is ok as I love riding bikes. Keep up the great work!


    1. Most of the highest end carbon offerings from any major brand will be plenty stiff. What you MAY be referring to is cockpit stiffness, in which case, just get a nice stiff sprinter stem (like the Zipp VukaSprint) and a sprinter’s bar. Rigid bars and stem may give the feel you want. Most road bikes tend to be stiffer than tribikes at an equivalent level of quality.


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