Road Bike vs. Tri Bike: The Battles Wages On

Posted: November 23, 2010 in Bike, Equipment
Tags: ,

Up until just over a year ago, the last time I rode bike was 1984 and I was in grade seven. It was a bright orange Schwinn Stingray.  It was already ancient when I got it for my 12th birthday but it didn’t matter – it was beautiful.  It had a huge banana seat and great sweeping ape-hanger handlebars; a real classic of North American bicycle engineering.  What a liberating feeling be able to wheel away from home on my own free volition.  I spent long afternoons cycling back and forth to neighborhood parks, friend’s homes, baseball practice, the swimming pool, school, or anywhere else I wanted to be for that matter.  The world was my oyster.

But somewhere along the way, the Schwinn went into hibernation in the garage never to reemerge.  I became vested in other interests as kids do, you know, things like eating and smoking weed.  After that, bicycling never seemed quite as miraculous.  There was always something else to occupy my mind: video games, girls, and figuring out why my dealer wasn’t returning my calls to name just a few.  Not only had I developed an aversion to cycling but to exercise in general.  Much later still, I thought that the only people who still rode bikes were either an old lady on their way to market with their dogs tucked into smalls basket, or witches looking to torment members of the Lollipop Guild.

Nearly 27 years later and, hopefully, with some freshly regenerated brain cells, I can now appreciate that feeling of personal freedom and escape.  Escape from the stresses of the work day and the regular mundane grind of a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday existence.  Fortunately, I have acquired other means of personal transport since that old Schwinn and I now manage to get out at least 4-5 times a week, without fail, and it is still every bit the joy as I remember as a child…particularly given that now I usually ride with an elephant-sized buzz on.

The circumstances have changed quite significantly, though, since grade seven.  Depending on the day, I will be out for anywhere between and 20-120k at a time and I have a choice of bicycles to choose from: a restored Trek 1000 road bike  affectionately known as Daisy, and a sleek, time trial style rocketship named LucilleDaisy was generously donated when I first arrived at this crazy notion of doing a triathlon.  I have fixed her up and kitted her out with new tires, pedals, tape, and a decent crank set.  In little over a year I quickly racked up over a 1000 kilometers in my first season.  Daisy was the vehicle that saw me through my entire first year (both training and racing) and she suited my needs perfectly (and she still does).  Next, I saved up for and purchased Lucille, a hot Cervelo P-1 time trial bike which I used this year to train and race with.  In total, I clocked in at a little over 2800 kilometers this year between the two bikes.  Now this may not be a big feat to some, but for a guy who couldn’t pedal to the end of the street and back a little better than 3 years ago to save his life – it’s pretty huge.

This always leads to the inevitable question from others:  “which do you prefer riding?”

Truthfully, I love both bikes equally but for very different reasons.  So depending on what someone’s needs are for a bike, as well as what they intend to do with it, my recommendation will be different.  In all seriousness, when I ride my road bike I crave my tri bike; when I ride my tri bike I crave my road bike.  Go figure.

First, let’s look at the fundamental differences between the two machines.  Road bikes are made to handle well in a wide variety of circumstances including climbing, cornering, or riding in packs where space is tight. The seat tube angle is generally 73 degrees and the rider’s position is often more upright. The hands are positioned on top of the hoods to allow for easy shifting and braking. This position allows for maximum power transfer when pedaling, especially climbing, and quick response time when in a pack of riders.  You can also drop down into a semi-aero position by dropping your hands to the curled underbars.  In both cases, the body position will feel more comfortable and natural.  So in the case where you are looking for a decent all-purpose bike to handle in most situations – both recreational as well as competitive – go with the road bike, particularly if you’re only looking at shorter distance events anyway.

Tri bikes (or time trial bikes) are designed very a bit differently.  Tri bikes are made specifically to go fast while utilizing rider energy efficiently and even conserving energy to some extent (remember – the bike is only 1/3 of the race). In order to accomplish this, tri bike geometry has a steeper seat tube angle, usually 76-78 degrees. The head tube angle is usually a little less aggressive, the top tube is slightly shorter, and often the front end slopes downward. The chain stay is also often one centimeter or so shorter. This geometry allows the rider’s hips to remain open while riding in the aero position.  Following me so far?  Attaining and holding an aero position on a tri-specific bike vs. a road bike with clip-on aerobars should be significantly more comfortable, especially for longer periods of time. The forward position requires more energy from the hamstrings when pedaling. Hopefully this will conserve some energy for the quadriceps when the bike leg is over and it’s time to run. Of course, you just can’t overlook the aerodynamic benefits of an efficient aero position.

Riding a tri bike does require some getting used to though.  At first, until you get comfortable to the different body positioning, you will find that your shoulders and upper arms will ache from supporting your body until you get used to loosening up, as will your neck get sore from having to tilt your head a little higher to see where you’re going.  All of these discomforts are strictly temporary as you get accustomed to the new position.  After only a short time period, you will be much more comfortable providing your bike has been set up correctly for you.  Or, you can just subscribe to the all natural self medicate philosophy of sports medicine and take a more holistic approach like me…but, again, I digress…

Furthermore, stability and gearing is very different on a tri bike and will take some getting accustomed to.  Accessing the water bottles on your hydration system (providing you have one) behind you will take a little more concentration and care.  At no point do I ever feel like I can ride hands free on my tri bike to enjoy a relaxed drink or chow down on a protein bar while riding – its one hand on the handlebars are all times.  Also, the gears are located in the middle of the bike (on the aerobars), so if you’re not in the aero position already you will need to reach across to make that change.  Likewise, if you’re in the aero position already and need to break suddenly you need to break the position in order to reach over and apply the brakes (hopefully, in enough time to avoid a wipeout).  This causes a little confusion at first, let me tell you.

But if your goal is to compete in the longer distance events, like the Ironman as I do, then I would definitely recommend investing in and getting acquainted with a specified tri bike set up.  Make sure that once you have decided on a make/model, etc. that you also have yourself properly sized on your bike.  This takes only a few moments in the store by a professional but will maximize your efficiency and comfort in the saddle later on as well as lessen the time it takes getting accustomed to it.

As necessary as it is, this sizing was not an easy thing for me to accomplish.  From the moment I was asked to step on the bike, I flashed back to the time I was fitted for my first suit by a 64-year-old Jewish tailor back when I was, like, 15-years-old.  I remember the feeling of his hand sliding up the inseam of my thigh and into my crotch; the back of his wrist banging into my testicles like a Golden Gloves boxer laying into a speed bag.  I also recall the instinctive impulse to drive my knee into his forehead.  But I resisted this temptation and allowed the cycle mechanic to go about his business of accurately sizing me up for Lucille.  Good thing to, as ending up with 20 years to life for Involuntary Manslaughter would definitely have put an added damper on the whole bike shopping experience.  It also would have made for an entirely different blog post.

What I really recommend, providing you are fortunate enough to do so, is to have one of each for training and for racing.  For example, I still ride Daisy regularly early in the season (as well as afterwards), particularly in the heart of my training schedule, and then I will switch over to Lucille only a few weeks before the competition to get intimately comfortable with the new set-up prior to racing.  This way I get the full balance of having a versatile training bike with which to work specifically on climbing hills, sprinting, building my endurance base, or just riding with other cyclists in a group.  Then I can cross over again to my tri bike later to work on my endurance and race day technique.

Of course, I am a real lucky son-of-a-bitch that way.

  1. Jan says:

    Ahhhhhh so glad Daisy is such a big part of your Tri life. Means a lot to me!

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