Sunday, July 11, 2010

The first question for the Bike Geek!

What bike would you recommend for me? I want one that is much more than mine now (a $600 Giant road bike), faster and lighter. I'm looking at the $2500-3000 price range. Should it be a tri bike or a road bike?

This is a question that every bike geek loves and fears. We love it because it gives us a chance to show off how much we think we know and our biases. We fear it because we don’t really have a quick, easy answer, because it depends. It depends on what type of riding you'll be doing, how you want to spend the money (what combination of frame, components and accessories), how well the bike fits and, believe it or not, how it even looks.

If you would rather not read, a really good video about the differences between road and tri bikes can be found here.

In my opinion, the short answer is this: get the bike that you will ride and enjoy the most. The long answer I will have to explain in three parts. For part one, we'll look at what type of riding you will be doing, which I believe should be the biggest factor in making your decision between a road bike or a tri bike. I'll assume that you can get a good bike fit for either bike and both bikes look great to your eye. I'll also assume that your old bike will no longer be available so all of your riding will be done on your new bike. If you're planning on keeping your old bike, sometimes the best answer to the question is “the other kind." Since I have both types, I pick which bike to use based upon the type of ride I’m going to do (Shirley actually got a tri bike first and then a road bike more recently as the type of rides she wanted to do became more varied and she wanted to become a stronger cyclist).

So, what type of riding will you be doing? To answer this we must consider both training rides as well as races and for most of us, we will ride many more miles in training than we will in races.

Will you be doing lots of group rides with drafting involved?

To get faster on the bike, many triathletes often do group rides with serious cyclists (aka “roadies”). Just as in group running and group swim workouts, you'll tend to push yourself harder in a group than you would on your own. Plus, if it is the right group of folks, it's a lot more fun. So if you'll be doing many group rides with drafting involved, like the ESCC A & B group rides, you'll want to get a road bike because many such groups do not allow tri bikes for safety reasons (see the ESCC Aerobar policy, which I agree with completely for the reasons mentioned in the next section). They'll usually allow clip-on aerobars as long as you don't use them on those rides. In tris or non-drafting group rides, clip-on aerobars, assuming they're properly fitted, will allow you to have much of the same aerodynamic benefits as tri bikes.

Right about now, many of you are probably asking “What about BPY Tri Club rides?” Well, this is a different kind of group ride. We spread out more and don’t draft nearly as much as true roadies do. The greater separation between riders and smaller number of people riding together tends to minimize the chance of people bumping into each other or not having enough time to react.

If the majority of your rides will not involve drafting, a tri bike may the better choice, depending on the course which we'll talk about next.

Will you be riding lots of “technical courses” (ones with a lot of steep hills, tight curves, many stops, potholes, traffic, etc.)?

If so, a road bike handles better and is the safer choice. Whether to change gears, brake, go straight, climb hills, corner, navigate around obstacles or stop suddenly, hand position changes are minimal and your brakes are always easily accessible. You are also sitting more upright and it is easier to look around/ahead to see and react better. For beginners and advanced riders needing good bike handling, road bikes are the best choice.

If most of your bike courses are relatively flat with long, fairly straight stretches, as in East Orlando, then a tri bike makes better sense. You should be able to stay in aero for long periods of time with little need to brake or go around corners. To shift gears, you only need to move a thumb or fingertip to move bar end shifters located on the ends of your aerobars. A tri bike may, of course, be ridden in the non-aero or upright position too, but it's usually not as comfortable to do so for long periods of time as a road bike and shifting will require you to reach for a bar end shifter, which is not as convenient or safe (especially when riding inches away from other people, which is why tri bikes are not welcome in many group rides).

To summarize, if you'll be riding in the aero position most of the time in training and racing, then a tri bike is the way to go. Otherwise, a better quality road bike with clip-on aerobars is what I would recommend. I purposefully did not mention other benefits tri bikes are touted as having (steeper seat tube angles for better running off the bike, shorter top tube lengths for more comfort in aero position, more aerodynamic tubing, etc) because none of that really matters if the type of riding you'll be doing won't allow you to ride much in the position that a tri bike was designed for.

In my upcoming posts, I will discuss bike prices and options on how to spend your money on a new bike, bike fit and the bike coolness factor. That is, unless I get a question I want to answer more. ;-)

Ride safe, ride hard -- Dave

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