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Should I Buy a Time Trial Bike?

Should I Buy a Time Trial Bike?
Should I Buy a Time Trial Bike?

This article was originally published by John Will Tenney in try-athlete.org. Reprinted here with specific permission.

JWT-finishSo you are thinking about buying a Time Trial (or Triathlon) bike. You want to know which is the best one to buy for you. Several questions come up. First of all:

Why?
What are you going to use it for? Are you going to enter time trials only? Are you going in to the world of Triathlon / Duathlon? What is your budget? Do you really want to spend a lot of money on a bike you may not use that much? Can you get by with one good road bike instead of two average bikes? You should know the answer to these questions before you make a purchase.

A lot of the next few paragraphs will be covered in brief in the FAQ section below, so feel free to skip to it if you want the “Reader’s Digest” condensed version.

Looking Back at My Own Experience
As an amateur time trialist and occasional duathlete (“dry-athlete”) I bought an aero bike for one reason, to go faster. That was it. Upon retrospect I’m glad I did, but I have some observations along the way …

It Requires Extra Training
It’s harder to ride an aero bike. It takes different muscles and different control techniques. I had to train for quite some time before I was comfortable enough on the aero bars to see a significant increase in speed. It took several months before I could stay down on the bars for more than a minute at a time, due to different pain points in the arms and shoulders. Also, it’s not as stable. Do not ride on aero bars in a group. Please.

It Gets Expensive
Buying accessories for two bikes is twice as expensive, obviously. But once I was “hooked” on the Quest for Speed I found myself buying things like expensive aero wheels, $200 skin suits, shoe covers, aero gloves, $400 aero helmets, power meters, etc. Beware! Time Trial bikes are the “Gateway Drug” for BSA Syndrome (Bicycle Spending Addiction).

The Competition is Tougher
I went from getting my ass kicked in the Eddy Merckx Division to getting my ass kicked in the Masters 50+ division. On the positive side, it motivated me to lose weight and do some serious interval training.

About losing weight:
Yes it matters. Some will tell you it doesn’t. Physicist will argue (correctly) that in ideal conditions, the weight of the rider will have minimal effect on speed over a smooth, flat course. However, they will also agree that the following factors are affected by weight:

  • Body aerodynamics
  • Road friction (bumpy road)
  • Turns
  • Changes in elevation, even minor
  • Bike Balance and effort expended to stay upright

The general rule I have learned from my own experience is that “Weight is Freight” and by losing 10 lbs I increased my average speed over a 9.4 mile course by almost 1 mph.

Below are some frequently asked questions. If you have other questions, please contact us on our Facebook page.

FAQ

Do I need a TT bike to race in Time Trials?
No. A certified road bike is welcome in any time trial and is legal to race in any USA Cycling event. Most race directors are now even offering a separate division (Eddy Merckx) for those with road bikes and road gear.

What is the difference between a TT bike and a Triathlon bike?
Taken from Livestrong.com:
“If you put a triathlon bike side-by-side with a time trial bike, it would be hard to tell the difference. In fact, at first glance, they look identical. Both are slender road bikes with aero bars designed for performance. You wouldn’t want to accidentally mix the bikes up, however, as each is specially engineered to fit the task at hand.

Comfort
The most significant difference is comfort. By design, triathlon bikes are made to go the distance. Triathletes often ride through hilly terrain, cover distances up to 112 miles during races and must transition to running quickly and efficiently. In contrast, time trial riders get off the bike completely spent. Their bikes are designed for only one thing—speed. As such, triathlon bikes favor a more relaxed position and a lighter frame than time trial bikes.

Seat Tube Angle
Triathlon bikes often have a steeper seat tube angle, which pushes riders’ hips forward and keeps their hamstrings from working too hard, saving strength for the run. However, time trial bikes must adhere to International Cycling Union (ICU) requirements mandating that the saddle nose of the seat tube be 5 cm from the center of the bike’s bottom bracket. The positioning on a time trial bike is intended to help the rider obtain the maximum amount of power from his legs.”

Can I race in Time Trials with a Triathlon bike?
Depends on who is governing it. If it is a UCI race and they are measuring frames, your Triathlon bike may not meet the requirements. However, most local USA Cycling event promoters realize that using a Triathlon bike is not that much of an advantage over a UCI legal TT bike and will let you race with it.

Can’t I go just as fast just by adding aero bars to my road bike?
Adding aero bars to your road bike and mastering that position will most likely increase your speed on a time trial, provided they are installed correctly and the bike is properly fitted to you. However, the aero bike has a different frame, with different geometry than a road bike, designed to get you lower to reduce drag. In the images below you can see that John is at least 15 degrees closer to horizontal than Angie, who has “clip on” aero bars on her road bike.

Angie on a road bike with aero bars

Angie on a road bike with aero bars

John on a Quintana Roo CD 0.1 with different geometry

John on a Quintana Roo CD 0.1 with different geometry


Who is Eddy Merckx and why does he have a division?
Eddy is a retired pro cyclist who won the world championship three times, the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia five times and the Veuelta a Espana once. He never used a time trial bike in any of his championships (or so the story goes.) We find it interesting that Eddy Merckx Bicycles now sells a complete Time Trial and Triathlon line of aero bikes.

Is a TT bike faster than a road bike?
Complex question. On a flat, smooth course, a rider who is trained to ride a TT bike will be faster than they will be on a road bike the majority of the time, since the primary impediment to speed on a flat, smooth course is aerodynamic drag. Even though TT bikes tend to be slightly heavier than road bikes, they are designed to reduce aerodynamic drag significantly.

What is more important on a TT bike, the frame, the wheels or the components?
This is largely personal preference, but the consensus of riders on our Facebook group is that frame is number 1, followed by aero wheels, and then components. After all, you are buying the bike because of aerodynamics, not weight reasons, and components don’t contirbute to reduction of aerodynamic drag as much as frame and wheels.

Do I have to buy all the other stuff, like a skin suit, aero helmet and shoe covers?
You can in fact buy speed. This article shows the advantages of certain items as opposed to the projected cost. However, here is a short list in order of importance to reducing drag, and therefor increase speed:

  • Aerodynamic position. Basically, the lower you can get, the smoother the airflow over your body
  • Aerodynamic helmet. Since it’s up front, it is a major source of drag
  • Aerodynamic front wheel/spokes. Ditto
  • Skin suit or “speed” suit. Reducing drag adds speed
  • Aerodynamic gloves
  • Arm covers
  • Shoe covers
  • Shaving your legs. No kidding. This has been shown to reduce a 40K time trial time by as much as 80 seconds.