What a triathlon beginner needs to get started: The Bike

author : alicefoeller
comments : 4

Second in a series of three articles about the basics, the niceties and the luxuries

By Alice Hohl

Triathlon doesn't have to be an expensive or equipment-heavy sport, but the bike portion is the most fraught with expenses of the three. However, you don't need to take out a second mortgage in order to be ready to complete your first triathlon.

Here is a rundown of what you absolutely need to train and race the bike leg of a triathlon, as well as some tips on adding to your gear later. But first:

There's bound to be a lot of debate and discussion about where these items fall on the continuum from necessity to luxury. Some people would argue a functioning bike and a helmet are all that is needed. Others would say it is silly to ride without a way to track your speed and distance, and it's irresponsible to go out without tools and a spare tire. We'll try to strike a balance and outline the pros and cons of each piece of equipment.

Within this article, you can find...
Required items:
Bike position
Bike maintenance
Your first purchase
Helmet and hydration
Highly Recommended Items:
Toolbag and tools
Bike computer
Nice to Have Items:
Clipless pedals
Bike jerseys
Bento box
Luxury Items:
Time trial/triathlon bike
Race wheels
Aero helmet
Power meter

Final note


The first thing you need, of course, is a bike. It would be great if the bike were the correct frame size to fit you, and it would be nice if the tires were meant for road riding, but when it comes down to it, if it has two wheels and moves forward when you pedal it, you can ride it in a triathlon. (USA Triathlon has some rules on making sure your bike is safe, such as ensuring that the ends of your handlebars are sealed, because hollow tubes could injure someone in the event of a crash. Brush up on these rules at USAT.org.)

Bike position

It is nice when you are a kid or when you are riding recreationally to be able to put both feet on the ground while still perched atop your seat, but this is not ideal for riding longer distances. If your seat is low enough to accomplish that, then your legs will not extend fully when you pedal, and you will develop other problems with your posture and your speed. You want to have the seat high enough so your leg is almost straight (your knee should not be locked, though) 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.

Bike maintenance

You don't want your bike to fail you when you are several miles from home (nor in your big race!) so if you're not already a bike mechanic for Lance, go ahead and pay a few dollars to have a mechanic at your local bike shop look it over. It helps to have a clean and freshly lubed chain, tight brakes, inflated tires, and responsive shifters, which are small things you can learn to do yourself or pay your local bike shop (LBS) to do for you.

Having properly inflated tires when you ride is very important. If your tires are low, it makes you pedal harder to go the same speed and makes you more likely to get a flat. If you stick with this sport, you will almost certainly become one of those people who pumps up her tires to 100-120 psi every time before heading out for a ride.

Your first purchase

Don't go and blow your entire budget on your first bike. You need to attain a certain amount of fitness before you decide on a "final" bike. Besides, who knows if your desires will change as you decide how committed you are to the sport? If you have an old bike in your garage or basement that goes forward when you crank the pedals, use that. If not, borrow a bike or buy something used. Most regular bike shops don't sell used bikes, but most cities and mid-sized towns have used bike shops. Online ads at BeginnerTriathlete.com , Craigslist, eBay, and elsewhere are also good. Choosing a bike is a topic unto itself, but here is a link to a helpful post from me on BT about shopping for a used bike. (Scroll down until you see colored text.)

Helmet and Hydration

A helmet is a must, and is required to participate in a triathlon, per USAT rules. Since you have to wear it for the race, you may as well get used to it and wear it on training rides. It can't hurt anything, and it sure could save you in the event of a crash.

If your helmet has been in a crash or otherwise sustained a blow, it needs to be replaced even if there isn't visible damage.

It's also a good idea to have a place to carry water on your bike. Even for a sprint distance race, it's a good idea to drink some water during the bike portion. The bike is the only one of the three sports where you have easy access to a drink, but only if you are carrying a bottle. Also, during the bike segment your stomach is usually most able to handle hydration and nutrition.

You can buy a water bottle cage cheaply, and it attaches to almost any bike frame with two screws. (You'll need an allen wrench for the screws, as you will for almost any bike adjustment or repair.) If you don't have a water bottle cage and can't get one, you can carry a water bottle in the back pocket of your cycling jersey, if you wear one.

 A typical cycling helmet has straps that go under the base of the skull in the back and clip under the chin. Some helmets, such as this one, have visors to shield your eyes from the sun.

Click here for BeginnerTriathlete.com reviews of bike helmets.

 bike water bottle cage
This is a photo of a basic water bottle cage. Two hex screws hold the bottle cage to your bike frame via the two holes you see in the bottle cage. Most bikes that don't come with bottle cages do at least include the two screws. Back them out of the frame, place the bottle cage against the frame, and put the screws through the cage into the frame.

Highly recommended

If you have a bike, helmet and water, you are capable of training and racing. There are a few more items you should consider adding to your bike, if your budget allows.

Tool bag and tools

A tool bag filled with the standard items, such as a spare tube, a mini bike pump, tire levers and a small set of allen wrenches are items experienced cyclists never leave home without.

Even if you are still learning to change a flat, it can be useful to carry a tool bag.

I have stopped on training rides several times to help people with flat tires, only to find out they were not carrying a spare tube, so there was nothing I could do for them. If they only had the basics, they would at least be prepared to accept help from others instead of walking their bike home or waiting for a ride.

The toolbag is also a great place for stashing an emergency $10 or $20 bill and cell phone.

When you attach your toolbag to the bike, take the time to actually read the directions. It seems simple enough, but in every race there are a handful of athletes whose toolbags are dangling beneath their seat, getting looser and looser as the straps pull themselves open during the ride. Usually the straps on a toolbag are threaded through the rails of the seat first, then pulled around the bottom of the bag and secured to themselves using velcro or a plastic buckle. This prevents them from loosening during the ride.

 Here is an image of a toolbag mounted correctly. Note that the straps go around the thin metal rails under the seat before clipping under the bag itself. Here is an image of a toolbag that has been suspended by the straps. This is incorrect. The bag will continue to loosen as you ride, swinging back and forth and hitting you as you pedal. Not only will this slow you down, but it will make you look like a "Fred" (a bike poser).

Bike computer

A second item that is highly recommended is a bike computer, otherwise known as a speedometer/odometer.

Although you can certainly ride without one, it's difficult to track your training, improve your performance, and estimate your finish time for a race without one.

There are many kinds. The cheapest uses wires (which you tape or zip-tie to your bike frame) to connect a sensor on the frame to a digital display that mounts on your handlebars. The sensor picks up signals from a magnet you attach to a spoke. The most versatile is a GPS device you can switch from your bike to your wrist for tracking runs as well.

This is a Cateye bicycle computer mounted on the stem of a road bike. Cateye is a well known brand of bike computers, and they are available in wired and wireless. Wireless computers are more expensive. Click here to read reviews of wired and wireless bike computers.This is a Garmin Forerunner 305. The red and gray unit can clip on your bike (if you buy the bike mount kit) and then you can switch it to the pictured wristband for the run. Click here to read reviews of GPS units for cycling

Nice to have

If you are sure you are into this sport and you aren't going to do one race and quit, you may want to go ahead and invest in proper shorts, cycling gloves, clipless pedals and accompanying shoes, a jersey, and a bento box.


If you only want to invest in one pair of shorts, it's a tough decision between bike shorts and trishorts. Bike shorts are more padded, and therefore more comfortable for a beginner who is just learning to meld his or her nether regions to his or her bike seat. Bike shorts, however, really can't be worn on the swim because the bulky pad 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.

Trishorts are the perfect solution because the padding is thinner and 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.

 bike shorts showing pad 
Here is a photo of bike shorts that shows the pad on the inside. You can see how substantial the padding is. Click here to read reviews of other brands of bike shorts for men and for women.In contrast, here is a pair of trishorts with relatively minimal padding.


Gloves are nice to have, but most people don't race in them because of the time it takes in transition to get them on and off. On a long training ride, though, it's nice to have the padding on your palms, and extra nice to have the soft terry cloth strip on the backside for wiping snot from your nose. There is just something about being bent over one's handlebars that makes one's nose run!

The leather palms are also useful for running over the outside of the tire in case you ride through some glass. If you brush it off quickly before it gets embedded in the tire, sometimes you can prevent a flat. Most people have a pair of fingerless gloves for general riding. Some cyclists also pick up a full-fingered pair for riding in colder weather. Cycling gloves will also protect your hands in case of a spill. Most bike crashes are minor and generally involve just one person: the cyclist. A pair of well padded gloves will save cuts and scratches to your hands in the event of a fall.

These Pearl Izumi gloves are typical of cycling gloves. Click here to read reviews of gloves.

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.

It takes skill to use them. It will improve your speed, but it's also a little expensive to make the switch. The pedals aren't cheap, they might require installation if you don't have the right tools, and the shoes are definitely not cheap.

 Look brand pedals SPD brand pedals
 Here are the shoes, with gray cleats screwed to them, that fit into the pedals above. Here are the shoes, with black cleats screwed to the bottoms, that fit into the pedals above.
 There are other types of pedals and cleats, too. Make sure the cleats you buy match the pedals you buy. Click here to read reviews of clipless pedals and here to read reviews of the bike shoes that will accept the cleats that fit into those pedals.

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. You can get help from your LBS (local bike shop), where you can put your bike on a trainer and have a mechanic adjust the cleat on your shoe until you are in the correct position. 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.

Bike jerseys

When I first took up triathlon, I was mystified about why someone would need a $70 shirt to ride a bike, when I was able to ride just fine in a free shirt I received from finishing a local 5K.

Now that I'm a bit more seasoned, I understand the lure of the big back pockets with the elastic tops. Those back pockets can hold a lot of stuff, including power bars (and the wrappers after I've eaten them!), cell phone, and even a small bike pump. Because the pockets are on your back, they aren't scrunched up in the crease of your leg and inaccessible and uncomfortable while riding. 

Additionally, jerseys--for whatever reason -- tend to have really nice design elements and graphics. Occasionally they are also designed for safety and have bright colors and reflective strips. They generally come with a partial or full 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 billowing in the wind.

This jersey from CCN Sportswear shows a typical brightly colored jersey with a large back pocket.

Jerseys are not, however, a necessity. If you see one on clearance or participate in some cool race or cycling event that has a jersey you would like to have as a reminder of the event, go for it. If you are looking for places to scrimp, you do not need a cycling jersey.

Bento box

A bento box is a small boxed lunch in Japan. That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about a little box made largely of cloth and velcro that mounts on the top of the frame of your bike, right in front of you, just behind the handlebars. It is great for holding energy bars or gels, your phone, extra lights, or whatever you want to have quick access to on a long training ride.

If you have a bike jersey with pockets (see above) you probably don't need this. But it's an item I like to have for races, since I never wear a bike jersey in a race. On long rides I can also use it to hold a sort of trail mix of broken up energy bar, sports beans and salty pretzels, something I would not be able to eat out of my back pocket with much success. The bento box pictured is made by Zipp and sells for about $20.

If you have a money tree

If you do not have any obstacles related to revenues and you want to roar into your first race with only the best and fastest money can buy, there will be no talking you out of a time trial bike.

I have some friends who only own one bike: a high-end time trial bike. They thought triathlon sounded interesting and went to the bike shop and asked for a triathlon bike.

Most of the rest of us gradually move up from something more humble. I think this has its advantages because a person's fitness and riding endurance can really affect their bike fit. This means a beginner might end up with a bike that doesn't fit them as well once they have 2,000 miles on it and are feeling more comfortable.

This is a Pinarello road bike. The handlebars are "bullhorns" and curve back toward the rider. The shifters are integrated with the brake levers. You squeeze the brakes to stop, but you push them to the side to shift.The Cervelo P4 is a time trial or triathlon bike. The seat post is almost straight up and down (compared to the angled seat post of the road bike), the handlebars with brakes jut out, and the shifters are located at the tips of the aerobars.

Race wheels

Race wheels are a great investment if you can afford them. They are light and fast, and it's a great feeling putting them on the day before a race knowing you are going to be just a little faster the next morning. Disk wheels are not recommended for smaller cyclists or for races with very windy conditions, because the disk wheel can really catch the wind and put you in danger. Some races actually ban disk wheels in high wind conditions. Read reviews of wheels here.

 Easton road wheels. Reynolds aero race wheels.

Aero helmet

An aero helmet is a nice addition to the otherwise fully stocked athlete's closet. It offers pretty good bang for your buck as far as increasing your speed. Aero helmets can become very hot, though, because they are not vented the way traditional helmets are. It is also very difficult to hear when wearing one, so they aren't the best for group rides when you need to be in tune with other riders.

 This Rudy Project helmet shows the correct position for an aero helmet.
Click here for reviews of aero helmets.

Power meters

Many cyclists swear by the power meter, which is a tool built into the rear wheel or the cranks which 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 health (which can all cause speed and heart rate readings to fluctuate) you can compare watts to watts and know whether you are pedaling harder today than you were in your last workout.
Power meters are not cheap, and if you have one that is part of your wheel and you switch to a different wheel, you'll need another power meter for the other wheel.

A BeginnerTriathlete.com exclusive video series explains how to use a power meter to enhance your training and racing. Reviews of power meters can be found here.

Note this:

Here are a few more thoughts about bike gear:

If you have an older bike that is neither very light nor very aero, you might want to avoid completely tricking it out with really great add-ons that won't transfer to another bike. In the event that you get a nice tax return, or a raise, or just can't live without a Felt B2 all-carbon time trial bike or a Cervelo P4, it's better not to have sunk a ton of money into a bike you know isn't going to satisfy you for more than a year or two.

On the other hand, I raced for nearly 10 years on a used metal bike I purchased from a swimming buddy for $300. It had aerobars, clipless pedals, and several other items that didn't transfer to my new, shiny, fast carbon bike. But that was OK, because I had gotten my money's worth out of them, and I still use the older bike when commuting or riding an extremely hilly or technical bike course.

And when it comes right down to it, fancy race wheels and an aero helmet don't make you a great cyclist. Time in the saddle (sometimes abbreviated T.I.T.S. here on BT) is what counts. No matter how great you are and how aero your bike is, there is always going to be some older guy on a steel road bike who comes past on your left side, breezing by you without even breathing hard. It's just a fact of life.

Stay tuned for other articles in the series highlighting gear for running, and if you haven't seen our article on beginner gear for swimming, you can find it here.

And, as always, remember the triathlon mantra: Nothing new on race day. That means don't wear anything or try anything that you haven't used in training!


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date: June 29, 2011


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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