Bikes and cycling equipment are the largest financial outlay a beginning triathlete will face. There are numerous styles of bikes from commuter bikes to aerodynamic tri-specific bikes. A reasonable question any beginner triathlete needs to ask is, which kind of bike do I need to do a triathlon?
Which kind of bike do I need to do a triathlon?
The honest answer is that for your first triathlon any safe functioning bike will work. People complete their first triathlons on road bikes, commuter bikes, old rusty ten speeds and mountain bikes. For your first couple of triathlons any bike is good enough. Once you get serious though, then decisions will need to be made regarding bike choices.
First you should have a vague idea regarding the differences between the most commonly seen bikes in triathlon: road bikes and tri-specific or aero bikes. The differences are significant, and knowing what they are will go a long way towards helping you decide which bike you should buy.
A road bike is designed for group riding (think of the peloton in the Tour de France). They are light, very maneuverable, and designed for comfort over many hours and miles in the saddle. The riding position is fairly up right. Road bikes are increasingly sporting more aerodynamic features, but still, when ridden outside of a pack situation where they bear the full brunt of the wind they will drag.
tri bikes, on the other hand are sport specific for time trialing. They are designed for lowering wind drag by moving the rider into a lower position and have many elements designed to shave wind resistance. They are not maneuverable at all, and thus are extremely unsafe in pack situations. They also tend to be heavier than road bikes, making them unfriendly for climbing.
If you want to continue riding in triathlons you will absolutely need a high quality road bike. As in all other things you get what you pay for, and more money on a bike today will save you nightmares in the future. Always buy as much bike as you can get. A road bike is far more versatile than a tri bike, and will allow you to ride in groups safely. You can also enter road races and tours which may not allow tri bikes.
Road or Tri? It depends on your goals and races:
For draft legal triathlons, a road bike is all you will ever need. Additionally, for sprints and even olympic distance races, a road bike will not hurt your overall time enough to justify the outlay necessary for a tri bike. Hilly routes, especially, favor road bikes over tri bikes.
However, once you get into half ironman and ironman distances, the advantages of a tri bike become massive, and not having one will adversely affect not only your bike split, but your run as well. At this point, a tri bike is a reasonable addition to your cycling stable.
Again, price is important, spend what you can afford and you will not be disappointed. If you decide it is time to get a tri bike, you will need to learn to ride it. It will feel entirely different than your road bike. And unlike your road bike where you can skate by with a saddle height adjustment, a tri bike should be fitted to you. Many triathlon shops will spend several hours fitting a tri bike to you.
A road bike is pretty much mandatory for anyone getting serious about the sport of triathlon, and a tri bike will gain you many valuable minutes on longer triathlons. Both bikes have their place and discussions with fellow cyclists will help you make the decision to jump to a tri-specific bike when the time is right.