We are often asked about the benefits of triathlon-specific bikes over standard road bikes, or road bikes adapted with tri-bars. Nowadays, all three options seem to fall within many people’s reach – perhaps the most common limiting factor is space to store another bike, rather than any financial concern. Other frequent concerns include ‘looking like a wally’, or perhaps more sensibly, ‘will it make any difference?’. Well let’s say right away that you can have a very rewarding and even competitive short-course (sprint and standard) career on a road bike without ever having to worry about tri-bars or a full low-pro rig. We usually advise people to consider making changes as they increase the distances over which they compete, but there are several other factors to keep in mind.
So what exactly do tri-bars or low-pro bikes offer, and are there any hidden disadvantages to be borne in mind?
There are two key areas of gain offered by tri-bars, and probably two possible drawbacks to think about – there are other issues, but these can be avoided if you follow some simple advice.
So let’s work through the all of these points to see how it all works and whether it is time you thought about using tri-bars.
Increased speed – this is achieved by reducing wind resistance – by reducing the frontal surface that you present to the wind you will cut drag and go quicker – it really is that simple.
Better running – this is achieved by opening the hip angle while on the bike – low-pro bikes have much steeper seat angles – this means that even though you are lower at the front, you will still not be as bent over in the middle – this translates into less fatigue in key muscle areas when it comes to the run.
Handling – until you gain experience, you will be less able to control your bike when using the tri-bars; you will need to anticipate braking and you may not be comfortable to stay in the optimal position at higher speeds. However if you persevere, you will master this, and will spend longer and longer periods on the tri-bars. Remember that you can still ride all day on the hoods while you learn and just try the bars for a few seconds or minutes at a time.
Weight – other things being equal, your tri-bars will add weight to your bike. You may consider the benefit to be neutralised on a hilly course.
Position – if you add tri-bars to a standard road bike, you may compromise your riding position AND compromise your ability to run off the bike. The main issue here is that (as noted) above, a tri-specific bike has a different geometry to a road bike. If you add tri-bars to a road bike, you may find yourself reaching a long way forward to use them. It will be uncomfortable to hold this position for any length of time, and if you do, you will probably be fatigued by the time for the run. This is not an insurmountable problem so long as you are on a bike that fits you well - a smaller bike relative to the rider will be advantageous, while a larger bike may present a problem.
So how to get started? Advice for beginners focuses on three things:
The best advice for starting out is to buy tri-bars which are as adjustable as possible – it is very useful to be able to bring the arm-rests back toward the saddle so that you are not reaching way forward as noted above. You may also be able to bring your saddle forward a few cms by loosening the bolts and sliding it forward on the rails. Be aware of two minor issues when you move the arm rests back and the saddle forward – first, watch out when you stand up in the saddle, your thighs may graze the arm-rests now which can be off-putting, not to mention sore. The second issue only concerns lighter riders. As you move your saddle forward, you reduce the weight over the back wheel which can make the bike a bit skittish – most people won’t notice, but if you are under 65kgs it’s worth being aware.
Find a quiet place with a long straight in order to practice using your tri-bars. It’s a good idea to keep one hand on the handlebar, as you start to hold one tri-bar – it also makes sense to have a reasonable amount of momentum (speed) before you start – the problem for many riders of course, is that it is counter-intuitive to do this at speed – however it really is easier; the bike will be much more stable – think about riding no-handed – relatively easy at speed – much harder at low pace. Build up your confidence gradually, and practice using your rear brake only if you need to modify your speed, but don’t want to take both hands off the tri-bars.
Strength and conditioning
To make the most of your new aero position (and just because) you should include some core work in your training – Google these three classic exercises - plank, chair and warrior and practice them all regularly – when you perform a plank be sure to look forwards – this will strengthen your neck just as will be required when you are riding on tri-bars.
Hopefully these pointers will get you started with tri-bars on your road bike. As your experience increases, you may be tempted to buy a full low-profile bike. Certainly, a well-fitting bike is going to allow you to ride and run quicker, and the benefits become that bit more noticeable as the distances increase. As for looking like a wally? I haven’t even mentioned aero helmets – I’m leaving that one completely up to you......