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Tri Bike or Road Bike? If It Can’t Be Both

January 2012
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The obvious answer to the question, should I get this [insert class of bike here] or this [insert class of bike here], is:  I should get both given money and spousal approval are not an object in the discussion.  Of course, living in the world we do, money not being an object is rarely the case and if money is an object, spousal support won’t be there.  Take for instance my distant desire to get a Tri Bike.  By distant desire, I mean it’s out there.  Keeping in mind that I am definitely fitting in a Half Ironman in there somewhere, a Tri Bike would absolutely help with the 56 mile ride (and get me to the finish line that much faster).

Now, even if I don’t look at the Trek Speed 9.9 that I’d want (at $10,000 without the upgrades), this is just too far out of my league for the foreseeable future.  More in the realm of “I won’t get served divorce papers” for buying this bike after a couple of stellar years and some intensive pre-purchase discussion, is the Speed 7.0

Trek Speed 7.0

This is a darn fine tri bike with a lot of nice bells and whistles and it retails for less than $2,700.  It’s a full carbon frame with SRAM components.  There is no denying that this bike would be head and shoulders above my current road bike (which is also full carbon and has even better components) for a triathlon.

Now, I’ve read a lot of discussion lately about whether or not one should buy a triathlon bike, assuming that money will be an issue (because we’ve already got the answer if it’s not), you would have to look at distance.  Anything under a half Ironman is a no-brainer…  Buy a road bike, slam the stem and drop a couple of aero bars on it.  Either a half or full Ironman?  Well, now we have a discussion.  I can tell you without a second’s hesitation, I will be doing my half Ironman with my road bike.  It’s not even a question, but that’s my decision.  Yours may be different.

Trek Madone 4.6

Let’s look at the why of this decision though.  The first factor that I have to look at is that I’m getting old.  Too old for a podium finish anyway.  So then I have to look at whether or not I want to blow that kind of coin on a bike I’m going to use for one race, one single purpose, to win my age group.  That’s simple to me:  No.  That takes care of the money issue.  I don’t even have to ask my wife about the spousal support issue.  I doubt she would be angry enough to file papers over the bike (of course,  I wouldn’t be dumb enough to find out the hard way either) but we could do a lot of good things with $2,700 as a family and my 5200 will serve the purpose just fine.  So that basically takes care of the emotional baggage attached to the question.

The mechanics are important too, though.  The images above are of a Trek Time Trial (Triathlon) Bike and a Trek Madone 4.6 Road Bike (though serious attention should be paid to Specialized, now that’s a Tri Bike).  I have the photos stacked on top of one another so that you can see what I’m describing.  Look at the seat tube on the TT bike and the road bike…the road bike’s seat tube is at a greater angle away from the handle bars.  This is great for getting to the drops but not so much for getting to aero bars.  Also, the seat position is meant to work two muscle groups as well – your quads and your glutes.  The TT bike, with its upright seat tube is meant to mainly work the quads, which aren’t used as much in running (if you’re wondering, yes it matters, you save the glutes and thereby hamstrings for the run) and to get your elbows to the rests and hands to the bar ends.  If you’ve ever noticed, even with the tube angle of the TT bike, racers still ride on the front half of the seat:

Don’t read too much into these photo’s of Lance’s bikes…  Hint, look at the seat tube.  He’s Time Trialing…  He won’t be running a marathon after he’s done, guaranteed.  It’s a different set up, I was just trying to show the creep to the front of the seat.

Here’s another with the proper seat tube angle, notice how he’s creeping up on his seat?  In any event, in order to get into this position on a road bike, you’ve gotta keep the elbow rests back of the bars more than you would think or slide your seat forward (or both) or buy a specific seat post to get your butt forward.  If you’re riding less than 112 miles, a road bike can be made to perform the task.  This isn’t perfect, and going cheap has it’s problems (detailed here, what, just yesterday?).  Also, to be certain, we’re talking about doing here, not competing.  Unless you’re looking at a Sprint or Olympic, and have one heck of a strong run and swim leg, you will not be competing with a trained athlete on a Triathlon bike on the bike leg.  The geometry is too race specific between the two bikes and it matters.  If you’re looking at a Sprint, chances are if you have a decent high-end road bike you’ll have an advantage on the pack, same with an Olympic length, though equipment starts getting more expensive there.

Now, I’ve given several technical reasons to get spend the money on a Triathlon bike, let’s look at the numerous reasons to pass and get a road bike.  For training and simply getting your base miles in, a road bike is infinitely more comfortable – a Tri bike is built for one thing, and one thing only, speed.  Also, you won’t be as welcome (if at all) in a group ride with a Tri bike because your hands are too far away from the brakes.  You present a danger to the others that you would ride with because you can’t get to the brakes in an emergency (click on the “present a danger” link and watch the video to see exactly what I mean) .  I am a social exerciser, the more the merrier, so I’m looking very forward to group rides this summer – I can’t enjoy that experience on a Tri bike.  Also, being doubled over for an extended period of time is not fun and it’s a difficult position for climbing and descending – if you want to have a harrowing experience, find a decent hill, something that will get you going about 50+ mph (80 km/h) with a bend or two in it, clip on some aero bars and try to negotiate that with your hands a couple of centimeters apart (when I clip my aero bars on, I turn the handles in so that my hands are right next to each other, creating a triangle with my arms rather than two straight lines punching through the wind – it feels faster to me though it’s aggressive and a little harder to control the bike).  It’s much more stable on the drops.  In short, a road bike is far more versatile.

In the end, I have to choose between form and function and cost when it comes to my ride.  I will be better off in a Triathlon, but nowhere else on a Tri bike, and I’ll definitely be able to ride a Road bike where I can’t on a Tri bike.  And of course, there’s this photo from the Ironman World Championships:

As a side note, for those who didn’t know, look at the distance between the ridersdrafting is illegal in a triathlon.  If you are closer than three bike lengths you have to pass within 15 seconds or you are penalized, so there’s that too.

UPDATE (9-8-2013): I recently purchased a Specialized Venge Comp, the frame of which is based on the Shiv TT bike. The seat post is reversible, giving the rider a 22 mm offset and has enough stem spacers that the handlebar can be dropped to make room for aero bars, making it, in effect, a formidable TT bike. It’s quite a remarkable road bike.

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1 Comment

  1. […] dude over at Fit Recovery (Jim) put together a handy post outlining the difference between road and tri bikes. He compares a Trek Speed 7 with a Madone 4.6. Obviously, a road bike like the Madone is far more […]

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