A Fit Expert Explains the Various Triathlon Bike Options

With so many options on the market for tri bikes, we tapped fit expert Mat Steinmetz to break down the different types of tri bikes to help you choose your perfect steed.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

How we choose a bike is a curious decision. Is it because we want the thing our favorite pros ride? Are we down for that hot pink paint job with the teal accents? How about price?

Sure, all good reasons. But there’s much more critical info that goes into it—info that will help determine if you’re truly happy on your new bike: like if you’re 3 watts per kilogram faster, more comfortable in a crosswind gust, or maybe just happy with the versatility of your purchase.

Have you considered what kind of rider you are? Do you love (I mean love) a ride in the wind and rain…or would you reschedule your training day? Do you live, train, and race in the rolling hills of Wisconsin, or do you prefer powering away on the flats of Florida? Or heck, do you love packing your bike to hit the mountains on an epic Ironman Nice course, or does the thought of even packing your bike and working with anything beyond a multitool make you tremble?

When we get down to it, there is an ideal bike for us, based on our goals and experience. But how do you find the right bike? Well, getting a cursory bike fit is first and foremost. With those fit numbers, we can stack them against brands to get the right size. But the rabbit hole, well, it goes deeper than that. 

So we figured we’d ask a guy who fields these questions daily: bike fit specialist Mat Steinmetz of 51 Speedshop. Based out of Boulder, Colorado, he’s fit pros including Mirinda Carfrae, Sam Long, and Sam Appleton—along with a ton of age groupers. “These are real conversations I have with people that come in,” he said. “You quickly realize not everyone has the same goals. Not everyone is trying to qualify for Kona. Some are trying to lose weight, or just have fun with friends. And that’s great; their reasons help me get them into the right bike for them as well.”  

While pros have to ride what they’re paid to ride, we have choices. And while Steinmetz’ critical eye is able to determine bikes that may be best suited to you based on your terrain, experience, and goals, yes, price and color are important; Steinmetz says. That’s low-hanging fruit, but still he wants to know it.

“I have people come in and say ‘I like Felt because Rinny rides it. Or I like Quintana Roo because of the colors they offer,’” he said. “Everyone has something that will bias their decision, and that’s ok; I want to know that, as it helps to narrow the choices.”

The 5 Metrics

After that, Steinmetz asks the hard questions, based on five metrics: 1) goals, 2)rider size, 3) rider confidence and experience, 4) technical aptitude, and 5) geography.

1. Goals

This is a simple one: Do you race to kill, get a PR, make the podium, or even qualify for Kona? Or are you there for the personal challenge, the experience and camaraderie with your tri teammates? Steinmetz asks other questions to probe. “I’ll ask if they care about racing or training more. If they really enjoy the training with friends as much if not more than the race,” Steinmetz said. “They’re maybe new to the sport, and might say ‘I know an aero helmet is faster, but y’know, I’m just out here to have fun.’ In that case, I might lean them toward a road bike with clip-ons. It’s something they can use for tri, and maybe riding with friends.”

The flip side of the coin he recognizes right away: performance-driven athletes. They’re the ones that want that Kona spot. “I immediately know they want one of the top five cutting-edge speed machines,” he says. “They’re 100% in.” 

2. Rider Size

Indeed, rider size can have an influence. Note I said “can.” Consider the aforementioned Mirinda Carfrae. Diminutive in stature, she has the immense power capacity and years of experience to manage a bike a Felt IA—a bike with among the deepest airfoil cross sections available on market—with the howling Ho’o Mumuku crosswinds threatening to blow her off the road.

So while Rinny’s power and experience allow her to masterfully manage a superbike with deep airfoils on windy days, many small triathletes won’t have the same confidence. “Those smaller riders—particularly those new to the sport—might consider a bike with shallower tubesets—and certainly shallower wheels for that matter,” Steinmetz said. “They’ll still go fast, but will enjoy riding and triathlon much more if they’re not holding the bars in a death grip, worried they’ll get knocked off.” And sometimes comfort and ease can translate into a better bike—and even run—split when you’re not holding on for dear life. 

So Steinmetz says if you’re a lighter rider who’s nervous when the weather becomes inclement, it might be worth passing on a bike with a lot of surface area, instead considering a bike frame with deep tubesets—but not too deep. There are bikes like the Cannondale Slice, for example, that have decidedly shallow aero sections, making for not only a bike with less surface area susceptible to winds, but something that’s also often lighter than its deeper counterpart

3. Rider Skill/Experience

When you get on your tri bike, do you own it—or does it own you? Can you handle riding in packs without beading up in sweat or negotiate a roundabout at high speed? 

“There are just some who are at home in the TT position, even if it’s windy, or the course is technical,” Steinmetz said, using the famed gusty return from Hawi at the Hawaii Ironman as an example. Deeper tubesets may be fast at low yaw (or low wind angle, closer to dead-on). But when conditions become high yaw—winds come from the side rather than the front or back) the bike becomes more challenging to handle, especially when a rider’s center of gravity is placed well forward of the steering axis. Add the oddly placed weight of fluids from an integrated or add-on hydration system, and steering can be even more compromised. It takes a confident rider to “ride the bull” without fear.

“Some riders are flowing with the winds in the aerobars, while others are scared out of their minds, sitting up on the basebar holding the brakes. If you’re puckered in a situation like that, it’s similar to a smaller rider; there’s a likelihood a less experienced rider is not best suited to a bike with deep tubesets and deep wheels. We just don’t want a lot of bike for a rider like that.”

Often, bike designs with deeper tubesets also mean more weight to muscle around corners and those roundabouts. A savvy triathlete with years of pack-rider handling—maybe even road-racing experience—won’t have trouble using “body English” to steer a superbike as though it’s second nature. A slightly less-experienced triathlete won’t have that nuance. Maybe, again, go for the bike with slightly shallower tubesets, something you can negotiate around turns with predictable confidence. The less you have to hit the brakes or grip tightly through corners, the less work gets put out—culminating in a faster, more relaxed bike leg that leads to a smoother run leg. 

4. Technical Aptitude

You may love the idea of a superbike… Jan Frodeno and Sarah Crowley can’t be wrong, right? But then, maybe you also live for destination races. When it comes time to pack, will you have both the tools and mechanical skill that Frodo and Sarah have to remove an entire handlebar assembly, safely pack them in your bike case or bag for travel, and reassemble in a hotel room on site?  (And yes, they both have mechanics, but both are adept at working on their own bikes.) Do you know how to release disc brakes calipers that may have been compressed by a TSA agent in transit? If you answer yes and you have no fear of a Torx wrench, by all means, get that superbike. But if not, there are tons of options with standardized cockpits and standard-mount rim brakes that will not only be much easier to manage yourself, they’ll also be easy to have repaired if something is broken in transit.

5. Geography

Steinmetz has another simple consideration for folks to help whittle down your bike choice: where do you live, and where do you like to race? Love the flatlands of 70.3 Galveston or Ironman Florida? Low-yaw deep-tubeset bikes all the way. Or does your idea of a perfect bike course feature thousands of feet of climbing Solarerberg, and cobblestone roads that have your fillings rattling out at Challenge Roth? Those mid-depth tri bikes (or shallow depth bikes like the Cannondale Slice) will climb lighter.  

The Tri Bike Categories

With the info he gleans from those five categories, he can with confidence place a customer in one of three general tri bike category buckets: Superbikes with deep tubesets, standard tri bikes with standard tubesets, and road bikes with clip-ons. There are sub-categories within each, but for the most part, Steinmetz can find his clients safely ensconced within these three slots.

1. Road bike with clip-ons

These are generally best recommended to both newcomers to triathlon, and those that simply want a bike that by and large handles easier, and has greater utility as just a kick-around bike when not training or racing triathlon. There are few brands that make clip-ons aerobars that can easily be bolted to standard road drop bars on a road bike, so triathletes in this category will simply be looking for a basic road bike, then hit the local tri shop or website to order a set of aerobars that will get you into that aero position. The result is a bike that’s got plenty of utility when riding with friends, but will get you into a cursory faster tuck in those clip-ons when it’s time to ride alone on race day. Right out of the box, think of Trek’s aero-bar equipped Madone SLR 6 Disc Speed or literally any number of road bikes from major brands.

2. Tri bike with standardized parts

When it comes to dedicated triathlon bikes, there’s a bit of nuance beyond color and price;  there are basic tri bikes with aero tubesets and standard mechanical interfaces including handlebars and brakes. With tubesets featuring mid-depth aero cross sections—and usually  standard rim brakes—they’re certainly quick under most wind conditions for most triathletes. And service is pretty straightforward; if you (or a bike shop) need to service your standard tri bike, it’s generally easy, with parts readily available. Think Cervelo P2, the Canyon Speedmax CF 7.0, or Argon’s 18 E117 Tri.

3. Superbikes

Ah…the holy grail. So-called Superbikes are highly-specialized, purpose-specific machines. They’re what the pros ride and sport deep, deeeep aero tubesets, hiding integrated brake and shifting cables (and sometimes your spare tubes and hydration). What makes them sexy are the deep tubesets. Aerodynamic wind tunnel testing tells us the deep aero airfoils help a rider slip through the wind with greater ease and greater speed. Some may or may not have standardized parts, but as the quest for speed goes up, so does specialization. Think Specialized Shiv Disc, Quintana Roo PRSix2 Disc, Felt IA Disc, Canyon Speedmax CF SLX, Trek Speed Concept, and certainly non-traditional frame designs like the Cervelo P3X, Ventum One, and Dimond Marquis. 

But there’s a huge caveat; while they’re the sleekest, sexiest bikes, like a Bugatti Veyron, they’re not for everyone. They’re only fast if you have the strength and experience to handle such a machine. Not unlike that Bugatti. “A bike with large airfoils, especially forward of the steering axis, could become challenging in high winds,” Steinmetz said. “If you’re able to hold your position and remain confident, you’ll fly.” 

If that doesn’t describe you, Steinmetz said a tri bike with less aggressive airfoils is hands down a better choice. “If you’re forced to go into a death grip in the pursuit bars on a bike with deep airfoils, your riding experience and speed will suffer,” he said. “Your riding experience could be much improved on a bike with shallower tubes and less surface area.”

There are smaller nuances within those buckets, and there are no absolutes; as we said, there are certainly small-but-experienced-cyclists who can handle a deep aero bike. And by the same token, there are big cyclists with different goals or experience levels who should lean toward a standard tri bike or even a road bike with clip-ons. 

So which bike is right for you? A bit of introspection about who you are as a cyclist (and your fit measurements) is all it takes to get you to a small cadre of bikes to choose from. The result is a bike you’ll ride and race confidently and happily. 

Find Your Triathlon Bike

Below is our quick checklist to help you narrow it down.

You are a:
Newer cyclist
Recreational cyclist
Triathlete with minimal mechanical experience
Small cyclist
Triathlete who trains and races at home
You probably need a: ROAD BIKE W/CLIPONS

You are a:
Competitive cyclist
Inexperienced cyclist
Confident cyclist
Triathlete with minimal mechanical experience
Triathlete who trains and races at home
Big cyclist
Medium-sized cyclist
Small cyclist

You are a:
Competitive Cyclist
Confident cyclist
Mechanically savvy triathlete
Triathlete who travels a lot
Big cyclist
Medium-sized cyclist