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Triathlon for Runners: Triathlon Cycling 101

This article is part of a  series focused on triathlon information for runners.  Since we know cross training is good for runners and biking and swimming are popular cross training exercise, why not mix it up and add a triathlon race to your calendar?   Lana, from her blog The Fire Inside offered her expertise in this topic in response to our Help Wanted ad a few months ago.   We were excited to have this marathoner turned Ironman share her knowledge with the Lounge.

By Lana Matthews Sain


Cycling can be a bit intimidating for a beginner, with all the different types of bikes and equipment involved.  For those of us who haven’t thought about riding a bike since childhood, it can also seem a bit scary.  It’s like most other things in life, though; once you educated yourself on the subject and take a leap of faith – it’s not as bad as you might have thought.  Cycling is a great sport.  It’s full of camaraderie and fun, and it gives your body a rest from the pounding of running.

If you are a beginner in triathlon and looking for your first bike, you need to know your options.  The main types of bikes used in triathlon are road bikes, time trial bikes, and occasionally you’ll see some hybrids and mountain bikes.  Any type of bike will do if your only goal is to cross the finish line.  If you tend to be on the competitive side, or if it might bother you to see someone gliding past you effortlessly as you huff and puff on your 10 year old mountain bike, you might want to consider shopping around for a fairly decent bike to train and race on. 

Road bikes are conventionally what the beginner triathlete starts with.  A road bike is light and stable, has a wide range gearing, and is for riding only on road surfaces.  These bikes resemble the old 10-speed you might have had many years ago, although technology has come a long way since then.  Road bikes also can be more suited for racing or otherwise better for touring, depending on the composition of the frame, the gearing ratios, etc.  A new entry level road bike will cost around $700 - $800.

Time trial bikes, which are also referred to as “triathlon bikes,” are the bikes that look a lot like a road bike, except they have aerobars, a more slender and aerodynamic frame, and a slightly different geometry.  Time trial bikes are built to be as aerodynamic as possible.  Most riders find that time trial bikes are not as comfortable as road bikes, mainly due to their aggressive geometry.  This geometry, however, shifts a lot of the work from the hamstrings to the quads, therefore, saving more of your hamstrings for the run. Time trial bikes also come with double, instead of triple, chain rings.  The gearing ratios are normally suited for hammering on the flats rather than climbing in the mountains.  A new entry level time trial bike is normally in the range of $1200 - $1500.

Mountain bikes and hybrids are occasionally used in triathlon. Mountain bikes have heavy frames, straight bars, and big, knobby tires for off-road riding.  Hybrids have fairly heavy frames and straight bars, but the tires more like those on a road bike.  They can be used on or off-road.  Either of these two types of bikes will get you through a sprint triathlon.  If you just want to check out the sport and you already have one of these, riding it in your race is fine.  You will use more energy getting through the bike course than your friends on road and triathlon bikes, however.  The price of these bikes varies, and normally I wouldn’t recommend for you to go purchase one of these for the sport of triathlon.  If you already have one in your garage and want to give it a shot, go for it.  If not, you should consider purchasing either a road or triathlon bike.

To make matters more confusing, within each type of bike I just described lie many different levels of quality and price.  Many of them also come with women-specific models.  Visiting your local bike shop is a great way to see the differences in these types of bikes.  You should also get measured and fitted to any bike you ride.  If you have cycling friends, or friends who are experienced triathletes, ask around about which bikes they are riding and how they feel on them. Carry on conversations about the topic and take mental notes on some of the terms they use and things they say.  Once you have a bike, go on group rides with cyclists who ride close to the same pace as you.  Absorb all the information you can, and enjoy your quest to becoming an experience cyclist and triathlete.  The price of your bike isn’t nearly as important as the shape its pilot is in, so get out and ride!


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