It’s no secret that every second counts in a Triathlon, so provided the body is prepared as can be, then the next logical step to look performance gains is in changes to your bike and equipment. There’s little denying that having a more comfortable and functional bike will leave you better prepared for the run to the finish line.
BikeExchange spoke to Zac Collins of V1Cyclery, who is not only a triathlete and coach himself, but is also an experienced bike mechanic. In addition to this, he part owns V1 Cyclery, so consults triathletes daily who are looking to upgrade their bike to give them the best chance in the race.
So regardless of whether you are new to triathlon or have been competing for years, the allure of upgrades to your triathlon bike are inevitable, read on for our picks of the best value upgrades you can make to your triathlon rig.
1. A Professional BikeFit
Before even considering upgrading parts on your bike it is absolutely worth knowing all you need to know about how your position on the bike affects your performance later on in the run, tweaking it to be as efficient and effective as you can be.
The result of your bike fit will dictate what componentry changes you will need to make, so it is crucial that this is your first port of call when delving into upgrades. For example, if your bike fit calls for a change in saddle to bar drop or reach, you can change the aero bar height and position, adjust the reach of the aerobars and adjust the arm pad stack. Not all bikes will have adjustability in the cockpit off the shop floor, so your bike fit specialist may recommend an aftermarket aerobar.
Other component changes that might result in your bike fit include a shorter/longer crank length, moving the saddle for/aft or even a new saddle altogether to work with your pelvic structure and soft tissue clearance. Keeping in mind that the chamois in a tri-suit isn’t as padded as on a road bike, finding the right saddle and position is critical. Only a proper bike fit will help you choose the right one! All these things contribute not only to performance discrepancies, but injury prevention and rider comfort, too.
How it will make you faster
“The most important thing a bike fit will do is make you more comfortable” stresses Collins. “If you can sacrifice a 5% loss in aerodynamics in order to be 5% more comfortable, that will translate off the bike and into your run.” Contrary to popular belief, aerodynamics are not the most important thing for triathlon specific fit, although important, are really secondary to a comfortable position.
Optimising your ergonomics gives you the best chance at riding a better split, as that niggling pain in your [insert body part here] can likely eliminated with a bike fit. Ideally the fit results in an aero position that you can stay in for longer so that you can maintain that position comfortably, whether it is a sprint distance or full Ironman.
Related Reading: Not totally savvy on the different Tri formats? See our Triathlon Formats Explained
Unlike a time-trial setup, the fit on a triathlon bike has to take into account the fact that you need to get through to the next leg in a state where you are not as physically depleted as you would be after a time trial. For example, you want to aim for a position that favours using your glutes and quadricep muscles and spare your calves and hamstrings any unnecessary load so they can be fresh for the run.
Collins warns that although many bike shops offer bike fitting services, you really need to be consulting an exercise professional who can take into account your riding experience, injury history, flexibility and personal biomechanics. Do some research or ask others in your Tri-club if they can recommend somewhere reliable.
A professional bike fit will cost you around $AUD300-$400, which should see you spending up to four hours with the consultant, who will perform a full body assessment while having you replicate the pace and position you would in a race, and likely employ a laser or electrode digital analysis of your pedalling position.
While at first glance it may appear a blow to the budget, Collins argues that if you are spending thousands of dollars on a triathlon bike anyway, it's a small price to ensure you're getting the best of it.
2. Get a Power Meter
Training with power will monumentally change the way you race. Collins points out that one of the biggest misconceptions about triathlon is that, being three disciplines, you have to be spending every waking hour training. This is simply not true if you choose to train smartly and with quality. Enter the power meter, a device once reserved to the likes of professionals, now all levels of athlete can benefit from them.
A power meter is a device that makes use of strain gauges to measure power exerted from the rider's legs, taking the force applied on the component and then calculating the combination of this torque and angular velocity to give a number measured in watts. Modern power meters will talk to your cycling computer or even your smartphone with Bluetooth, so you can view your power in real time, as well as upload it to training software to analyse your efforts afterwards.
There exists a plethora of information guiding you to buy a power meter, but the best option is to talk to a bike shop about what your goals are and also your budget, as well as what will work best with your bike. Power meters are most commonly found attached to the spider or in the form of an aftermarket crankarm, but are also available in pedals or rear hubs.
How it will make you faster
With a power meter, you can work out your ‘training zones’ after an FTP (functional threshold power) test. Once this is established, you can then train in the zone in which you operate during a race, giving you real, transferable data from training to racing.
The problem with using speed as a measure by which to train, says Collins, is that each race is going to be different depending on level of the terrain and wind conditions.
Riding to power means you will be able to manage your limits of how hard you can go and for how long based on your FTP. Having this tool up your sleeve actually benefits your run even moreso, says Collins, as although triathlons can be won on a bike, they are more often lost in the run. Conserving your energy enough during the bike leg will give you the best chance to complete a quality run, and not have yourself crawling to the finish line. Plan your power, reap the benefits.
3. Upgrade your Wheelset
As the first point of contact between your bike and the road surface, as well as what keeps you rolling forward, a good wheelset is a valuable addition to any bike, no matter what the level.
If your triathlon bike came with standard road bike wheels, upgrading to a set of wheels with a deeper rim will reduce wind drag, as well as improve speed and acceleration. Aerodynamic wheels are typically greater than 40mm deep at the rim, and for triathlon, it is not uncommon to see wheels as deep as 80mm, or even a disc wheel used on the rear. For more information on what’s makes a good wheel, see road bike wheels buyers guide
How they will help
Designed to cut through the wind and with less air turbulence, aero wheels are a proven energy-saving upgrade. You will be able to reach greater speeds at the same power output if your bike is optimized with the advantages of faster wheels.
However, simply going out and buying the most aero wheels available isn’t always the winning option, as this speed gain does come at a cost. "Deep-section wheels are much more susceptible to crosswinds (not uncommon on coastal courses) which can make them difficult to handle, and the extra material does add weight" notes Collins, suggesting that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.
If you are a particularly petite athlete, fighting deep wheels in high winds and pushing the extra weight in order to get up to speed may both lead to you burning out before the run. Before you upgrade, it's best to seek advice and choose accordingly.
Go for a trusted brand, as you get what you pay for. Essentially, the bigger name brands simply have more money to spend on research and development, and often use a more thorough testing protocol. Ultimately, at the very least, selecting a deeper-section rear wheel is a good place to start.
4. Electronic Groupset
Taking the guesswork out of gear changing means there is one less thing you have to give your attention to during the heat of the race. Electronic gears reduce the incidence of mechanical issues, as they shift more accurately and consistently than the alternative.
Arguably the best application of an electronic system is on a triathlon bike, as the length of cable and housing bends from the extensions to the derailleurs are extreme, meaning mechanical shifting doesn’t work as well on these bikes. Additionally, the damage caused to cables due to environmental conditions like being near the water and salt from your sweat corrode them a lot faster than a standard road bike.
Related Reading: Time for a new bike? Read our Complete Buyer's Guide to Triathlon Bikes
Groupsets such as SRAM eTap or Shimano Di2 are available for triathlon bikes, with the shifting buttons located on both the brake lever on the base bar as well as the traditional spot on the extensions, you won’t need to move your arm position to change gears! An upgrade from a mechanical system will cost upwards of $AUD2000, but you don’t need to go top of the line in order to benefit from it.
How it will make you faster
Collins describes a situation where having Di2 will be a huge help; "if you are head down pinning into a roundabout or aggressive turn, you don’t want to come unstuck doing a last minute gear shift in order to better power out of the corner. Precious seconds count, and you are potentially compromising your handling and average speed by moving your position to shift."
Additionally, many triathletes (especially novices) may not have perfected the art of preparing and selecting the right gear for a section of the course before finding the position on the base bar. This means they are potentially pushing too big of a gear or not enough, making the cadence inconsistent and using huge amounts of energy, all the while depleting your legs that should be kept fresh as possible for the run.
5. Get an Aerodynamic Helmet
While deserving of a whole other article about gear upgrades for triathlon, Collins couldn’t overlook just how much of a difference an aerodynamic helmet could make to your ride. What’s more, trends are changing and science is catching up, it might be time to upgrade that bulky, teardrop-shaped helmet of old, and replace it with something that embraces modern technology. When looking to purchase, make sure that the helmet is comfortable, provides some point of ventilation and is up to your country’s standards.
Rarely are you riding directly into the perfect headwind, so the longer, ‘pointier’ helmets can actually be slower in crosswinds. What’s more, your position needs to be dialled in order for the aerodynamic helmet to work properly, luckily you have had your bike fit by this point.
How it will benefit you
An aero helmet works by smoothing the airflow around your head, reducing drag and enabling you to slip through the air faster. Most sources suggest that aero helmets typically save 30-60 seconds for every hour of riding. If you put your numbers hat on, you can figure out how much time this could save according to your race distance.
Optimising aerodynamics essentially gives you free speed, meaning you go faster, with no additional power output. Of course, the helmet is just one component of an aerodynamic set-up, but these helmets will reduce time in comparison to a standard road helmet.
What’s more, a good helmet will protect your head if things to go pear-shaped, so it is worth investing the time and money into the right one. Shave seconds, less effort!
Thanks to the team of triathlon experts at SBR for giving us the lowdown on their great selection of Triathlon products and bike fit studio.
We hope this guide has been helpful in steering you to a faster bike leg in your next Triathlon, for the ultimate upgrade, why not treat yourself to a new Triathlon Bike?, shop the wide range right here on BikeExchange!