How to Buy a Triathlon Bike

If you’re just getting started and know nothing about bikes then buying one can be a frightening proposition. How much should I pay? Should I buy new or used? Do I really need to worry about aerodynamics when I’m just starting? What are those handlebars people have that allow them to lean forward and rest on their elbows? Do I need those fancy shoes? Do I really have to wear spandex shorts when I ride? What kind of tires should I get? Why are the wheels so expensive? It’s enough to make you feel like just running. After all, all you need for that is a decent pair of shoes.

But that’s why I’m here, to guide you through the scary parts of buying your first bike. Luckily I had someone to guide me my first time too, and here’s a list of necessary and optional items.

Necessary items:

Bike frame. The bike frame is, of course, the main part of the bike. If you’re just starting out you can spend $300 on a frame or $3,000. If I were you, I’d go cheap and upgrade once I decide this is really what I want to do. Worrying about aerodynamics and weight shouldn’t be your primary concerns. As long as you’re getting something decent you’re going to be just fine.

Components (gears, cranks, brakes, shifting mechanism, etc.). Again, you can go very expensive or just get the basic stuff. I’d go with the basic stuff, assuming you’re buying parts separately. If you’re buying a complete bike that’s already put together then you might not need to worry about the exact specs as long as everything is in working order.

Wheels. Man, there are some expensive wheels out there. You can get some carbon fiber racing wheels for $3,000 if you want to get fancy, or some very good aluminum wheels for $300, and you could go even cheaper than that. As with just about everything, I recommend going cheap and upgrading later when you get serious.

Tires. Whew, thankfully tires don’t cost nearly as much as anything above, but there’s still a healthy range in price. Generally speaking, the more expensive the tire, the less likely you are to get a flat, and what’s the cost of getting a flat if you’re 20 miles from home? Is it worth an extra $20 to avoid that happening? I think so. I’d get the most durable tire your local bike shop can recommend.

Tubes. Tubes are relatively cheap ($3-7). Just get whatever your bike shop recommends.

Water bottles with holders. I have two 20 oz. insulated bottles on my bike. I would definitely recommend the insulated bottles. On a 40-mile ride it’s the difference between a refreshing, cold drink and a bottle of warm, disgusting sports drink.

Tools and tool carrier. You will get flats. I got two the first week I started biking. You can get a small folding tool (kind of like a Swiss Army knife) that has a bunch of allen wrenches, phillips, and common screwdriver heads, and other tools on it that will fit nicely in a tool carrier along with a spare tube and a CO2 inflation device that can be attached under your seat or on the frame of the bike. I don’t believe in patching tubes, I just put a new tube on and throw the old one away.

CO2 tire inflator or bike pump. I bought a CO2 inflator and absolutely love it. It’s very easy to use and inflates a tire in seconds with no effort. The inflator I got allows you to carry an unused cartridge in it, thus saving valuable space.

Pedals and shoes. The type of pedal you have determines what shoe you need. I would never ride a road bike with normal shoes and cages for my feet. I consider clip-ins a must. There are at least two different types of clip-ins, but don’t worry about that, just make sure the clips on the shoes match the pedals you have. The guys at the bike shop can help you with this.

Sunglasses. The last thing you want is to be coming down a hill at 40 mph and have a bug hit you in the eye, causing you to lose control and fly off a cliff to your death. The second to last thing you want is to be going down that same hill and get so much wind in your eyes that you tear up and can’t see and run straight into a semi-truck driving up the hill. You don’t want a cheap pair of glasses from Wal-Mart’s five-dollar sunglasses rack, you need glasses that are made for biking/running that are specifically designed to keep wind out of your eyes. You also want glasses that sit on your nose such that if you are down low on your bike you can tilt your eyes upwards and still see. If you’re looking at the top frame of the glasses then you’re half blind. When you try on sunglasses bend over and then look up as though you’re biking to make sure you still have good visibility.

Helmet. I think most bike helmet’s are over-fancified and ugly, but who cares. As long as they work. You don’t need a super expensive helmet, just get one that feels good to you. Again, the guys at the bike shop can help you out.

Pants / shorts. There’s nothing like being self-conscious about your weight and body shape and then suddenly presenting yourself in public wearing spandex. Enjoy the thrill of it. From now on you have no shame. Now, there are biking shorts and there are triathlon shorts. The major difference between the two is that the triathlon shorts are made for biking and running which means they’re slightly shorter, have less padding in the seat area, are less restrictive generally, and are definitely not as comfortable due to the lack of padding where you really need it. I have a pair of each. If I’m just biking, I wear the bike shorts. If I’m going to bike and then run right afterwards then I’ll wear the tri shorts.

GPS and/or odometer. You might think this is optional, but it’s not. It’s no good to train for a triathlon that has a 112 mile bike ride if you don’t know how far you’re going on your training rides. You need to know how far you’re going, how fast you’re going, and if you get a Garmin with a heart rate monitor then you can get all sorts of other helpful data. I have a Garmin Forerunner 305 and absolutely love it and wouldn’t consider training without it or something similar. It also works for running and I can track the two separately.

Optional items:

Gloves. I found that my hands were getting number because my circulation was getting cut off. Part of this was my technique in how I was holding onto the handlebars, but part of it was solved by just having some more padding, so I bought some fingerless gloves that have gel in the palms. I like them, but they’re not for everybody.

Cold weather gear. Depending on where you train you may need cold weather biking gear. I’m in Utah so I use mine quite a bit. Here’s what I’ve got.

  • Biking pants that are wind and water proof on the front and thinner material on the back. They’re tight and fairly heavy material but I can bike in sub-freezing weather and my legs don’t get that cold.
  • Toe-covers that fit over my bike shoes. You can also buy booties that cover your entire foot. I got the toe-covers because they were a lot cheaper and it was really only my toes that were getting cold on rides, but I was tempted to get the booties and might in the future.
  • Gloves. I just wear cheap $2 gardening gloves from Wal-Mart half the time, and I have some snowboard gloves I wear the rest of the time. You don’t need anything fancy, just something with a enough insulation to keep the wind out and put some space between your skin and the cold air.
  • Skull cap. This just a nylon cap that fits over your head and covers your ears. I got one that goes down to my neck and covers everything but my eyes, and if I want to I can pull the opening larger and expose my nose and mouth. It’s not insulated at all, but it does the trick. The main reason your head gets cold is wind, and so you just need something to protect you from the wind. Especially your ears. Man, they get cold fast when you’re biking in 35 degree weather and going 30 mph.

Bike rack. I can step outside my house and get right on my bike and ride for miles and miles in every direction. But that’s because I’m in Utah which is a very biking-friendly state. Other people aren’t so lucky and have to drive somewhere, in which case you’ll probably need a bike rack unless you have a large automobile you can put your bike inside of. Yakima and Thule are the two leaders when it comes to bike racks, but figuring out exactly what you need can be a pain. I’ve only had a trunk-mounted bike rack which was nice because it was cheap, but it also made it hard to use my trunk and I was always having to take it on and off. So I would go with a roof rack if you have the cash, but they’re not universal so make sure you get one that will fit on your car.

So there it is. Now the big question is how do you get all this stuff for as cheap as possible? What I would do is some research. Go to a few bike shops and find somebody who really knows this stuff. Preferably somebody who does triathlons a lot. Get their recommendations as to what you should buy and make a list of everything along with prices. Then go online and see if you can get it cheaper.

The first place I would go is Craigslist, especially if you’re looking to save money while minimizing your risk of getting ripped off. The benefits of craigslist are that; 1) there are lots of people there who are looking to unload things fast, and 2) you meet people face to face to do the transaction which cuts down on fraud. However, buying a bike you don’t know anything about because you don’t know anything about bikes in general from someone you don’t know whether you can trust can be a scary proposition that makes buying a bike from a bike store seem a lot more attractive, even if the bike ends up costing you twice as much. At least you know the bike is new and you know where to take it if there’s a problem, right?

I ended up buying my bike frame and helmet from a friend of mine whom I trusted, and everything else I bought new from bike shops. Now that I’m a little wiser, I’d go straight to craiglist next time, but like you probably are, I was scared that due to my ignorance I might get ripped off or accidentally buy the wrong thing. That’s why I say you should figure out what you need at the bike shop and then see if you can find the exact same thing online for cheaper.

Aero bars vs. no aero bars. If you’re just getting started you probably don’t know what aero bars are. But if you’ve ever seen somebody riding a bike and they’re scrunched down real low over the handlebars and they’re actually resting their elbows on some special handlebars that have gear shifts and breaks out on the end of them then those are aero-bars.

The advantage of aero-bars is that it puts you in a more aerodynamic position and you will expend less effort to go the same distance, not to mention you’ll go faster. Your arms also won’t get tired from holding your upper body up since you’ll be putting your weight onto your elbows instead of your hands. But this leads to needing to explain one other thing…

Time trial bike vs. road bike. Time trial bikes have aero-bars on them. Road bikes are what you think of when you think of a normal 10-speed with the standard handlebars. But time trial or “TT” bikes or “tri bikes” or “triathlon bikes” generally have a slightly different frame shape to compensate for you being scrunched up over your aero bars, so while you can put aero-bars on a road bike and some people do, other people might have a TT bike and a separate road bike. I started out with a road bike and did all my training on it as well as my first half-Ironman event and I felt just fine. Most of the people I did the half-Ironman with had TT bikes, or at least aero-bars, and when I start training for my full Ironman I plan on buying a full TT bike.

So if TT bikes are better, why would anyone have a road bike? My biker expert friend’s answer to that question was that he uses a road bike if he’s doing a lot of hills, climbing, descending, turns, etc. because he has more steering control on a road bike and because he’s not so much worried about aerodynamics as he is about control and power. When he’s going up hills he’s often standing up on his pedals anyway, so what’s the use of aero bars there? He uses a TT bike if he’s riding on relatively flat, straight, long stretches of road (long = more than 30 miles). Since he’s riding straight he doesn’t need a lot of steering control and he’s not going to be standing up, he’s going to want to be in a low position to maximize speed.

112 miles is a long bike ride and most of the longer triathlon bike rides are fairly flat and straight while the shorter ones might have more turns and hills and that’s why a road bike has done me just fine up to this point, but why I’ll be getting a TT bike in the future.

Any questions?