I WAS RECENTLY ASKED by a teammate for some tips on purchasing a new triathlon bike. There are so many cool designs out there, and so many gizmos on the market that will supposedly help you save a few watts, that it can be very difficult to determine what will actually provide a benefit and what is just extraneous junk. In a previous life, I used to be the manager of a bike shop. At the beginning of every tri season, I would have people come in looking to get on a new bike. Most of them had a fixed budget that they wanted to stay within and all of them wanted to end up riding out on something way above that budget. Here are a few guidelines that I would give them to help narrow down what they should be looking for.
Fit: First, plan to set aside $200-300 in your budget to get a dynamic bike fit performed by a trained professional and to cover the cost of changing out small parts like saddles, stems, and pedals. This can either be done before or after you buy the bike.
Getting a fit performed prior to buying a bike will give you a short list of frames that fit your body type (more on this later). Once you have your list of fit measurements (ie: the points in space where the rider contacts the bike such as saddle height, pedals, aero bar pad reach and width, base bar position, and extension reach to name a few) you can go looking for your new bike and have the shop adjust the bike to meet your fit standards.
This can also be done in reverse order. Purchasing a bike first and having it fit to you will ensure that that specific bike is customized to your body. This will ensure that you get the most out of your new ride in the areas of comfort, aerodynamics, and power output.
Which ever way you go, you will reach the end result of being one with your new bike. (a relationship that is going to see a lot of time spent together.) Many frame manufacturers are building very fast bikes with a specific eye towards fit and being easily adjustable. Quintana Roo and Specialized, to name a few, have designed very cool bikes with these characteristics in mind.
Frame Fit: As I mentioned before, there are two main styles (fits) in triathlon frames: long and low, and short and tall.
Bikes build with a long and low geometry (the QR cd0.1 comes to mind) have a longer top tube and shorter head tube making them a better fit for riders with a longer torso. These frames will allow the rider to stretch out over the bike and get very aero.
The short and tall frames will be better suited to riders with a shorter torso and longer legs or those who are less flexible in their hip joints. While they may not allow the rider to get their upper body as horizontal, the increased comfort and ability to produce power will overcome a slightly less aero position. Both styles of frame can be set up to put the rider in a very aerodynamic position, but one style will fit your body type better.
Frame Style: Another thing to consider when buying a TT frame is whether you want a triathlon specific bike or a bike that will be UCI legal and allow you to race stand alone time trials. Many companies are producing triathlon specific bikes with frame profiles that exceed the UCI 3:1 tube ratios making them ineligible for road racing. If you have any inclination that you may in the future want to do an individual TT then opt for a UCI legal frame. A good example of this is the new(ish) Cervelo P5, which comes in a triathlon specific version and a UCI rated version. The main difference being the addition of a front fork with deeper side profile and nose cone style brake cover.
Components: My stance on components is this - if I have X amount of dollars to spend on a triathlon bike, I would opt to spent the majority of that pot on a frame and wheel set while letting components take a back seat. Here is why: throughout the life of your bike, you will regularly be replacing parts as they wear out. so, when it is time to change your chain, upgrade. When it's time for new chain rings, upgrade. If you have some extra dough down the road, upgrade your derailleurs. These parts can be bought cheap online (especially if you can live with ten speed components now that 11-speed is so widely available) and taken to your shop for installation.
Another factor is that most triathlons are done over fairly flat terrain meaning that a bit more weight on the bike from lower grade components is not a huge penalty compared to someone racing huge mountain climbs in a road or stage race. Also, because triathletes are loading their bikes up with water, nutrition, flat kit, and other gizmos whatever weight you may have lost from buying Dura-Ace components over 105 is lost. And finally, the rider is the biggest source of weight and drag on the bike by far, so spend the extra dough you saved to pay your coach.
Wheel set: While probably the most expensive upgrade you can make to a bike, a good wheel set can help you shed seconds off of your bike split and can improve how your bike feels and handles immensely. My favorite combo is the Zipp 404/808 firecrest set. (TriRig did a great write up on wheel sets here.) if you have the means to only own one set of race wheels then this combo provides great aerodynamics without sacrificing too much control on windy days or for lighter and small er riders. Also, with most wheel companies providing some form of discount for race crash replacement, you can run these wheels on your bike all the time.
Brands: I can't say that there is a bad brand of bike out on the market today. There is a convergence of aero technology that makes all the newest super bikes look and function very similar. In the field of components there is also not a good or bad brand in terms of quality and function. I think each individual has to find one that they like (I prefer Shimano shifting over SRAM, for example) and go from there.
I will say that there are brands that charge more for their bikes with respect to what you get for your money. Trek and Cervelo seem to be more expensive then a comparably equipped Giant, Specialized, or Cannondale. But prices can fluctuate from shop to shop and region to region. Again, none of these brands are better or worse than the others, they just very in price.
Super buyer's tip! It can be very tempting to take advantage of cheap deals on the internet but buyer beware. Usually customer service is poor with these companies and good luck if you have any warranty issues. Buy purchasing a bike through a bike dealer, you may pay a little bit more, but your money goes towards buying the knowledge of the sales, fitting, and mechanical staff. Many shops throw in some amount of free service with a purchase as well. You are also developing a relationship with that shop that will pay dividends in the future when you have questions regarding service, upgrades, and again warranty problems.
Hopefully these guidelines will help those of you in the market for a new bike find the bike that will bring you the most benefit without having to take second mortgage on your house. If you do have any questions, leave it in the comments, shoot me an email or post it on the Facebook page. Shared questions bring everyone more knowledge.