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Race Set-Up: TT-Bike versus Road Bike

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published March 14, 2012

When you turn up at any triathlon or Ironman event it is almost guaranteed that you will see some beautiful TT rigs. But aside from bike envy, is there a reason to get a TT-rig?

Written by Richard Hoad and Paul Moore
The Time Trial Bike

You do not need to use a time trial (TT) bike for triathlon. When you go to a race you will see a lot of them but you will also see a lot of standard road bikes. You will also see a lot of people on standard road bikes posting quicker splits than triathletes on TT bikes.

This is an extract from Ultimate Triathlon, available on Amazon.

So why would someone buy a TT bike?
The TT bike is designed to avoid some of the problems potentially caused by adding tri-bars to a road bike (hunched neck and shoulder position, stretched lower back, loss of stability in the aero position, a feeling of being cramped and a reduction in breathing efficiency from the sharper angle between thigh and torso) by having a steeper seat tube angle which opens up the gap between the thigh and torso, with the bottom bracket in effect being further back. The top tube on a TT bike is also shorter, reducing the “stretch” to sit in the aero position. There is also a greater range of positions for the height of the aero bars on the top tube, allowing you to be in a lower more aerodynamic position if desired.

Access to the gear levers is also easier on the TT bike, with gear levels positioned at the end of the aero bars. This easy access promotes staying in the aero position and using the gears efficiently rather than possibly not shifting because you don’t want to keep moving.

Finally there has been some evidence to suggest athletes run quicker off a TT geometry bike compared to a road geometry bike, as slightly different muscles are engaged during cycling.

The downside of a TT bike is twofold. The first and move obvious is the cost. Spending £1.5k plus on another bike is a significant investment and one that not everyone will gain large time improvements from. The second limitation is that TT bikes are designed for racing and time trialling. They are not designed for safe group riding or commuting in heavy traffic, as access to the brakes takes slightly longer than on a standard road bike. So in buying a TT bike you will be spending a lot of money on something with limited use. It becomes a purchase for the dedicated triathlete who will probably be using it for years to come.

Using Tri Bars
Replicating the position of a TT bike with your road bike and clip on tri bars can be achieved, but as road bikes are not necessarily designed for this use you may encounter some problems.

When choosing tri bars there are four main considerations: whether to opt for carbon or alloy (with carbon being lighter but more expensive); how suitable the padding is for your arms; the shape of the tri bars; and whether the tri bar is adjustable or not.

The choice comes down to personal preference and what’s best for your riding position, although it is recommended to buy adjustable bars to give you the flexibility. A good bike shop will be able to advise on what is best for you.

However, if you are getting back or shoulder pain from using your clip on tri bars, try bringing your saddle position forward to reduce the stretch in your upper body. Also try reducing the drop from the tip of your saddle to the aero bars arm pads using a steeper or adjustable stem. Be careful when making any significant changes to your bike position though, as you might sacrifice power in your quest for being more aero and creating a net slowing impact instead (the costs of lower power outweighing the benefit of being more aero). Consulting a qualified bike fitter can help optimise your position.

The other key consideration is being comfortable on the bike. Towards the end of the bike leg of a long distance triathlon, it isn’t uncommon to see many age group athletes sitting up and riding on the hoods of their handlebars due to back or shoulder soreness and so sacrificing any sought after aero benefits. As in the trade off of being aero vs power output, reducing the aerodynamic position for extra comfort can result in a faster overall time.

For your first races, unless you have the pedigree to suggest a super-fast time or have the equipment from your previous triathlons, spending extra thousands of pounds is certainly not necessary. It’s better to have a decent bike, an excellent riding position and then complete a lot of high quality training. Adding on all the bells and whistles might offer more value if you have a taste for triathlon that extends beyond just a handful of races. However, when you get to the transition area and see some of the kit on display, it’s easy to get very slightly envious!

This is an extract from Ultimate Triathlon, available on Amazon.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.