If you’re lucky enough to own road and triathlon bikes, when is it OK (or even better) to choose your road ride?
As a triathlete you should log plenty of miles on your tri-specific bike, but that doesn’t mean you have to ditch your favorite road bike during tri season. Consider the following to make your decision between road vs. tri for training and racing.
As a rule of thumb, continue to use your tri bike for all workouts that call for specificity or quality, such as threshold intervals, race-pace rehearsals and long rides designed to work key muscle groups and get your rear end adapted to your bike position. Consider the road bike a perfectly acceptable alternative for recovery rides, medium to long social rides, or whenever the terrain may call for significant climbing or descending. Further, if you enjoy riding on dirt roads and perhaps enjoy an occasional bike race, then a road bike is really nice to have at the ready in the garage.
Note: Plan to mix in some climbing on your tri bike as well, especially if your “A” race is hilly and you plan to use your tri bike in that race.
Take a walk through the transition area at hilly, technical races such as Ironman Wisconsin or Escape from Alcatraz, and you’ll see both road and tri bikes filling the racks. Races such as these put a real premium on bike handling, including skillful cornering, climbing and high-speed descending.
With these demands in mind, it would seem that nearly all participants would benefit from riding a road bike, but you’ll notice the pro racks are filled almost exclusively with tri bikes. All pros are looking for the fastest possible route from T1 to T2 and are willing to compromise some amount of bike handling for aerodynamics. The secret for many is the amount of hours they spend training on their tri bikes for the specific demands of the course. As a result, they are able to handle technical sections while still enjoying the fastest position possible when the terrain relents.
For the average age-grouper, the decision should come down to an honest assessment of your bike-handling skills. If frequent shifting, long climbs and fast descents seem daunting from the cockpit of your super-sleek tri bike, then riding a road bike might be the least stressful option. Another critical consideration: Do you have the flexibility and specific training miles under your belt to comfortably ride your tri bike and run effectively without lower back pain afterward?
If you’re considering a mass participation ride and own a road bike, then ride it—period. You’ll be more comfortable and far safer when surrounded closely by so many other riders and you’ll enjoy a very nice draft as a result.
Bottom line: If you use a road bike to help add weekly time in the saddle then it will make you a faster cyclist, but if the road bike ends up replacing the tri bike for tri-specific workouts then it might set you back on race day.
Upsides: A more relaxed, upright riding position (and geometry), with shifters and brakes that are close at hand for enhanced cycling skills and safety. Stability is solid, even when reaching for a snack in your jersey pocket.
Downside: The rider’s relatively upright position creates more drag than a time-trial position.
Tri bike (TT bike)
Upsides: A tri bike is designed to put you in a highly aerodynamic and balanced position, which allows you to reach faster speeds than a road bike with the same power to the pedals.
Downsides: Comfort and handling are secondary. Standing climbs are more difficult due to a lack of clearance for the knees.
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