Cheap Speed - Tips for a faster triathlon bike leg
[This is a revision of an article I wrote for the old Triathlete’s Diary back in 2014. I think a lot of the content still stands, but I’ve updated it for 2018]
We all know that triathlon is an expensive sport. If we’re honest, the appeal lies at least partly in the shiny kit and the desire to satisfy our ‘inner geeks’. We part with hard-earned cash in the hope that the latest gizmo will shave another couple of seconds off our splits and lead us towards that lifetime best performance. In swimming, we look at new wetsuits and training aids; on the run it’s all about the trainers and perhaps the odd penchant for compression gear.
But it’s the cycle leg that will really drain your bank account. I’m not going to go into any detail about the advantages of a TT bike over a ‘standard’ road bike, or carbon over alloy. But there are a number of investments – varying in cost – to help you achieve that personal best in the bike split.
For those of you starting out in triathlon or looking to make that breakthrough in your bike split, here are just a handful of examples that might help, roughly in order of expense.
WHEELS & TYRES
There has been much written about the wheelset on the bike being perhaps the most important place to save weight. I’m no physicist, but it makes sense that the lower the ‘rolling mass’ then the faster you can accelerate and the easier you can maintain your speed. Here are a few ways to save weight in your wheelset, from cheap to expensive:
Up to £20 – Inner Tubes
You might think that all inner tubes are equal; but in truth there is a wide range of thicknesses and weights available. The chances are that unless you bought a seriously expensive ‘gucci’ bike, the manufacturer will have fitted some fairly tough but heavy inner tubes as standard. For racing, you might want to balance the greater risk of a puncture against a reasonable weight saving by swapping to a lightweight racing tube.
I’ve used Continental Supersonic and Schwalbe Extra Light inner tubes, weighing just 50g and 65g (a regular inner tube can easily weigh over 100g), and have never punctured in a race [2018 edit – no longer true!].
£70 - £100 – Tyres
Much the same as manufacturers like to save a bit of money by fitting their off-the-shelf bikes with cheap and heavy inner tubes, the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacture) tyres on your new bike are also likely to be pretty tough (and heavy). And that means they probably have a higher-than-average rolling resistance (how smoothly they roll) as well as being significantly heavier.
Switching to lighter and faster tyres is often cited as just about THE most cost effective modification you can make to a new bike. For my first race, I was using a £700 alloy road bike (a Wilier Escape) fitted with OEM tyres, tubes and wheels. By swapping the tubes (as above) and tyres (to Continental Grand Prix 4000) [2018 edit – I now favour Vittoria Corsa 25mm tyres for clinchers] I saved nearly 200g (yes, really!) in total bike weight. And that’s without changing the actual wheels.
£150 - £LOTS! – Wheels
OK, so by no means a ‘cheap’ modification, but changing the wheels is perhaps the biggest weight-saving change you can make to a bike. What’s more, moving to deeper section wheels will generally bring with it varying degrees of aerodynamic benefit (generally this makes it both easier to achieve a higher top speed and maintain it). It’s not uncommon to see a ‘good’ pair of aero wheels costing as much as the original bike itself.
But while we can’t all afford plush Zip 808s, Enve 8.9s or similar, not all deep section
wheels have to cost the earth. Manufacturers like Planet X make very respectable aero tubular (no inner tubes) wheels for as little as £400. [2018 edit: I’d also suggest looking at wheels from Parcours and Spin Industries – great quality at very reasonable prices]
And even if £400 is a little rich for your wallet, you can still make decent weight savings in the £150 - £250 range.
Here we are primarily talking about minimising the frontal area of the rider on the bike. The rider accounts for upwards of 70% of the total drag when cycling, so adopting a wind-cheating position can lead to serious time savings over 20km or further.
£100 - £200 Aero helmet
So, first caveat here is that for an aero helmet to make sense, you probably need to either have a TT bike or at least a road bike fitted with tri bars (the extensions that allow you to adopt a more extreme ‘tuck’ position). That said, there is much research out there to say that, pound-for-pound, an aero helmet is a more cost-efficient way to shave seconds off your bike split than a pair of swanky £1,500 deep-section aero wheels.
There are various designs out there, from the more traditional Giro Advantage style of ‘teardrop’ helmet to the more futuristic Lazer Tardiz [2018 edit: showing the article’s age here! See extra section below] – but all aero helmets have one thing in common – they are designed to smooth the airflow over the helmet and eliminate drag caused by the vacuum that normally sits behind a ‘regular’ cycle helmet.
Getting the fit spot-on is crucial – as is testing how easy the helmet is to get on in T1 under race conditions.
2018 edit: Having now gone through five or six aero helmets, the last sentence above is perhaps the most important. You need to make sure the aero helmet you select FITS not only your head, but also your body position when down in the tuck. Aerodynamically, I have gone from long-tail helmets to short-tail and back again. Having tested the Kask Bambino and the Giro Aerohead, I’ve returned to the older and cheaper Bell Javelin, as I believe it provides the best aerodynamic profile for my position on the bike, even if it doesn’t look very cool.
£100 - £400 Bike Fit
I’ve put this under aerodynamics assuming the bike in question is a TT, but there are really a number of different reasons to get a bike fit. Aside from any ‘speed’ gains that might be found through adopting a more wind-cheating position, the real advantage of a bike fit is squeezing every bit of power and efficiency out of the rider. An incorrect saddle height, fore/aft position, stem length or height can all cause the rider to be less efficient and therefore be wasting effort that should be making you faster.
A good bike fitter will adjust the fit to suit the individual’s physique, taking into account different strengths and weaknesses. I wrote up my experiences of having a Retul fitting last year which you can find on my blog.
[2018 edit: There’s a newer bike fit blog here]
£70-250 Trisuit / Skinsuit [added 2018]
Somehow, I missed this off the original article, but I think it’s important to acknowledge just how important your choice of clothing is to your bike time. Loose, flappy material is NOT aerodynamic! A close-fitting trisuit will be much faster, saving more than a handful of seconds over a 40km or 90km bike leg (even more on an Ironman). For colder races, if you can afford it, consider ditching that loose-fitting bike jacket and instead look at something like Fusions ‘speed top’ or a good set of arm warmers (which you can probably wear under your wetsuit, saving time in T1).
Some manufacturers like Huub are even starting to design trisuits with aero-features, although these are not generally-available at the time of writing.
£50+ Bike computer with cadence monitor
My last top tip is to get yourself a bike computer with a cadence sensor. There has been much written to suggest that the most efficient cadence (i.e. the revolutions of the pedals) is around 80-90 per minute. But everyone is different and it is perhaps worth taking some time to try different cadences and see how work for you. Are you a ‘grinder’ (better at low cadence, using muscle power) or a ‘spinner’ (prefer high revs, relying on aerobic system)? Most people can probably be either, depending on the circumstances, but I think it’s worth building both high cadence and low cadence (sometimes called over-gearing) sessions into training to build an all-round cycling capability.
[2018 edit: I’m STILL surprised how many people don’t ride with cadence. With bike computers cheaper than ever, it’s an invaluable piece of data I wouldn’t want to ride without!]
So there you go, some top tips if you’re still relatively new to triathlon and looking to make some gains in your bike splits. I’m sure I’ve missed out some other great examples, so feel free to add your own comments in the box below!