Choosing a bicycle is one of the more stressful, yet exhilarating parts of getting into serious triathlon training. Although many a good race can be won on lesser of a bike (it has been told to me that a bike is only as fast as its rider is strong), there is a certain rite of passage that comes with the purchase of that first "real" bike. But with that purchase comes many decisions ~ will it be aluminum or carbon? Will it be strictly a road bike or a more sport-specific tri bike? Will you spend your money on a quality frame and lesser components for the time being, or will you spend less now and just upgrade the entire bike in five years if you "really" get into the sport? There are so many options that it becomes very confusing as you delve into the decision making process. I will attempt to break down the pros and cons of the different bikes and components to help the newbie make sense of it all.
When deciding what kind of bike you will purchase, the very first thing I recommend doing is to set a budget. While it outwardly may appear that multi-sport training would be inexpensive (I mean really, how much can it cost to swim, bike, and run?) it can quickly add up as your enthusiasm for the sport grows. It is also easy to fall prey to the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. When someone in your training group shows up with a fancy new bike, prepare to become aware of just how old and dingy yours begins to look. Initially I was under the false pretense that all I would have to purchase when I began my training was a new bathing suit, a pair of goggles, a swim cap, and a pair of tennis shoes. After all, I already had a new $150 Sports Academy mountain bike that I had just bought a few months prior when I decided to start exercising. Well, initially this did work, at least enough to get me through the relay portion of my first super-sprint triathlon. But then I saw all those fast bikes, tri-suits, and gadgets that suddenly seemed very important. I just had to be a part of this elite group (or at least look the part). As the equipment started to accumulate, so did the overall price tag.
Lets talk about this budget. When deciding how much you are willing to spend on the bike, a better question you may wish to ask yourself would be, "how much am I willing to spend on the sport?". There are many luxury items that you don't need when starting out, and that you can save up for as you progress in the sport, but there are also many expenses that you will initially incur as these items are indispensable for training or racing. Lets look at a few of these for each discipline:
When we look at swimming, you will want a good snug fitting bathing suit to train in ($60), at least one pair of goggles ($12) and preferably a back up pair for race day, as unexpected things always seem to happen. You will want a silicone swim cap ($10) because the latex ones always break and pull your hair. You will, I am sure, want a decent pair of flip-flops or deck shoes for the showers and pool deck (to look the part and not break your neck when exiting the pool area - it's always embarrassing to fall after swimming). Now, that is all just for training! You will also want to budget in race day wear (a good tri-suit is $95; tri shorts ($55); tri shirt ($70)). If you are racing in water less than 78 degrees, then you will either want to own ($150 on up) or rent ($40) a wet-suit. Of course you can always find things on sale, or good used equipment as people upgrade, but you will see the importance of having these items, especially when we talk about clothing during transitions.
Moving on to the run ~ unless you choose to run barefoot you will need a decent pair of running shoes. The cost for this ranges greatly, but in my opinion it is worth going to a quality running store that has staff who can watch you walk and run to help you determine the best shoe fit for your feet. I initially spent $85 on a good pair of running shoes that killed my arches and ankles as I started to increase my run distance because I over-pronate and they just weren't giving me enough support. Another $85 later and I moved into a much better pair of shoes and my feet don't hurt me anymore. Clothing for running varies depending on the weather and personal preference. A popular option is dry-fit or technical shirts that wick away perspiration as you heat up (plan on $20+) per shirt. The nice thing about these shirts, is that after you have run a few races you will find you have drawerfuls of technical shirts to choose from that didn't cost you anything other than your race registration (we will talk about that later). Other necessities with running are a hat or visor ($20), a decent pair of sunglasses ($20+), a water bottle ($10), and nutrition supplements such as gels ($2 each). Oh, and then of course there are the luxury items such as elastic laces (Yankz runs about $10) and a race belt ($10) to make your transitions easier. But wait! That may be all it takes to run, but as you begin to actually "train" you are eventually going to want to invest in a heart rate monitor ($150+) and probably a GPS unit such as a Garmin ($150-$350) that can track your routes, help you pace, and record important information such as heart rate, calories burned, average speed, etc. and upload it onto your computer. But hey ~ that's down the road, right??
So this article is supposed to be about choosing a bicycle isn't it? Then lets move on to the final sport of cycling. Unfortunately, when you get passionate about riding a bike, it is really more than just riding a bike. Don't misunderstand, you CAN compete on your grandmother's bike, and you CAN do well on it. But there will come a time as you learn to love the sport, that you will want more. For me, that time came when I was one of three in my training group that rode mountain bikes. We were quickly left behind to do a different training program than the roadies, as there was no way we could keep up with their speed. That is why there is a completely different division (i.e. Fat Tires) when you compete. You just can't manage the speeds on a fat tire bike that you can on a road bike.
So you've made the decision to move up to a road bike, but we still need to consider additional expenses you will have with a new cycle. Most entry level road bikes will come with either platform pedals (the big chunky ones you are used to riding with) or more expensive models come with no pedals, as that is a separate expense. Although you may initially decide to forgo the expense of "fancy" clipless pedals, you will soon see the advantage of them as you ride with more experienced riders. Clipless pedals can increase your speed by allowing you to use other leg muscles than just the quadriceps that you have been using to mash down on those platform pedals. Now you get to pull up when you pedal, giving those poor quads a chance to rest. This will be very important as you begin to do brickwork (moving from the bike into the run). You'll want everything you can get out of your legs for the run, so sharing the work load is a good thing. There are a variety of clipless pedals to choose from and you will need to talk to as many people as you can and research the one that is right for you. Pedals vary on the way that you clip into them, as well as in how many degrees of turn it takes to get in and out of them. As you become very advanced, the weight of your bicycle and accessories can become an issue, but for those that are reading this post, I don't think ounces need to be a big factor in your decision making now. Entry level pedals start around $40 and can go as high as $400 for carbon.
With new pedals comes the need for new shoes. Again, bike shoes are something you want to spend some time researching and trying. There are a variety of styles and brands to choose from. Many triathletes don't wear socks, so you want a pair of shoes that is comfortable and breaths well ($150+). There are shoes specific for multi-sport called tri shoes that have one strap to decrease your time in transition. These I highly recommend.
Biking shorts are a necessity. I can't stress this enough. You will see what I mean when you begin your long rides. There is only so much that can be done to ease the pain of conditioning your rear over those first few weeks, but the shorts are your best friend in helping you along the way. Try on different brands, look for ones with good padding, and expect to pay upwards of ($55) for a basic pair of bike shorts. Eventually you will need more than one pair.
You will need cages for water bottles on your bike ($10+ depending on the material). You will need a helmet ($50++). Don't rely on your super center helmet you ride through your neighborhood with. This is your brain we're talking about and you will be going at high speeds on thin tires for long periods of time. Invest in a decent helmet. Look for one that is lightweight and has many vents for airflow as this is the only thing you have to keep your head cool on long rides in high temperatures.
For safety's sake, you will need a bike pack ($15) that you will put your gels, car keys, ID, money, spare tire ($5), CO2 cartridges and inflator ($18), tire levers ($10), and multi-tool ($35) in. If you plan on riding in the early morning or late afternoon, you will need spot-lights and blinkies ($30). You must have an air pump to inflate your tires before every ride ($35+). You can save up for a computer if you need to, but soon you will want to be able to log your miles, speed, and cadence ($45+). Down the road you may find you want to upgrade components on your bike like the saddle, wheelset, or add tri bars if you bought a road bike.
Before we start talking bike specifics, remember to include in your budget any training costs you will incur ~ whether that includes a health club membership, classes, special training opportunities, and coaching. You will want to join the USAT if you race at least three races a year as it will save you money on your race registrations. You may want to join a local tri group in order to benefit from additional training opportunities at a lower cost. Also consider the number of races you hope to participate in during your season. Depending on your goals, you may have an "A" race that is your ultimate endeavor, but you may have lesser "B" and "C" races that lead up to that event and are a part of your training. Race expenses vary depending on the event, but expect anywhere from a $20 fee for small 3K races up to $500 or more for a full Ironman race. Most sprint or olympic distance races seem to average around $70-$80 for registration (but you do get a nice shirt!). Don't forget to budget in unpaid time off of work, transportation, food, and lodging if it is held a distance away from your locale.
Although it may seem like a huge expense when you start to add up all the associated costs with training, remember that you don't have to jump in all at once. You can start small and build as you see whether you want to continue with the sport. Again, there are plenty of online sites to buy quality used equipment from, and as you develop contacts and training partners, you will find resources for many of your needs. Don't get overwhelmed with what you don't have. Focus on what you do have, and just keep building a little at a time. Set a budget and don't waver from it. It is easy to get overly excited about all the options and overspend. Don't be afraid to shop around and save for a bike. It's easy enough to borrow your neighbors bike while you're deciding what you want to do...