Whether you have signed up for your first triathlon in 2019 or you’re still undecided, Wikiwiki Triathlon coaches Rob and Loren have put together this series of guides to help you get up to speed on the fundamentals of triathlon.
These simple start-up guides to swimming, cycling, running, pacing & racing and nutrition will explain the basic things you will need to get started, some of the things you don’t need but might like and a few luxury bits that you can think about once you know you are in it for the long haul! We’ve also included lots of other useful tips and ideas to help you on your way.
Triathlon can become an expensive hobby and without doubt the bike is the area where more of your hard earned can be spent. It doesn’t need to be, especially at the start but the bike is seen as a status symbol for many triathletes. Our opinion? Invest in the engine on the bike first and spend thousands later!
Being race ready is much more about knowing what you need to train and not going bankrupt! This article will give you the low-down on the essentials you need to train and race the bike section of a triathlon, plus a few upgrades you can schedule as you start to look to make improvements.
There’s bound to be a lot of debate and discussion about where these items fall on the scale – is it essential or is it luxury? You could argue that a functioning bike and a helmet is all that you need but is it essential to have a way of tracking your speed and distance? Is it not essential to have a bike tool kit and spare inner tubes? We’ll try to strike a balance and outline the pros and cons of each piece of equipment for you.
The first thing you need, of course, is a bike. It’s useful if the bike is the correct frame size to fit you and the tires are meant for road riding, but if it has two circular wheels and moves forward when you pedal it, you can ride it to train for triathlon. For racing, you need to make sure the bike is road worthy and in good working order. Every race will have rules regarding the bike and what they deem to be suitable. It comes down to safety – yours and you fellow athletes. Most events have a bike mechanic if you want any last-minute checks done!
Your first purchase
You don’t need to spend your entire budget on your first bike. You need to build a good level of fitness and some riding experience before you make any decisions on a final bike. Taking a little bit of time to really work out what you want in a bike will help you make decisions based on your needs, not what special offers are on at the bike shop. Do your research, talk to other people who cycle and have a good think about what you want out of triathlon. If you don’t know whether you like the sport yet, then start by borrowing someone’s bike or buy second hand.
If you are riding long distances, then it is likely that your feet won’t completely touch the floor from your seat. If your seat is low enough to do so, then your legs will not extend fully when you pedal, and you will develop other problems with your posture, and it will affect your speed.
You want to have the seat high enough, so your leg is almost straight (your knee should never be completely locked) when your foot is closest to the ground during the pedal stroke. That means when you stop the bike, you will have to get off the seat and stand over the frame to put your feet on the ground. If you aren’t doing this already, you’ll quickly learn to stand up while you are braking with your weight on one pedal, getting the opposite foot ready to plant on the ground as you come to a stop.
You will either learn this the hard way or the easy way. You don’t want your bike to let you down when you are several miles from home or at an event. Make sure you find a good local bike mechanic and have them look over your bike from time to time, if you don’t know what you’re doing. It helps to have a clean and freshly lubricated chain, tight brakes, inflated tyres and responsive gear shifters.
Having properly inflated tyres when you ride is very important. If your tyres are underinflated, it makes you pedal harder to maintain the same speed and makes you more likely to get a puncture. 100- 120 psi is the normal range for most people but obviously there are factors to consider such as terrain, road conditions and weight of rider.
Last point on this, please learn how to change (or repair) an inner tube and remove a tyre and put it back on. If you get a flat tyre, knowing how to sort that out for yourself will save you a long walk home. Many races do not allow outside assistance, so this is a fundamental skill. Use a cheap road bike wheel at home to practice changing tyre and inner tube as quickly as possible. Practice is important and you won’t thank us now, but you’ll thank us when you get a puncture!
- Cycle helmet
A helmet is a must, and is a requirement of participation in a triathlon race. Since you have to wear it for the race, you may as well wear it on training rides. It is always a contentious subject, but our view is it’s very unlikely to hurt anything by wearing it, and it might save you should you crash. Just be aware that if your helmet has been in a crash, damaged or just old (they get weak with age apparently), it needs to be replaced. Some manufacturers offer crash replacement schemes so it’s well worth doing your research!
- Bottle cage (and drinks bottle!)
It’s a good idea to have a place to carry fluids on your bike. Even for a sprint distance race, or a short bike session, access to hydration is important. It’s important to remember that during the bike segment of a race your stomach is usually most able to handle hydration and nutrition – so even if you don’t feel thirsty you should still be taking fluids on board while cycling.
Traditionally bike cages attach to the down tube or the seat tube on almost any bike frame with two screws. If balance on the bike is an issue then you can get bottle cages which mount on the seat post – behind the rider, underneath the saddle and you can get bottles to fit in between tri bars if you have them.
- Tool bag and tools
A tool bag containing spare inner tubes, a mini bike pump and/or CO2 gas canisters, tire levers and a small set of Allen keys are items experienced cyclist never leave home without.
The tool bag is also a great place for keeping some emergency money and mobile phone.
Take the time to fit the tool bag or saddle pack to your bike properly. If the large wedge packs fit snuggly under the saddle – no-one wants to see a tool bag dangling from your seat!
- Bike computer
Another highly recommended essential is a bike computer, or speedometer/ odometer. If you have a GPS watch for running, you can bypass this in the early stages, unless you want the additional functionality of tracking your power and pedal cadence.
Although you can ride without a bike computer or training watch, tracking your training, improving your performance, and estimate your finish times in races are tricky without one.
There are many kinds out there – the cheapest ones use wires (which you zip-tie to your bike frame) while the expensive ones connect wirelessly. The computer, which is mounted on the handlebar normally, is linked to magnetic sensors on your wheel and frame (depending on the computer).
Nice to have –
If triathlon is more than a one race wonder, then you are probably ready to invest a bit more on your cycling gear, clothing and equipment. What are your non-essential but nice to have items?
If you only want to invest in one pair of shorts, how do you choose between bike shorts and triathlon shorts or trishorts? Bike shorts are more padded, and therefore more comfortable for a beginner who is just learning to get used to a bike seat. Bike shorts, however, can’t be worn for a swim because the bulky pad (chamois) sucks up the water and holds it; and they are a struggle to pull on over wet legs, if you intend to put them on over a swimsuit in transition.
Trishorts have a thinner pad that dries quickly, so they can be worn for the swim, bike and run. But the thinner padding can be a problem if you are just getting used to your bike seat – can you see the dilemma?
Our advice is getting both. Longer training rides = bike shorts. Turbo training or spinning classes = bike shorts X2 if needed! Anything involving swimming or running as well as the bike = trishorts or trisuit.
Gloves are nice for training but most triathletes don’t wear them to race in because of the time it takes in transition to get them on and off. On a long training ride, it’s nice to have the padding for your palms, and the best bit is the soft terry cloth strip on the back for wiping your nose (especially if you haven’t mastered the art of the ‘snot rocket’ yet)!
The padded or leather palms can be useful for running over the outside of the tire in case you ride through grit or glass. If you brush it off quickly before it gets embedded in the tire, sometimes you can prevent a flat. It is also useful to have protection if handling CO2 canisters as they get very cold and I’ve seen them stick to skin before – freeze burns are not nice.
Most people use fingerless gloves for general riding. Some cyclists also pick up a full-fingered pair for riding in colder conditions. Cycling gloves will protect your hands in case of a crash – most bike crashes are minor and generally involve just one person – you! A pair of well-padded gloves will save cuts and scratches to your hands in the event of a fall.
- Clipless pedals
One thing that tends to complicate matters is making the move from running shoes on flat pedals to cycling shoes with cleats embedded in the soles that click into special pedals on the bike.
This is a big step and one that sends most beginners into meltdown.
It takes skill and practice to use them. It will improve your speed, but the pedals aren’t cheap, they might require installation if you don’t have the right tools, and the shoes are not cheap – the better ones anyway! If you make the move and you are using them for triathlons and training, get a pair of bike shoes with heel loops as when you get to the stage where you take your feet out the shoes before you get to transition (like the pro’s) if you buy cycling shoes without a heel loop, you’ll be buying a second pair with loops later.
The cleat should be screwed into your shoe in whatever position places the ball of your foot exactly in line with the spindle (metal cylinder) of the pedal. If your cleats are not in the correct place, or a screw comes loose and the cleat twists to one side, this can have serious implications for your knees and hips as you ride. As your cleats wear out from walking on them, they will become more difficult to clip in and out of the pedals.
You can pay to have cleats fitted and checked and fitted as part of a proper bike fit or as a stand-alone service. We highly recommend doing this and then marking in Tipex or permanent marker where the cleats fit on the shoe so when you change your cleats you can fit them back in the same place again.
- Bike Jerseys
You might not fancy the price tag of a cycle jersey over your favourite workout top but the lure of the big back pockets with elasticated tops will not take long to creep in! Those back pockets can hold a lot of stuff, including energy bars (and the wrappers after you’ve eaten them), money, mobile phone, and even a small bike pump if you want. Because the pockets are on your back, they aren’t scrunched up in the crease of your leg and inaccessible and uncomfortable while riding. A word of warning though – hard and breakable objects such as phones, keys, change, small bike pump – leave horrible marks if you fall on them. Use your saddle bag and use the space for more food!
Cycle jerseys tend to have nice design elements and graphics, often with bright colours and reflective strips for safety. They generally come with a partial or front zipper so you can open them at the neck when you get hot, and they have elastic at the arms and waist to keep them from riding up or blowing in the wind at high speeds.
- Bento Box
A bento box is a little box made largely of cloth and velcro that mounts on the top tube, just behind the handlebars. It is great for holding energy bars or gels or whatever you want quick access to on a long ride or race.
Luxury items –
If money is no object and only the best and fastest will do, there will be no talking you out of these items.
- Time trial (TT) bike
I have some friends who only own one bike; a high-end time trial bike. Most of us gradually move up from something a little more understated, and this has advantages. Some bikes cost more than most peoples car. Technology and aerodynamics are breathtaking. You really do get what you pay for – a fast bike doesn’t guarantee to make you a faster triathlete but a fast triathlete on a top of the range bike is hard to beat.
- Race wheels
Race wheels are a great investment if you can afford them. They are lighter and roll faster and at certain speeds they are more aerodynamic. Disk wheels are not recommended for smaller cyclists or for races with very windy conditions, because the disk wheel can be hard to handle in the wind. Some races actually ban disk wheels in high wind conditions and most club rides do not allow them due to safety. Check the rules.
- Aero helmet
An aero helmet is a nice addition and it offers good value for money as far as increasing your aerodynamics and speed. Aero helmets can become very hot because they are not vented the same way traditional helmets are. It is also very difficult to hear when wearing one, so they aren’t the best for group rides!
- Power meters
Many cyclists and triathletes swear by the power meter, which is a tool built into the rear wheel or the cranks and records the amount of energy you are expending, in watts.
Proponents of power meters say they are the best way to gauge your training and racing, because no matter the wind or the road conditions or your current health (which cause speed and heart rate readings to fluctuate) you can compare watts to watts and know how hard you are pedaling.
Power meters are not cheap, and if you have one built into your wheel and you switch to a different wheel, you’ll need another power meter for the other wheel!
- Just remember –
Fancy race wheels and an aero helmet don’t make you a great cyclist. Time on the bike is what counts. Train hard, train smart and you’ll do just fine…. to start with!
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