Purchasing new gear is something the majority of triathletes can relate to. It’s why every race expo has manufacturers displaying the latest tech, whether it is a GPS, wetsuit or bike. Even though things have settled down over the past few years, new models of triathlon bikes roll out with claims that their wind-cheating rig will immediately shave time off your current split. So then, when is the best time to upgrade your triathlon bike, given that (barring a serious crash with impact damage), a carbon fiber frame should last a lifetime?
There are a number of possible reasons to upgrade your triathlon bike. The first is the age of your current race bike. Many technologies have changed or have been updated over the past decade. These include the overall improvement of aerodynamics and the fit potential with the rider, the optimization of components, planned onboard storage, and—last but not least—ease of packing for travel. Even one of these reasons could be enough to encourage a new bike purchase, so let’s go into each one in more detail.
Along with the best aerodynamics possible, considerable emphasis should be placed on rider fit and comfort. A cyclist won’t be able to efficiently ride to their best possible split if they are constantly distracted by neck, butt or back pain. The reality is that over the past dozen or so years, time trial or triathlon bikes have been steadily improving not only tube shapes but ergonomics as well.
When I look back to 2008 and 2009 there were some pretty exciting bikes being made available to the average triathlete. Lightweight carbon aero tubes, integrated base bars with extensions; then brake calipers were moved out of the wind and often bikes were sized for a narrow range of riders. One of the biggest drawbacks of that era of bike design was that the rider had to conform to the bike. There was next to nothing in the way of adjusting the fit of the bike to the rider’s physiology.
If one had limited flexibility, range of motion or fell outside the norm of body proportions, one had to suck it up and ride the bike anyway. Move forward to 2017 and the majority of bike companies are making their handlebar set ups with a wide range of fit parameters. Now getting the arm pads to the exact position is much simpler to achieve due to multiple widths and riser stacking. As a result of these customizations, shoulder and neck comfort are easier to achieve.
Wider Range of Gears
Current drivetrains provide a very usable range of gears for the majority of riders. Depending on where you live and the types of courses you like to race on, one of the more useful set ups is the semi-compact (52-36) or compact (50-34) crankset and the 11-28 cassette. The impact here is that the easiest gears (36 or 39 -28) became quite easy without sacrificing the largest (52 or 53 – 11). There is a 7 percent difference at the low end, but only a 2 percent difference at the top. For hilly courses like IRONMAN Whistler, having a large enough gear is just as important for the high speed descents and maintaining pressure on the pedals as it is having a gear low enough to not cause excessive grinding during climbs.
With the advent of 11-speed drivetrains the cranks were also improved in the sense that, for Shimano, front chainrings were interchangeable from compact to race on the same spider. A final advantage of the 11-speed cassette or 22-speed drivetrain is improved shifting. The chain is narrower and the space between cassette cogs is reduced, making shifting much crisper. Additionally, electronic shifting is even more precise and convenient. An added benefit of electronic shifting is that frame designers no longer need to worry about wind resistance and the maintenance required for internal cabling.
Better Onboard Storage
Spending time in transition at an IRONMAN race, one can easily see the creativity athletes use in order to carry what they believe is required for the day. Plus, when training, many athletes like to carry up to four water bottles to minimize stopping. However, this leaves a dilemma of where to put nutrition as well as spares. Many new bikes are designed with storage as a primary concern, often incorporating “aerodynamic fairings” that serve a double purpose. The bike comes equipped with a place to put a spare tube, CO2 or extra food. This added weight is also kept low on the frame without disturbing the aerodynamic profile the engineers envisioned. Many bikes have top tube mounts so “bento boxes” can be bolted to the frame rather than annoying Velcro straps that often shift around annoyingly.
Optimal Packing for Travel
As with many new ideas, design rationales will swing from one side of the pendulum to the other, often eventually settling somewhere in the middle. Road bikes with clip on aerobars were fairly simple to take apart and pack in a travel case. Moving to the next generation of triathlon bikes, the main consideration manufacturers had was aerodynamics. Often these bikes were fairly heavy and many required almost an engineering degree to partially disassemble and pack. Special tools were required, along with a pile of small bolts, covers and parts. For many, this was a frustrating experience and triathletes often had to take the bike to a shop for packing and re-assembly. We have seen many newer bikes consider ease of travel a major design criterion. In fact one or more companies now sell their bikes with an optional padded case, with a minimal number of bolts and parts required.
Lower Weight, Higher Comfort
Bike makers now have access to a wide selection of factories with a very specialized and highly experienced workforce. Carbon layups can be closely controlled to match specific bike and rider sizes. Therefore the latest models should be optimized for weight and rider comfort.
However, the above are just rational reasons to upgrade your bike. As many triathletes can attest, a new bike immediately “feels” faster than an older model. If your bike is more than four or five years old, there are some definite improvements in triathlon bikes to consider upgrading for.