What’s Better Bang for Buck: Cheap(er) Triathlon Bike vs. New(er) Road Bike

Hello all, I’m on the hunt for some speed going into my 2nd triathlon season. My primary goal is to increase speed while saving watts AND save as much money as possible. So my question is “Is it better to 1) buy a cheap triathlon bike, 2) buy a more aero road bike and transform for triathlon purposes, or 3) upgrade my current road bike for triathlon purposes?”

In all cases, assume I have an optimal fit (I have a fit scheduled), optimal triathlon kit, same helmet, shoes, etc. I currently have the Trek Al Domane Disc 3, and I have aero bars attached. I like the idea of having a triathlon bike as I can see myself doing this for a long time, but I’m worried if I get a cheap triathlon bike it’ll give me the same boost as keeping my road bike and replacing some parts or getting a more aero road bike.

Any and all opinions are welcomed. This is a very open question, and just looking for things to look for, experience, gear recommendations, knowledge on weight and aerodynamics, etc.

I’d vote cheap triathlon bike. Depending where you live there are usually some good used deals around as both triathletes and TTers seem to either upgrade bikes frequently or fall out of love with the sport and sell their equipment. And tri bike tech hasn’t particularly moved on in recent years - assuming fit is right then something like a Cervelo P3 with deep wheels is still going to be competitive. Buying used also means if you do fall in love with triathlon and at some point decide to upgrade, then you can likely sell that bike on at little or no loss.

Main advantage of a TT bike over road bike is that the geometry is optimised around the TT position. You can setup a road bike for TT with clip on bars but it’s always going to be a bit of a compromise, and the adjustments needed to get a good TT position (e.g. Getting the saddle all the way forwards, using a longer stem and maybe a negative angled stem to get you steeper, longer and lower) mean your road riding position will no longer be that good. So 2 bikes is best. Keep the road bike for group rides and training when you don’t need to be in TT position. Use the TT bike for the more triathlon specific training and racing.

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I 100% agree with Cartsman, go for a triathlon bike if you are hunting for speed gains. The aerodynamic drag of a rider and bike is mostly the rider (despite what brands tell you about their $$$ aero road bikes). Just think about how much larger of a frontal cross section your body produces compared to a skinny bike frame.

Whilst you can get close to an aero riding position with clip-on bars, its no where as good as a dedicated triathlon bike with lower head tube.

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Thanks! This is def convincing. Now if the tri bike doesn’t have deep wheels, would it still produce lots of speed gains without them, or do the deep wheels contribute most of the speed? O

I’d look at the big picture. What is a tri bike going to do for you? Is it the difference between finishing 60th instead of 80th? If that were the case then you probably don’t need a new bike.

I think distance would matter. If you are riding a 100 mile leg then having a bike and fit where you can stay in the aero position for hours will be important. But if your bike leg is 10 miles then it’s less of a factor.

Wheels save a lot - more than a frame usually.

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Go for the Tri bike absolutely! Besides the obvious smaller aero profile, the Tri bike is designed to have more weight on the front end. The biggest factor that many don’t know is that you will definitely RUN better.

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I mean definitely understand your fitness and training matter more than a bike. However, I do believe a good bike fit is necessary to transfer power to the pedals. If I end up not getting a new bike, I’ll still train just as hard. However, if I’m training hard I’d like to make sure I get the most speed per watt.

All this to say, I def have to ensure I don’t get wrapped up over a bike and think it’ll trump good training.

Thanks for this! I didn’t think about this part.

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Your position is the biggest contributor (or detractor!) to speed. Wheels are pretty high up there though in terms of bang for your buck. Deep front wheel and disc on the back. Depth is the biggest factor for aero, so again they don’t need to be a particularly recent or top end wheel. You’re unlikely to be climbing much in a triathlon, or accelerating/decelerating, so weight doesn’t matter too much.

Other low hanging fruit apart from position and wheels is aero helmet, fast rolling tyres and a good race suit (snug and covers the shoulders). Maybe arm sleeves and shoe covers depending on whether the race is long enough for the aero gains to justify the time taken to put them on in transition.

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Thanks again!

Nobody ever does it but most of the aero benefit comes from the front wheel. If someone was on a budget, they could just run a deep front wheel on race day.

They also sell wheel covers for the rear which are a lot cheaper than a disc wheel.

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I already have a good, if but old and outdated road bike. If I was getting back into tri I would find an older tri bike for myself. Raced some triathlons on a 2002 TT bike and it was certainly still faster and more comfortable than any road bike I have been on.

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I would agree a cheap(er) Tri/TT bike should be more effective compared to a newer aero road bike. I would caveat it though by saying if the fit is right. My mate who was pretty fast on his aero roadbike was actually slower on a dedicated TT bike the next season. Maybe if he’d persevered he would have adapted to the TT bike as it was bought of a champion racer of the same height (so size wise it wasnt far off) but I suspect that season put him off TT’s.

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