Ironman Equipment: Road vs. Tri Bike


The biggest purchase you’ll make as a triathlete is your bike – and not just in terms of money spent. The bike is the longest portion of most triathlons, in both distance and time. It can make or break your success in a race.

Last year when I began training for Ironman Wisconsin, I knew I needed to purchase a new bike, but the question loomed: do I buy a road bike or a tri bike? You may face the same question, too, as you prepare for your Ironman.

A few considerations

First I thought about the pros and cons of each type of bike.

Triathlon bikes are designed to make riders faster. Gear West, a Minnesota bike and tri shop explained it best by stating, “A triathlon bike has a steeper seat tube angle. The seat tube is closer to vertical than a road bike’s. This steeper geometry places the rider’s hips over the crankset which engages their quadriceps more for increased power.”

Tri bikes are more aerodynamic and are “faster” than road bikes. Plus, I’ve heard the position a rider is in on a tri bike makes the transition to a run easier.

The downside to tri bikes is that they can be uncomfortable – I’ve heard a few Ironman triathletes complain of back pain after riding in the aero position for five hours or more. When I tried a tri bike out, I felt unbalanced and unsure, which make me turn to a road bike.

Road bikes are comfortable to ride as long as you get the right fit. They handle better and give a rider more confidence. They also give the rider multiple positions on the handlebars, which is important when riding 112 miles in an Ironman. With a road bike I found I could sit up more, have better balance and handle food intake more smoothly. I also put tri bars on my road bike. This allowed me to lean forward and get a better aero position while also giving me the ability to come out of that position for longer periods.

One of the biggest benefits of the road bike is its versatility. Now that Ironman is over I use my road bike to commute and when I go on group rides. That’s not something I would have been able to do with a tri bike.

Your personal preference

Here are some questions you should think about before making your purchase:

• What is your goal for the bike portion of your Ironman?
• What is the course/terrain like in your Ironman?
• What are your cycling plans after your Ironman is over?

If your goal is to complete the race and you’re not worried about competing in age group or overall awards, a road bike will work fine, in my opinion. If your goal is to be more competitive, perhaps a tri bike should be your choice.

Next, terrain makes a difference in the bike portion of your Ironman. Is your race a hilly, curvy course like Ironman Wisconsin? You might want to consider a road bike. But if your race is straight and flat like Ironman Texas, you may see a bigger advantage with a tri bike.

Lastly, think about your cycling plans after Ironman. What kind of bike do you think you’ll use more once training settles down?

I chose a road bike

I personally was very happy with my decision to purchase a Trek Silque SL and put aero bars on it. I didn’t feel like I was at a disadvantage when I was competing in my first Ironman. In fact, it was a smooth, comfortable ride and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

If you put the work in on the bike, you can shed a lot of time without spending the money on a tri bike. The first time I rode the Ironman Wisconsin course at the beginning of the season, it took me 8 hours and 20 minutes. I went home that weekend and joined a bike group. I dedicated my Tuesday nights to hill repeats and my Wednesday nights to fast, long distance rides between 40 and 50 miles. Eight weeks later when I rode the Ironman course again, my time dropped to 6 hours and 50 minutes. Nothing changed except my work on the bike.

So is a tri bike necessary for an Ironman? No, it’s not necessary, but it has its benefits depending on the rider and his or her goals for the race.

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Adrienne Zimmer has been competitively running since she was 10 years old. She ran her first half marathon when she was 15 and her first full marathon at the age of 18. Since then, she has competed in more than a dozen half marathons, five full marathons, a dozen sprint triathlons, a half Ironman and a full Ironman triathlon. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and works full-time as a writer and editor. In 2017 she hopes to finish Boise's Race to Robie Creek Half Marathon, dubbed the toughest half marathon in the Northwest.


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