There are a lot of questions on this board that go something like this: "I'm new to triathlons, what kind of bike should I buy? I have $XXX to spend." Or, "I found a deal for bike YYY, is $ZZZ a good price?" Or, more simply, "Is bike QQQ any good?"
This post will try to answer many of these types of questions.
First, I want to talk a little bit about the difference between a triathlon bike and a road bike. The primary differences are (in addition to the fact that a tri bike is usually ridden with a bullhorn base bar + aerobars):
- seat tube angle
- chainstay length/wheel positioning relative to bottom bracket
- tube shapes
"What is 'seat tube angle?'" This references the angle that the seat tube makes with respect to (more or less) the ground. On a road bike, this angle is usually 73 degrees (+-2 degrees). On a modern tri bike, this angle is usually between 76 and 78 degrees, with the general consensus among experts such as Dan Empfield (the inventor of the triathlon bike), being that for most people, 78 degrees, or even 80 degrees (though few bikes are manufactured with a STA of 80 degrees) is optimum. "Why is a steep STA optimum?" There is lots of research (check out the tech archives at http://www.slowtwitch.com) that demonstrates two things: (1) steepening the STA allows for your hips to "roll" forward, flattening your back and creating a more aerodynamic position (the farther backward your seat is, the higher your torso has to be to keep your thighs from hitting your torso). (2) steepening the STA has been shown in many athletes to lead to faster run times, by sparing key running muscle groups on the bike portion of the triathlon.
"Why do I care about wheel positioning and chainstay length?" In the aero position on a triathlon bike, your center of gravity is decidedly farther forward than on a road bike. If a tri bike had the same wheelbase as a road bike, the tri bike would be very "twitchy". Most tri bikes, to create good handling, bring the rear wheel in very close to the seat tube, often necessitating a "seat tube cutout" (this has aerodynamic benefits as well), and move the front wheel out towards the front of the bike even more. This is usually accomplished by decreasing the head tube angle, and/or installing a fork with more trail.
"Why do I care about tube shapes?" Well, to be honest, aerodynamic frames are pretty far down the list of "things that will make you go fast". You'll do much better by improving your position, buying a tight-fitting race suit, an aero helmet, and race wheels. However, within your budget, you may as well buy a bike that is constructed with aerodynamics in mind. Look for thin head tubes, teardrop-shaped down tubes, a seat-tube cutout, and an aerodynamic seatpost.
This is just a summary of what makes a tri bike different from a road bike. For more detailed information, check out the tech section of http://www.slowtwitch.com - Dan Empfield has created a tome of detailed information on this subject, and this is basically just a summary of his research.
Okay, now that you know the main differences between a tri bike and a road bike, it's time to figure out what's the best bike for you on your budget. The answer is:
The best bike for you is ALWAYS the bike that fits you the best.
Buying a bike with a steep STA and aero tubes is great, but if you buy the wrong size (or even the right size in the wrong brand) you'll regret your purchase down the road. It may take you five years to realize that you bought the wrong bike, but you'll be jonesing for a new one regardless.
To ensure that you purchase a bike that fits you correctly, I recommend either getting a F.I.S.T. certified fitting from a bike shop near you. You can also learn about how tri bike fitting works by checking out the great resources that Dan Empfield (the pioneer of the F.I.S.T. system) has provided over on slowtwitch.com.
Now that that is out of the way, let's talk specific bikes and specific budgets. Keep in mind that the bikes listed here are a sampling of all the bikes available on the market. They also have a personal bias, no matter how much I'd like to remove it. I'll say up front that my personal bike is a Giant Trinity Alliance, and I recommend it to everyone I meet. I'm also biased towards bikes that sell heavily in the United States, because that's where I live and that's what I know about the best.
I am also personally biased towards recommending bikes with a steep (78 degree) seat angle, for the reasons I mentioned above in the discussion of seat tube angles. I also have had extensive personal experience riding steep, as well as numerous personal discussions with other riders that ride steep as well. However, since personal experience isn't scientific evidence, I feel obligated to mention this as a personal bias.
Also, remember that if you have a X dollar budget, you'll only be able to spend, say, X MINUS two hundred on the bike. The other two hundred should be spent on important accessories, such as aerobars, a race skinsuit, clipless shoes/pedals (if you don't already have those), a helmet (aero if you can afford it), etc. Down the road, consider an investment in some race wheels. You can spend anywhere from $500 to $5000 on these, and that's the topic for a whole another thread
Also consider the following: if your budget is on the low end of things ($1000 or less), many tri bikes available from discount retailers like Bikes Direct are adequate, but will leave you wanting more if you decide to stick with triathlon in the future. It's counter-intuitive, but your best bet on a low budget is usually to hold off on buying the tri bike (buy a road bike with clip-ons instead) until you're sure that you really want to invest in a tri bike. Then, when you're ready, you can spend a good wad of cash on a really nice bike that doesn't need to be upgraded in two years.
IF YOUR BIKE BUDGET (after accessories) IS:
$500 or less: buy a used road bike. There are no new road or triathlon bikes in this category that will be satisfactory for hard training and/or racing. Additionally, at this price point, road bikes have more "value" than tri bikes--you'll get a lot more road bike at this price level than you will tri bike. As of July 2008, look for 9 speed components of Tiagra level or higher. Remember to purchase clip-on aerobars for $50-$100 to complete your ride. In the USA, you may be able to find an inexpensive used road bike in the following brands: Trek, Cannondale, Specialized, Giant, Felt. An additional option for wrench-heads is to purchase a cheap frame (such as a Leader frame) and build it up with a component groupset.
$501 - $1000: buy a (better) used road bike or entry-level new road bike. There are no new triathlon bikes that are currently sold in the USA at this price point, except for inexpensive framesets such as the Leader frame or some Bikes Direct models. Additionally, at this price point, road bikes have more "value" than tri bikes--you'll get a lot more road bike at this price level than you will tri bike. As of July 2008, look for 9 or 10 speed components of Tiagra or 105 level or higher. If you're buying a road bike, remember to purchase clip-on aerobars for $50-$100 to complete your ride. In the USA, you may be able to find an inexpensive used road bike in the following brands: Trek, Cannondale, Specialized, Giant, Felt, Cervelo.
$1001 - $1499: buy a lightly used entry-level triathlon bike or a nicer new road bike. Buy the tri bike if you (a) already have a road bike OR (b) are sure that 95% of your rides are going to be solo rides and that you will primarily be racing triathlons and not road races. Otherwise, buy the road bike and put clip-on aerobars on it. In the USA, here are some good tri bikes that will sell in this price range lightly used:
- Cervelo Dual
- Cervelo P2K
- Quintana Roo Kilo
- Felt S32
- Some of the older Trek TT/tri bikes
- Cannondale Super Six Slice Si or whatever they called that bike
$1500 - $2000: this is one of the sweet price points in triathlon bikes. All of the major bike companies make great bikes at this price point. Component groups will vary, from Ultegra/Dura Ace on the Cervelo down to Sora/Tiagra on the Giant. Frames will usually be aluminum, but contain aerodynamic shapings. The key here (and with any bike purchase) is buying the bike that fits you. Remember to check out the seat tube angle of the bike, how long the bike is (known as "reach"), how low or tall the bike is (known as "stack"), and if all of these things fit you. Generally, if you want to ride steep and fast, you'll want a high STA, lower stack and perhaps more reach (if you're a man especially). Anyway, here are some of the popular bikes that sell at this price point:
- Cervelo P1 (previoiusly known as the P2SL)
- Trek Equinox 5, 7
- Felt S22
- Quintana Roo Kilo/Tequilo
- Kuota K-Factor
- Giant Trinity Alliance A2
- Specialized Transition (the lower models)
$2500: this is the other sweet price point in triathlon bikes, thanks largely to Cervelo's introduction of the 2008 P2C at this price point, which forced other bike manufacturers to quickly become competitive at this price. Expect aerodynamic carbon fiber frames, Ultegra and Dura-Ace components, durable (but not aero) wheels and a stellar ride at this price. Mandatory reading, for purchasing a bike at this price, is Tom Demerly's excellent review of four tri bikes (Cervelo, Felt, Kuota, QR) at this price point.
- Cervelo P2 (formerly known as the P2C)
- Trek Equinox 9.0
- Felt B12
- Kuota Kalibur
- Giant Trinity Alliance A1, A0
- Quintana Roo Seduza
- Specialized Transition (the mid-range models)
$3000 - $4499: If you've got more than three grand to spend on a bike, in my opinion you should seriously consider purchasing a bike in the $2500 range, and investing in some good quality race wheels with the difference. However, this is only my opinion, and there are many bikes sold in this price range that are great (and that may fit you better than the bikes at $2500), including (but absolutely not limited to):
- Cervelo P2 (Dura-Ace version) (formerly known as the P2C)
- Trek Equinox 9.5
- Felt B2
- Scott Plasma
- Cannondale Slice
- Titanium bikes by companies like Litespeed
- Kestrel Airfoil
- Argon18 E112
$4500+: The triathlon "superbikes" all sell for $4500 or greater, starting with the Cervelo P3C (and soon, the P4C). Remember to buy the bike that fits you, and if at this stage no bike feels absolutely perfect, buy a custom bike (you can afford it).
- Cervelo P3/P4
- Trek Equinox 9.9/9.9SSL
- Felt DA
- Specialized Transition (the super-duper version)
- Kuota Kueen K
- Scott Plasma II
- Argon18 E114
Note: Almost all of the bikes I have recommended (with the exception of all of the Trek and Scott bikes) are designed around a 78 degree STA (the Trek and Scott are designed around a 76 degree STA).
Disclaimer: my recommendations of specific bikes are based on my limited knowledge of the United States triathlon market. If there's a bike that you like that I forgot, let me know and I'll add it to the list! If a bike isn't on this list, it probably means I just forgot it, not that it's a poor bike. I don't want this to be an exclusive list, and I apologize in advance if I've neglected your favorite bike.