Looking to improve your cycling skills while warding off the occasional training doldrums? Think outside the tri-bike box.
By John Howard
Back when I raced (and won) IRONMAN, there were no aero bars, let alone entire bikes dedicated to triathlon. We all raced on road bikes. Since then, I’ve raced all kinds of bikes, from road, to TT to mountain and want to let you in on a little secret: All of these can make you a better triathlete.
The tri bike was developed around the cycling discipline of the time trial. Covering flat ground at top speeds is what these bikes do best. As a serious and seasoned triathlete, this may be your primary ride. However, the best triathletes in the sport are equally adept at riding triathlon bikes as road bikes, a skill that’s acquired from careful practice. Triathletes learn how to ride faster by being cyclists first, and triathletes second.
While I’m not suggesting that you own a quiver of bikes, different bikes do have the potential to improve a triathlete’s cycling skills. Each bike has its own way of improving our conditioning, depth of skill, and general enjoyment of the sport.
Your local bike shop, Craigslist and Ebay are great places to start. You might also want to enlist the help of a “bike guru,” especially if you’re a novice. Look at sizing and correct fit as the most important considerations—and consider bikes as tools rather than objects of art. (Cosmetic blemishes and scratches are okay.)
Here, I outline the choices on the market, and each model’s training value—something that comes at no extra charge.
The road bike should be every beginner and intermediate triathlete’s first choice. They offer a wider range of use than a triathlon-specific bike, and are more stable and comfortable. Remember, if you are not comfortable, you will not be powerful.
A road bike is one of the most versatile bikes you can invest in. They’re the best choice for climbing and on technically challenging courses. On group rides, a road bike’s responsiveness will help you sharpen your bike handling and street skills. Cornering, climbing—both in and out of saddle—and emergency braking are all part of the mix. Technical skills can be mastered on a triathlon bike, but are best learned on a road bike. As an added bonus, mixing it up with serious cyclists is a dynamic and competitive experience that is best learned from the saddle of a good road bike.
Note: As your experience level increases on your road bike, you will eventually reach a comfort level that will allow you to go back to using your tri bike on group rides. The time to do this is early when the pace is still moderate and before the cycling racing season approaches.
Ride it if you’re:
-in your base-building season
-on off-season recreational rides
-in group settings
-on technical courses
Nothing compares with the experience of bombing down a single-track trail with your buddies, exploring new trails or a wilderness environment far removed from the daily crush of the street. Enter the mountain bike (MTB) or cyclo-cross (CX) bike, vehicles for learning the nuances of riding on a variety of surfaces—from hard-packed turf to loose gravel.
How will this make you a better triathlete? For starters it will increase your understanding and appreciation for the multi-faceted world of cycling and will expand your technical diversity. The time to use the MTB is when your performance in any of the three sports begins to stagnate. By changing the cycling focus to a perceived “enjoyment mode,” you will lighten up your training. You’ll lessen the pressure and explore the creative process through the new stimulus.
Ride it if you’re:
-in base-building season
-in an IRONMAN taper
-on a weekend with loved ones and friends
-in need of a break from your regular routine
Fixed Gear Bikes
I’ve seen my triathlon training clients explode from a pedestrian 95 rpm max up to a dizzying 140 in just a few weeks of focused roller training on a fixed gear or single speed freewheel. You learn—first on a trainer or rollers—to pedal in perfect circles quickly at a range of rpms that may seem supersonic at first.
The real significance of a faster turnover is how it improves your pedal stroke efficiency. If you can learn to pedal even slightly faster, you will expend less energy to make the bike go the same speed. (This translates to more energy for running off the bike as well.) A fixed gear bike will force you to increase your cadence in order to match the speed of your more experienced training partners. This will make you faster and more efficient, while broadening your potential for power when you re-mount your tri bike.
Ride it when you’re:
-in trainer sessions
-doing interval work
Most importantly, whatever you choose, ride your bikes! In my time, I’ve seen too many triathletes ditch their bikes after their last IRONMAN in the fall. I guarantee, you don’t get better by parking your bike for months at a time. On trainers, on the road, and on the trails: I guarantee, the variety will put spice back in your training and make you a better, more well-rounded athlete.
John Howard is a three-time Olympian, IRONMAN world champion and the author of “Mastering Cycling.” Visit him at johnhowardsports.com.