Watching my wife racing in her first triathlon, I couldn’t help but notice some of the high-priced carbon out there. Including on S-Works Shiv with Zipp 80’s… About $14,000 worth of bike. There were plenty of others: Specialized, Felt, Trek, Guru – and that was just the Tri bikes I saw. The list of road bike manufacturers was too big to bother with. Everything from high-end to entry-level, carbon to aluminum to steel. There were hybrids and even a mountain bike or thirty (about five percent give or take).
The interesting thing to me (as a spectator), and this is for a sprint – a 10.7 mile bike ride, was how many hybrids came in ahead of those high-end TT and road bikes worth several times more. I used the opportunity as a teachable moment for my daughters who both ride mountain bikes because of their versatility, cost and the simple fact that they aren’t ready to ride on the roads yet.
I heard (and overheard) a common theme throughout the day as well: “I just need a better bike”. It was repeated so often I lost count. In some cases the person had a point but in most, while a “better bike” would help, it wasn’t necessarily the answer either. In this post, I hope to examine the “better bike” subject fully and offer my experience, having ridden everything from a rusted out $20 garage sale Huffy to a $4,000 full carbon aero-bike in the last three years.
First of all, of all of the people whom I heard say they needed a better bike, I asked “I’m curious, have you had your current bike fitted to you?”. Every single one, without fail, said no. One of the most oft made mistakes for the noob triathlete or cyclist is thinking their bike is too cheap to bother with getting it to fit right. Improper fit is far and away the most detrimental problem associated with cycling fast. Saddle height must be as close to perfect as humanly possible. Too high and you sacrifice power at the bottom of the pedal stroke (one foot at 4:00 thru 6:00 and the other from 10:00 thru 12:00). Too low and generating any real power is nearly impossible. Then there’s the fore and aft position of the saddle. Too far back and you have to use the back of your leg on the pedal stroke which will mess up your run. Too far forward and you’ll feel mashed into the cockpit and lose power. Then there’s reach to the handlebar and width of the handlebar (see my Bike Maintenance and Fitting page for links to detailed analysis of most important issues – read one or two posts a day so you don’t become overwhelmed).
Once the fit is right, then we can talk about a better bike. HOWEVER, a high-end bike is not a cure for low-end legs. It never was and never will be. In the end, if you spend $500 or $15,000 on a bike, you still have to pedal it. Having done all kinds of analysis on which bikes are good for a certain speed, it’s fair to say the following: I ride my aero race bike at 21-22 mph (solo, on flat ground). I ride my Trek 5200 road bike with standard round tubes and aero wheels at about 21-21.5 mph (in other words, almost as fast as the aero race bike). I ride my Cannondale aluminum road bike at 20.5-21 mph. The Cannondale is a little heavier and has the same round tubes as the 5200. The difference between the three is the comfort. I can ride for miles on the race bike at that speed with little discomfort. The 5200 is a bit of a harsher ride so I can carry its speed for the same distance, it just hurts a little more when I’m done. The Cannondale is so harsh (because aluminum frames are so stiff) that I’m good for maybe 20-25 miles at that speed before I’m in too much pain to keep that pace up. Having ridden on carbon fiber bikes, I just hate the feel of aluminum over longer rides. It sucks the life right out of me.
On a hybrid, with slick road tires, I can hold about an 18-18.5 mph average and on a mountain bike with knobby tires that drops down to 15-16.5 mph depending on whether I ride my 26″ standard mountain bike or my 29’er. Now I’m above average when it comes to cycling speed but not by much so here’s how to look at the numbers I’ve laid out: If you’ve got a mountain bike and can’t hold a ten mph average, the problem is with the setup and/or the legs trying to propel it. A new road bike would help but that would only get you to maybe 12 or 13 mph. A new aero time trial bike? $2,500 – $5,000 and you’ll get 12.2-13.2, maybe a little bit better. On a mountain bike you should hold at least a 13 mph average… a hybrid? shoot for a minimum of a 15 mph average and 18 on a road bike before you start worrying about “a better bike”.
One of the toughest truths to help people understand is that a bike is a bike. All too often those who don’t know any better think that because they see me flying down the road at 25 mph in the drops, my legs cranking like pistons (as my wife likes to say), if they get the same bike they’re going to be able to ride like that too.
This simply isn’t the case folks. We who cycle fast do so because we’ve put in the time and effort, because we can hurt more than slower folks can. We’ve become comfortable with feeling discomfort that would have most people heading for the couch… I’ve busted my butt over three years to get this fast and I haven’t let up even a little bit over that time. I put in more than 5,000 miles a year and I’m pushing at or beyond my capacity for at least 1/2 of those miles. The reality is that I have great legs and I ride a nice bike. If you’re not willing to put in some crazy miles to make your legs great, a nice bike will only make you look good while you’re riding slow. Also, if you’re only going to do one tri a year, don’t worry about the new bike. Work on your legs and your lungs and be one of those people on a hybrid passing one of those high-end carbon triathlon bikes. When you can do that, then you’ll be ready for a better bike.
UPDATE: One thing that I should have added originally is this: Please don’t think that I am against anyone buying a nicer bike. Buy the nicest, coolest, lightest bike you can afford, by all means (I did). Just know that once you do, and you’re cruising down the road only slightly faster than you did on your old bike, it’s a rough mental place to be when you discover that you don’t have any excuses – that you’re just slow and you don’t want to work any harder to get faster. It’s a harsh realization. I’ve been there.