In my last blog (Why Triathletes Should Ride Road Bikes) I explained why I believe triathlete should have a road bike and that, ideally, a triathlete should have both a road bike and a time trial bike. As I acknowledged, bikes are expensive and even “entry-level” bikes are expensive and when you are starting out the amount of gear (and how much it costs as its adds up) can be pretty daunting. However, smart budgeting and planning can make the difference between having the things that will make a big difference and having things that, while really, really nice, will make much less difference. In general, you can break triathlon costs down into three areas – coaching, racing, and gear. Just like anything else, if you are smart and willing to go with the Chevy instead of the Cadillac you can keep your costs down and enjoy a full, broad triathlon experience.
Group training programs offer an opportunity for training and coaching at a lower price. If you join a good triathlon club, you can get some pretty good mentoring from the veterans.
The easiest way to keep your race costs down is to stick with local races. Local races are excellent opportunities for newer triathletes to gain experience. They are usually smaller, low-key, and cater to beginners. I strongly believe that the best way to get better at racing, especially when you are new to the sport, is by racing. Some local race organizers will offer discounts for if you or members of your triathlon club volunteer at their events.
As far as gear goes, your feet largely determine the shoes you need and, today, even entry level wetsuits are pretty good (these usually run about $200-$250). A bike will be the most expensive item. Understand that if you are in the sport for the long-haul you will gradually accumulate stuff. Spread out your purchases over two or three years and be patient. I bought a road bike my first year, learned to ride and learned the basics of triathlon. In my second year I bought a time trial bike and in my third race wheels. This way I was able to race and gradually assemble a good range of equipment.
When you shop for your first bike, start with a basic road bike. Look for something with at least Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival components. A road bike from a reputable company, such as Cannondale, Giant, Specialized, Trek, and Felt with Shimano 105 will run you around $1500. For this price you can expect an aluminum frame with a carbon fiber fork. It will not be the lightest bike, but in the long term it will be a good, durable, and reliable training bike that will still be good enough for racing on the rare occasion when a road bike will be better than a time trial bike. SRAM and Shimano have lower priced components (such as Apex and Tiagra) that get better every year, but for regular riding, year-round, Shimano 105 or Rival is usually where you want to start. If you upgrade anything, upgrade the saddle. Don’t bother with carbon fiber stems, handlebars, or bottle cages. You don’t save a whole lot of weight and the performance gains are pretty minor. If you want to try aerobars try a set of draft legal clip-on bars (the Profile Design T2 Plus DL is a good example). These bars are shorter than would normally use on a time trial bike, but they will work better with your road bike.
When the time comes for a time trial bike, once again, focus on the basics. For time trial bikes, the primary concerns are fit and aerodynamics. Stiffness and weight are much less important than on road bikes. Finally, handling should be stable and predictable. You can find a good time trial bike from a major manufacturer, such as Felt or Specialized, for $1500-$1600. Again, you want at least Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival components. This level of componentry will be even more adequate. Since this is the bike you will be racing on, you may want to spend the extra money on a carbon fiber frame. These days, you can get a basic time trial bike with a carbon fiber frame starts at around $2000-$2200. Quick shifting is also less important. Time trial shifters are also still friction shifters that are pretty simple compared to the integrated brake/shifters now common on road bikes.
The things you should spend extra money, if necessary, on are a saddle and aerobar that work for you. Both of these items, your contact points, will affect the fit of your bike and affect your performance, efficiency, and comfort more than any other factor. You do not need to buy the most expensive saddle out there, but you do need one that works for you. The same goes with aerobars. Fortunately, manufacturers are getting better at speccing their bikes with decent saddles and highly adjustable aerobars. Generally speaking, however, if you need a taller front end, it is usually better to add height to your aerobar than to add spacers under the stem or by using a highly upturned stem. The current trend is toward aerobars, such as the 3T Aura and Zipp Alumina, that allow you to raise the height of the pads and the extensions above the basebar. Even if a carbon fiber aerobar ends up working best for you, you can save about $100 by sticking with aluminum extensions.
Wheels will make a significant difference in your performance. However, they can easily cost as much as your bike (or more). Typically, you want a set of wheels with at least a 55-60mm of rim depth. Check with the other members of your cycling/triathlon club to see if anyone has race wheels they are willing to loan you. Another possibility, especially if you feel there are only one or two races a year “big enough” to warrant race wheels, is Race Day Wheels, where , for about $180-$200, you can rent race wheels for specific races. If you want your race wheels for racing more often and if you want to do some training on your race wheels so you have a good feeling for how they ride and handle (which is what you need to to do and a big advantage to owning wheels), consider buying. Williams Cycling, who sells direct, has long offered unbeatable value on wheels. More recently, Flo Cycling, another company that sells direct, has started selling what appears to be well-engineered time trial wheels. You can get a set of time trial wheels from Williams Cycling or Flo for $1000-$1100. If you feel better buying from a brick and mortar store, you can find Bontrager’s Aura 5 (50mm) set for $1200, Hed’s Jet Express (54mm) for $1550, a Reynolds Strike (66mm) set for around $1800, and a Hed Jet 6 (60mm) set for &1900. By comparison, many of the new carbon clinchers from Bontrager, Zipp, Hed, and Enve can cost $2500 or more. These latter, cutting edge models, are all fantastic wheels, but there is a big difference between a box section training wheel and an aerodynamic time trial wheel and a relatively small difference among time trial wheels. Wheels from Flo or Williams may not be as light or have some of the technical feature of some of the more expensive brands, but they will perform nearly as well and significantly better than your training wheels.
Where You Can Save on Gear
There are ways you can save. Shopping online is popular, but I encourage beginners to either develop a relationship with a knowledgable, reputable shop, with a coach, or with the veteran members of their tri club to help with such purchases. Bikes especially, all fit differently. While a bike purchased online may cost less up front, when you add in shipping, fitting costs, and other items possibly necessary to make the bike work for you (such as different stems or a different saddle) the price advantage can disappear pretty quickly. Bike shops often have prior year models available for a discount and developing a relationship with a shop pays off down the road. Your tri club is another good resource. When members upgrade they will usually sell their old bike or components. It is also not unusual for experienced athletes to gradually accumulate random pieces of extra gear – stems, saddles, etc. If you need something, ask around and see if anyone has something you need.