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Inside Triathlon tested five of the most high-end, technologically advanced tri bikes on the market to help you find the one for you.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. Subscribe to Inside Triathlon here.
A swell of bikes specifically designed for triathletes has finally arrived, but not all bike makers or riders agree on the ingredients that make a great tri bike. Fit adjustability, component integration and functionality have risen to the top of nearly every priority list, but not everyone ranks them in the same order. Whether you value streamlined integration, functionality or some combination of the two, there is a bike that meets your desires. We reviewed five bikes, all at the apex of technology, designed for different preferences and riding styles to help you find your perfect match. And if you’re looking for a lower-priced alternative with the same core characteristics, we highlight some options, as well.
Blue Triad SL
By Aaron Hersh
Geometry truly designed for triathletes is the hallmark of Blue’s bikes. The small Atlanta-based company doesn’t sponsor a major international road cycling team so it has the luxury of designing its bikes exclusively for the needs of triathletes—the people who actually buy these machines. A near-universal reality of the transition area is that the $9,800 bikes are almost never set up for professional time-trial positions. Other companies are starting to understand the positioning requirements of many triathletes, and their tri bike geometry is drifting toward Blue’s scheme. Blue took advantage of its station as an early adopter of this tri bike geometry trend when creating the Triad SL. The frame’s stack value—the frame’s height—is taller than average and its reach—the horizontal distance from rider to the head tube—is shorter than average. Instead of requiring a tall stack of spacers or wild extension off the bike to match less aggressive fits, the frame itself rises to meet the rider, which preserves the bike’s intended ride qualities and aerodynamic performance. Staying true to its core philosophy, Blue created its integration system to maximize fit flexibility without compromising stiffness.
Instead of creating a totally unique system, Blue preserved the basic structure—a stem on top of spacers over a fork—road bikes have used for years. Rather than scrapping the stem and steerer tube, Blue’s product development director Chris Pic, a former professional cyclist, adapted this refined system for aerodynamic performance. Round spacers were replaced with teardrop spacers that blend the hinged fork extension in front of the frame with the rest of the bike. These spacers can be moved and swapped just like standard round spacers. The aerobar is the difference between Blue’s integrated system and a traditional stem and spacer setup. Instead of accommodating any bar, only Blue’s Aerus bar works with the Triad SL. Thankfully, the bar is versatile but it does have one substantial limitation. The pads can be moved fore, aft and up, the extensions can be swapped for any standard-width bar and the base bar grip is comfortable. It simultaneously allows for a wide range of adjustment and fine tweaks to nail your fit. The integrated stem, however, limits the fit range slightly. Common stems elevate the aerobars between 2 and 6cm higher than the Triad SL’s zero-rise version. This counteracts some of the frame’s conservative geometry and limits the Triad SL from morphing to match some upright triathlon positions.
Every section of the Triad SL is airfoil-shaped, which influences ride quality in addition to aerodynamic performance. The bike transmits subtle road vibration through the bars to the rider more than average. The ultra-stiff chassis has benefits as well. The bike is perfectly comfortable leaning deep into a corner at high speeds. It inspires the confidence to test the tires’ limits because the frame doesn’t sway or twist, a chronic problem of bikes with aerobars stacked high above the frame. Riding the Triad SL is exhilarating. Although the Triad is purely a triathlon bike, you won’t find storage built into the bike or outrageously deep tubes like the ones on some other true triathlon bikes.
The frameset, including aerobars, goes for $4,000. Your local bike shop can help you build the bike well below the $9,800 figure for Blue’s house build with Reynolds Eighty One wheels and SRAM Red components.
The TM01 features the only aerobar attachment system that combines structural adjustability and a streamlined shape. The nose extending off the front of the BMC is a modular stem assembled with three independent shim pieces. These pieces—one wedge, one short rectangle and one long rectangle—can be swapped or removed to change the bike’s fit. The final piece, which can be flipped to adjust fit, clamps a standard aerobar to the bike. The Profile Design T2+ BMC spec’ed on the bike is also highly adjustable and well-suited to more upright positions. Although this system cannot reach fits as tall as some aerobar attachment systems, it creates a remarkably sleek and thin structure that can be micro-adjusted to cover a multitude of positions in an exceptionally stiff package.
Although BMC only produces the TM01 in four sizes, it squeezes two distinctly different fit styles into those frame sizes. Three of the four sizes have fit coordinates that are slightly aggressive but not extraordinarily demanding. These three frames fit the same riding style. Combined with BMC’s stem system and the ability to use any aerobar, these frames can cover a broad range of fit coordinates without compromising ride quality. We tested the stem assembly in the tallest configuration and found it to be extremely stiff.
Many new tri bikes are being designed with geometry that allows the rider to sit in a position that is more upright than the three standard frame sizes allow. BMC acknowledges that some triathletes ride positions that are more upright than these three sizes are designed to reach, and it has a unique strategy to meet the needs of triathletes who cannot fit these bikes. Although the fourth size has identical features and shapes, its geometry is remarkably different from the other three. It might have the most upright frame geometry of any triathlon frame. It certainly opens this bike to athletes without the ability to ride low, but only for the select few who fit that fourth frame size. Currently the M-S is the only model offered with this geometry scheme.
The TM01 conforms to the regulations imposed by cycling’s governing body, the UCI. Its tube shapes aren’t outrageously deep, and the frame lacks integrated hydration or storage options. Despite restricting the design to the limits of another sport, the TM01 still boasts features triathletes can take advantage of. The tube shapes are all truncated airfoils, piggybacking on the Kamm tail shapes Trek brought to the world of cycling with the Speed Concept, with a raised segment at the leading edge. BMC asserts this helps reduce drag at wide yaw angles by preventing the passing air from fluttering away from the tube longer.
The integrated brakes—BMC’s own design—are essentially old-school mountain bike-style brakes. These V-brake style stoppers have two arms that pivot about an axle on each fork blade when the cable, strung along the top, pulls the arms against the rim. This structure creates a more powerful stopping feel than most integrated calipers, and the arms blend back into the bike when the rider is on the gas. It has no integrated storage features, except for the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 battery.
The $4,999 version has the same highly integrated frame and fit adjustment range. Removing the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 in favor of Ultegra and Zipp 808s for training wheels saves $8,000.
When I first visited Ryan Stedeford at Kompetitive Edge, a Guru dealer in Denver, I immediately felt comfortable and confident that I would leave with the best bike for me because of Guru’s extensive fit process. Fit has been the Canadian company’s mission for years, and its stock and custom geometry programs offer all the tools needed to find your ideal fit. In addition to nearly 20 years of experience building custom bikes, Guru now offers stock frame sizes as part of its Fast Forward geometry program. The geometry of these stock frames was carefully chosen to fit many triathletes, but if you decide upon custom geometry or wish to personalize the paint scheme, Guru can get this accomplished for you, as well.
I began the process by meeting at Kompetitive Edge and discussing my riding experience, upcoming race goals and the bikes I’ve owned. Stedeford then arranged for me to have a detailed bike fitting session with the in-house triathlon fit expert, Scott Geffre of Fit and Tri. We found the position that best blends comfort, power output, balance and aerodynamics. My current frame’s top tube is too long, which forces the saddle into the forward-most position on the rails yet I was sitting on the nose of the saddle to reach the bars. This resulted in excessive reliance on my quads and not enough recruitment of the powerful glute muscles.
My fit data pointed to a frame size that fell somewhere between a stock small and medium from most bike manufacturers, including Guru’s Fast Forward stock geometry CR.901. While a skilled fitter could likely twist a stock bike’s geometry to match my fit, I would be at the limits of the frame’s fit range. My ability to make changes should I increase flexibility or strength, change race distance goals or simply wish to experiment with a more or less aggressive position would be curbed.
Put simply, a properly fitting frame provides room to grow with the bike, and the CR.901’s traditional stem-and-bar allows the fit to be changed dramatically by swapping stems, spacers or bars without negatively affecting the handling characteristics the builder intended.
After the fit, I pointed the CR.901 toward my favorite training route, eager to see if the frame and its precise fit resulted in a better ride. After about five minutes I had my answer: Just the right combination of materials, shapes and geometry to create a super-stout frame gives the bike an uncanny ability to hold speed. Another remarkable result of Guru’s excellent craftsmanship is the eerily quiet ride. Road noise and vibration are practically nonexistent. The bike holds its line well and is remarkably stable at speed, whether barreling straight ahead or cornering hard. Braking performance is excellent. Both front and rear calipers are user-friendly for those who like to swap wheels or brake pads on race weekend All of these ride traits combine with superior fit to make the CR.901 fast, comfortable, functional and reliable.
Like the CR.901, the CR.501 can be created in any geometry and with any paint scheme you can dream up, but the frameset costs $2,000 less.
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Specialized Shiv S-Works
By Geoffrey Nenninger
Last fall, when the new Shiv was still just a rumor, Specialized brought a Kona-bound shipping container to the Interbike trade show with the words “Aero/Fuel/Fit” stenciled on its side. Although the bike is now best known as the machine Craig Alexander rode to a 13-minute personal record on the Ironman World Championship bike course en route to his third Ironman world title, the Shiv wasn’t designed for thoroughbred athletes such as him. It was designed for amateur athletes who can’t sustain Alexander’s position. The geometry is the difference.
The fact is most triathletes require an aerobar position that is much higher than allowed by many bikes designed for Tour de France time trialists. If we compare the Shiv’s stack and reach frame fit measurements to other high-performance bikes, the Shiv has a head tube height that is centimeters higher than the average of its closest competitors. And that is just the frame’s fit characteristics. Instead of using a true integrated aerobar attachment system that can limit the range of fit adjustability, Specialized used a stem and spacer system with a traditional wide range of adjustment but shaped the spacers to blend with the frame. Like the Trek Speed Concept 9.8, the Shiv comes with a bar that can be adjusted in all directions. All this means you’ll be able to ride faster without feeling like you’re licking your front wheel.
Almost every aspect of the bike attends to the specific needs of the multisport athlete. The internal hydration reservoir cleverly dubbed the Fuelselage holds about as much fluid as a standard large bottle. There are two advantages to concealing fluid in the downtube. First, it can replace one water bottle from elsewhere on the bike, shielding it from the wind and improving aerodynamics. Second, it might replace weight that would otherwise commonly be carried up on the aerobars. Since the fluid in the bladder is much lower, it lowers the bike’s center of gravity and subtly improves handling. Sucking fluid from the Fuelselage, however, takes more force than drinking from a bottle between the aerobars with a straw.
The giant tubes are another triathlon-only attribute that maximize performance. These tubes are more aerodynamic than the standard-depth tubes Specialized uses on its road time trial bikes, but they violate UCI rules. As a result, Specialized’s wind tunnel tests have shown that this highly adjustable bike is just as aerodynamic or better than the time trial version that is far less functional.
On the road, the Shiv handles as a triathlon bike should: It’s stable and fast in a straight line, but it still allows for cornering prowess. The bike doesn’t feel agile and nimble, however, while being thrown around underneath an athlete. Once the Shiv is up to speed it feels like it just wants to continue humming along at a fast clip, perfect for triathletes, and just how the Shiv was intended.
The $3,300 Shiv has the exact same frame shape, fit, adjustability and functionality as the S-Works version. Downgraded carbon layup, cheaper components and basic wheels are the biggest differences between Craig Alexander’s bike and the $3,300 model model, selling for $9,400 less.
Now is a good time to be a triathlete in the market for a new bike, as dozens of bike makers are competing with each other to earn triathletes’ business, and the result is some great gear. No single item better demonstrates the evolution of triathlon equipment than the Trek Speed Concept 9 Series, a machine that combines premier aerodynamic performance with precision fit and meets triathlon’s logistical needs.
The aerobars are integrated into the frame so seamlessly it appears as if Trek forgot the stem. The spacers and stem that typically extend from the bike are replaced with a single piece that connects the frame and bars. This minimalistic design does not, however, compromise the bike’s adjustability. In fact, it can serve an even wider range of positions than a typical unit. The bars further extend the adjustment range. Trek includes numerous extra bolts and shims to refine bar position so you can find the optimum blend. Although a professional fit session before and after purchasing is still critical, the Speed Concept’s new level of front-end adjustability allows the position to be changed without sacrificing ride quality should the rider gain flexibility, strength or just wish to explore more or less aggressive positions.
Trek has shown consideration for triathletes’ unique training and racing needs by creating useful storage solutions without the need to spend additional dollars for less elegant solutions. Detachable Speed Storage units are offered in two locations to carry your flat-changing kit and fuel. Instead of cluttering the bike with Velcro flaps, these compartments are directly mounted to the frame like a water bottle cage and enhance the bike’s aerodynamic profile. The rear storage unit even makes an excellent spot for sticking your number on race day.
Trek adapted automotive technology to create a tube shape that is unique in the cycling world. While deeper tubes can reduce drag, they also tend to behave poorly in cross-winds. To merge the features of standard and ultra-deep tubes, Trek cut the tail off an airfoil shape eight times deeper than it is wide, leaving one with a 3:1 ratio that is aerodynamically similar to the original shape.
The concealed brakes are better than expected. They provide steadily increasing, predictable stopping power under standard riding conditions and a strong grip in emergency situations.
All of this performance and integration does come with a trade-off: The Speed Concept is mechanically complicated and a little tricky to work on. If you like to swap out wheels and brake pads for race day, adjusting the concealed brakes for wider or narrower rims can be a struggle. On the other hand, removal and reinstallation of the bars for air travel is simple.
Shave $1,260 off the price of the Speed Concept 9.8 by swapping SRAM Force components and the smooth-riding Bontrager Aura 5 aero wheels for a Shimano Ultegra kit and basic wheels. Under their paint, the frames are identical.