Tri bike vs road bike with aero bars

by Kevin Stard

The decades-old debate on buying a tri bike vs road bike with aero bars rages on even to this day.  What makes one better is part science and part mental.  However, one thing is for sure, buying a tri bike takes on a certain dedication. Whereas a solid road bike can be used in many ways. For instance, wrote the book on tri bikes, being one of the first to market with a dedicated bike.

Using the appropriate tool for the job has been something passed down from parents and grandparents alike.  When you get down to it, that is why there are so many genres of bikes.  Bikes like the Diamondback Andean, or Cervelo P5 are quite flashy, but you have to ask yourself a question – is a bike like that right for me? Or even further, will that bike work for the courses I ride. We will take a look at what a tri bike vs a road bike with aero bars can offer you.

There are two facts that are important to know about racing against the clock. First is that just because a bike looks fast doesn’t mean you will be fast on it.  Secondly, just because a part is advertised as faster, doesn’t mean it will be fast on your bike.  This can be boiled down to going fast is a science, part on you and part combining bike components into a package that can go fast in specific conditions. That’s right, there is no one size fits all solution that makes you fast no matter where you ride. Additionally, it has been proven in a wind tunnel that certain wheels do not work well on specific bikes. Essentially, you can spend thousands on a bike that has a negated aero advantage.

So, let’s level set.  You have determined that you want to go faster as you ride solo, or in a triathlon.  There are tons of upgrades that can have an impact on your speed on the bike. The easiest and cheapest route is aero bars on a road bike.  One of the most expensive solutions is a dedicated tri bike.  Here is the one key that trumps them all, you, the rider is the least aerodynamic part on the bike.

With some very bad logic, if you are the least aero part of your bike, let’s go straight to a dedicated tri bike.  After all, if fit properly, it will make me more aero right? Not so fast!  As you contort your body into an aerodynamic position, you lose power to turn the cranks over and go fast.  The most aero position can impact your breathing, the ability to see the road and change the angle of your hips so drastically you may not even be able to pedal.  This doesn’t even consider the environment and terrain you will be riding within.

Body Position

The number one difference between a road bike and a dedicated tri bike is body position.  Don’t just picture yourself with your elbows placed on some aero bars and that to mean your position changed, there is more to it than that.  Largely, a tri bike will have steeper geometry, all in an effort to rotate the rider forward and lower.

As you rotate forward, and perhaps lower, your hip angle changes.  Your hip angle is paramount to putting down the power you need to go fast.  Think about riding with no hands, how much power can you pound out?  As you rotate your shoulders down, your power increases because not only can you use your upper body, but your core muscles engage as well.  As you rotate even further forward, you start impacting the diaphragm and the ability to breathe properly.

The additional factor is that yes, you can achieve a fast aerodynamic position, and perhaps hold it for several hours.  What do you feel like after that bike ride in that position?  Can you run now?  How long does it take to get your run legs going after your bike position impacted those muscles?

What is Better?

For a beginner rider, a road bike with is the best solution, hands down.  This is also what you will see the most at your local triathlon. As you are gaining skills, the road bike is versatile and a stable platform to work on your body position, and the ability to pedal with power.  What makes you fast is the ability to pedal with power in an aero position, and learning how to do that is best on a road bike.  As you have progressed and became faster, what you have learned, and the position of your body can be translated onto other bikes.

Profile Designs Airstryke Clip-On Bar (Black)
78 Reviews
Profile Designs Airstryke Clip-On Bar (Black)
  • 6061-T6 Aluminum clip-on extension with flip-up arm rests
  • Clamp: Fits 26.0mm & 31.8mm bars

As was stated previously, you are the least aerodynamic part of a bike.  A road bike is significantly more adjustable than the typical tri bike.  There are some limitations on the position of the tri bike, such as stem combinations with the dedicated aero bars.  The position of the saddle can be very aggressive. With a road bike, the traditional saddle position immediately allows positive power input into the drivetrain and a simple seatpost change can move the saddle further forward into a tri bike type position.

The geometry of the road bike and the bars are at a reasonable height so that you can work towards an aero position.  Standard road drop bars, with clip-on aero bars have significantly more adjustments, with stem lengths and rises, different bar types, and other considerations.  Additionally, an upgrade in the future could be about ditching the drop bars, and putting an on instead.

When you progress and could see that an upgrade might make you faster, then a tri bike might be a consideration.  Tri bikes are purpose-built aero bikes that have a variety of pros and cons to them.  One con is the extreme body position.  Yes, it is aero, but it takes considerable investment in time and energy to find a comfortable aero position that you can ride in for 1 to 6 hours.  Generally, a position that is comfortable for 6 hours is less aero than for 1 hour. While you could be super aggressive for that long haul, remember you have to run after that bike ride.  Aggressive positions have an impact on your transition to the run.

Dedicated Tri Bikes

You saw the Kestrel 5000 in the link above. An excellent bike, but old technology.  Tri bikes are not limited in design as their road racing restricted brothers time trial bikes.  A time trial bike, for sanctioned bicycle races, has significant design changes, and in some cases may be slower than a tri bike.  Know what you are buying.  An example of a bike not legal for bike racing but seen all of the triathlon circuits is the Felt 2019 IA10 Carbon Triathlon Bike.

Felt 2019 IA10 Carbon Triathlon Bike // TT Time Trial Electronic Shifting 2 x 11 Speed 48cm
1 Reviews
Felt 2019 IA10 Carbon Triathlon Bike // TT Time Trial Electronic Shifting 2 x 11 Speed 48cm
  • Updated for our Model Year 2019 with a full Textreme carbon frame that is lighter and higher-performance than the '18 model.
  • The IA 10 combines all of the aerodynamic benefits found on the top-level IA frames with the most utilitarian component selection for fast shifting and reliable performance, no matter what race day holds.

Felt knows aerodynamics better than most manufacturers and has the time in the wind tunnel to prove it.  They have produced more winning bikes for solo racing than any other manufacturer of the last 10 years. Felt also found how certain wheels underperformed on their bikes, and which wheels made their bike designs even faster.  The engineering of the frame plays a role in how other components can complement the aerodynamics.

Another dedicated tri bike that you will see many of is the Valdora .  Valdora builds affordable performance bikes.  They may not be the fastest, but if you have determined that you can adapt a body position to a dedicated tri bike, the Valdora can help you get there.

Valdora PHX-2 Carbon Fiber Triathlon Bike Frameset - Medium - Red and Blue with White Graphics
  • Extraordinary triathlon geometry. Ride aero longer..in comfort. Be ready to run fresh!
  • Semi compact geometry delivers a lighter, stronger, stiffer ride.

Another brand that came on the triathlon scene at the same time as Kestrel.  They build a variety of models all aimed for multisport endeavors.  Quintana has been making a resurgence into the market lately with smartly designed frames with a technical edge.

Road Bikes

So here is what you do, you grab an aero road bike, there are many out there. Here is the as an example starter.  It has the basics necessary to work on your fitness and position.  The bike features aero wheels, and aero styling on the frame, the rest is up to you.  You will want to try out different clip-on aero bars, they are not all the same, to find out how to become comfortable.

SAVADECK Phantom 2.0 Carbon Fiber Road Bike 700C Racing Bicycle with Ultegra 8000 22 Speed Group Set, 25C Tire and Fizik Saddle (Black Grey,52cm)
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SAVADECK Phantom 2.0 Carbon Fiber Road Bike 700C Racing Bicycle with Ultegra 8000 22 Speed Group Set, 25C Tire and Fizik Saddle (Black Grey,52cm)
  • TORAY T800 Carbon Fiber Frame, Fork, Handlebar, Seat post and Wheelset - It’s a lightweight and stiff carbon road bike at 7.8kg (17.2lb), also designed to offer more compliance.
  • SHIMANO Ultegra Group Set - SHIMANO Ultegra 8000 2*11 Speeds with Shifter lever, Front derailleur, Rear derailleur, V Brake, 50-34T*170mm Crankset and 11-28T Freewheel - It enables you to start and operate your ride effectively, smooth shifting and durable.

Another brand that has used the internet to gain popularity lately is Stradalli.  It is direct to consumer brand with low price points.  They build a variety of models, including the aero road.

Aero road bikes have been gaining in popularity recently as a result of pro road riders trying to find advantages while racing.  Many people love the look of the bikes because most of the cables are hidden and they have a slick futuristic look to them.  The benefit is a bike that can be at home doing anything fast.

Conclusion

Many off-brand companies attempt to copy the engineering of others and normally get it wrong.  A good aerodynamic bike has a proven package of components and wheels that complement each other.  Using the wrong parts causes turbulence, and ultimately slows you down.  It is hard enough trying to push your body faster, but having your equipment work against you is even worse.

The average multisport athlete doesn’t just do flat events. They will ride all types of terrain, and bicycle-only events as well.  With that, an aero road bike may be the best choice of all.  These bikes are nearly as fast as a dedicated tri bike but benefit from a traditional geometry that allows your body to work to its peak, rather than work the bargain of aero versus power.  The is a great example starter aero bike, that can give that flexibility you crave and the speed you desire. This concludes our ‘tri bike vs road bike with aero bars’ analysis.

Kevin Stard - professional sportsman in category MTB. Participant of the Downhill World Cup #1