Racing with a road bike
Aerobars and wheels can improve a road bike's triathlon performance
After finishing a few events, newcomers to triathlons may find themselves contemplating a bigger commitment to the sport. Training time is one consideration. The cost of equipment is another. Prices of even entry-level triathlon specific bikes can cause some sticker shock. For many, upgrading an existing road bike with parts to improve aerodynamic performance is a worthy compromise.
"Some riders may be better on a traditional road bike than a triathlon bike because of their physiology," Bontrager brand manager Chris Clinton says. "Some riders may be more comfortable over a long distance triathlon riding on a traditional frame that has been fit for them in an aero position than riding a more expensive triathlon specific bike."
With some well-thought out upgrades such as adding aerobars, seat posts and wheels, a quality road bike can perform better.
"The two primary upgrades should be wheels and aerobars," Clinton advises. "Wheels make a huge improvement in aerodynamics, especially considering that the front wheel is the leading edge of the bike. Better wheels also help with cornering stability, acceleration and saving watts on climbs. The aerobars probably make the biggest difference as the rider is the biggest factor in drag and they help place the rider in a more streamlined position."
Positioning is paramount
Clip-on aerobars are fairly simple and will fit on most road bike handlebars. Little modification, if any, is required of the bike. "I do suggest a slightly shorter stem for most riders as the aerobars place them further forward on the bike," Clinton says. "Upgrading to a full aerobar system may require a bit of money as brake levers, shifters, cables and bar tape would also need to be changed."
Prices for clip-on bars range from $80 to $200. Finding the right model for your bike and riding style is worth the effort. Problems can arise if you aren't fit correctly.
"If you just slap a set of aero bars on a road bike, a lot of times you can't put the rider in the right position. They will be stretched out too far," explains Barry Smith, director of marketing for Profile Design/Bellwether/Titec. "People need to understand positioning is paramount. If you're not set up properly it doesn't matter how fancy your stuff is. You are going to get off the bike and wobble because your muscles are going to be tight."
Smith recommends a seat post adjustments to improve performance and alleviate discomfort. "Seat posts can be used to push the seat forward on the bike," he says. "It changes the length of the bike from the aero bars to the saddle and allows the rider to have the proper arm position and give them a little more effective riding position. Engaging your core saves your legs for the run."
Upgrading to clip-on pedals can also improve a road bike's performance. Chris Wehan, marketing and product manager for Look Cycle USA, explains: "The clipless pedal allows for better power transfer. When you are engaged and clipped into the pedal, you obtain the pull-up as well as the push down with your legs. You are maximizing the amount of energy your legs are putting out and that translates moving your bike faster. Another benefit is being in a locked, solid position that improves the security and feel of the pedal.
Wheels and tires
Upgrading wheels and tires can have a significant impact on a road bike's performance over a long distance triathlon course. "The biggest advantage will come from putting aerodynamic deep dish wheels on their road bike. Unfortunately, that's probably the most expensive upgrade as well. Aerodynamic wheels can cost $1,400 to $2,400," Smith says.
Aerodynamic wheels have proven to be beneficial to all riders, whether they are road cyclists, time trialists or triathletes. "The streamlined profiles cut down on the amount of energy required to cut through the wind, even when riding in a group of cyclists," Clinton says. "Most of today's aero wheels utilize carbon, providing a reasonably light wheel allowing those riders to use them on both flat and hilly terrain."
Triathletes may balk at spending more on wheels than they paid for their original complete road bike. But with a little planning, they can use upgrade their next bike with aerobars and higher end seats, seat posts and wheels.
And on't forget to add higher performance tires. "Just changing tires alone can save a huge amount of time. Better tires will form over road obstacles rather than bounce over them. That offers more control and better grip in cornering. Higher quality tires tend to drag less when you are rolling in a straight line," Clinton says. "Consider a nine-second improvement in a 10 mile time trial and over three minutes in an Ironman leg."
Triathlon specific bikes truly offer the best mix of aerodynamic performance characteristics, but if necessary, road bikes can be upgraded to give intermediate triathletes a good ride.
Lou Dzierzak is a Richfield, Minnesota-based freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.