During the course of a triathlete’s race preparation it’s possible to improve via two methods—training and spending. You can either get faster by training more or you can get faster by buying faster equipment—or you can do both. The problem, for most of us, is the finite nature of money (and time). That’s where it’s useful to have a handy guide on the most effective way to spend your money for free speed. Here’s how to get the most when it comes to aero upgrades.
Buying faster equipment essentially comes down to the number of watts—a measure of your power output on the bike—saved per dollar spent. You could go big and buy a very expensive new time trial bike or go very small and a buy a new aerodynamic water bottle, or anything in between.
For reference, all comparisons made here are against a standard baseline of a normal budget tri-suit, road bike, and a standard road helmet. If your set-up is slightly more advanced than this then the effects of each upgrade will be reduced slightly. If your set-up is more basic then upgrade effects will be increased, as a general rule. One significant caveat is that what works really well for one person doesn’t necessarily work the same for others. This is a rough guide; the savings in terms of watts and time will be slightly different for every individual and the numbers presented here are an average taken from various tests and data.
Aero Upgrade: Time Trial Bike
Watts Per Dollar: 0.04 W/$
Worth It Factor: 8/10
A time trial bike is the obvious upgrade. This is often the first thing on a triathlete’s wish-list and is a clear saver of time over a standard road bike—but it must fit well! You’re the least aerodynamic part of your bike set-up. Plus there’s no point in having a really fast time trial bike in a very aggressive position if you’re unable to walk after riding it for three hours.
Over the course of a half-ironman a time trial bike will save a rider traveling at 15mph roughly eight minutes, at 20mph roughly six minutes, and at 25mph roughly three minutes. Note that the time savings for slower athletes are larger because these athletes are generally out on course for longer. If a time trial bike is too expensive for you, then the first upgrade worth considering is a time trial saddle and a set of clip-on aero bars. This provides you with a significant amount of the benefit of a time trial bike (ie. improved aerodynamic body position) but with less of the cost.
The watts per dollar saving for a typically priced entry level time trial bike (around $2,000 for an entry level model) is 0.04 watts per dollar
RELATED: The Best Tri Bikes for 2020
Aero Upgrade: Aero Helmet
Watts Per Dollar: 0.05 W/$
Worth It Factor: 10/10
An aero helmet is one of the really good value upgrades you can make, getting you the most bang for your buck. A well-fitting time trial helmet can save a rider traveling at 15mph up to three minutes over 56 miles, at 20mph two-and-a-half minutes, and at 25mph around 1:50 in time. Athletes should be careful in the selection of an aero helmet though. If you typically move your head around a lot, then a long tail might look fast but if it’s not in the right place then you might as well just wear a baseball cap. If you are prone to moving around, then an aero road helmet, the sort of thing you’ll see sprinters wearing at the Tour de France, might be a good compromise or a time trial helmet with a shorter tail.
A time trial helmet has a watts per dollar value of 0.05 watts per dollar typically priced around $250. Remember though, these numbers are a rough guide and making sure your helmet is appropriate to your position on the bike and to your ability to keep your head still is important!
Aero Upgrade: Aero Tri Suit
Watts Per Dollar: 0.05 W/$
Worth It Factor: 10/10
The aerodynamic effects of a triathlon race suit are often overlooked by amateurs, with brands claiming a savings of up to 8 watts compared to a standard sleeved suit. What makes something an aero tri suit? Primarily the aero ribbed material. Then there’s the question of sleeves or no sleeves? Do you swim with it pulled down and zip it up in T1? Does that time savings in the swim get negated by the time spent pulling it up—or what if you tear it and have to ride the bike course with your suit flapping around (as we’ve seen in a few pro races)?
Generally speaking, sleeved suits are faster than no sleeves, as the suit material is more aerodynamic than skin. It’s also highly personalized. What’s fast on one person isn’t necessarily fast on someone else (a bit of a running theme). Trying a suit on before purchase is key, as it’s very important that the portions of the suit exposed to the wind are not folded or bunched up and it’s also vital that the suit is tight enough to be aero on the bike, but flexible enough to both swim and run in. Another thing that’s often overlooked is the race number. If your number, or anything for that matter, is flapping around in the wind that will slow you down when factoring in aerodynamic advantages! Consider a suit with a sleeve for your number sewn in.
The watts per dollar savings on an aero tri suit (typically priced around $150) relative to a regular suit is in the region of 0.05 watts per dollar, so very similar to the helmet! Remember, your body is the cause of 80% of the resistance, so what you cover it in is has a significant effect on your aerodynamic drag.
RELATED: Triathlete’s 2020 Race Kit Roundup
Aero Upgrade: Disc Wheel
Watts Per Dollar: 0.03 W/$
Worth It Factor: 6/10
Disc wheels are expensive, but they are also faster on all but the hilliest of courses. Of course, you have to factor in the wind impact too. For instance, disc wheels are banned in Kona due to the propensity for crosswinds. If you have the bike handling skills to deal with a disc in the wind, then it should make you faster. Short of a full disc wheel, or if you’re planning an appearance at Kona, you have wheels of various depths available. It’s often the case that a deeper wheel will have an attached weight penalty, though advances in technology mean that even the deepest wheels are getting lighter and lighter. A general rule though, especially valid in triathlon, is that an aerodynamic wheelset is almost always faster. So go deeper and worry less about weight!
Disc wheels have savings of around 0.03 watts per dollar for a $1200 disc (plus the aerodynamic saving of a thinner wallet). One thing that’s difficult to place a value on is the amazing sound a disc wheel makes as it whooshes along the road and, of course, how cool they make you look! However, exact time savings for disc wheels are particularly tricky to quantify as they are so dependent on wind direction.
This aero upgrade list is by no means exhaustive of all the ways you can buy yourself a faster bike split, but we chose the ones that’ll make the biggest difference to you come race day. Of course, the best watts per dollar value is training—you can gain watts for free! All it takes is time.