A Place for Hydration

author : alicefoeller
comments : 1

What is the best way to carry fluid on your bike in a triathlon?

How to carry your drinks on your bike is a popular debate no matter if you are a pro or if, like me, you measure success by whether you finished your iron distance race before your kids’ bedtime.

If one perfect product existed that was aerodynamic, inexpensive, easy to refill and didn’t slop sticky sports drink all over your Garmin, most of us would simply purchase that. But it has never been that easy.

Triathlon cycling: one water bottle does not fit all

For one thing, not all bikes are built to handle the same bottle setup. When I had an old clunker of a road bike with clip-on aerobars, life was pretty simple. I could carry two bottles on the frame and one in the aerobars. Since the bike was heavy and old and not aerodynamic, it didn’t matter much to me that my bottles were also not aero, and that three full bottles amounts to a lot of weight.

Years later when I purchased my Felt B2, I realized that not only was it impossible to mount a bottle to the skinny aero down tube (the one that runs at an angle from the handlebars to the pedals), I also couldn’t fit most of the taller bottles on the frame at all.

If I cram a regular bottle into the bottle cage on my seat tube, the top of the bottle often smacks into the top tube. This is because I am short and ride a 48 cm frame. There just isn’t enough space in there for a tall bottle, including the disposable ones race volunteers hand up to me on long-course races.

Yet another problem is the way we set up our drinks on our bike in a race is almost never the way we set up drinks on our bike to train. Why? Shouldn’t we train how we race?

Yes indeed, but the last time I rode 50 miles out into the country, there was no aid station at the turnaround.

So then the decision becomes, which is worse? Wearing a hydration backpack for 100 miles, or stopping for five minutes to buy water and sports drink at a gas station? Or, in my case, stopping under a tree and pretending to look at my map until a nice Amish man came outside and offered me some delicious well water.

Best hydration setup for triathlons

Of BeginnerTriathlete.com members who participated in our poll, none of the 11 variations of bottles, Profile Designcontainers and backpacks were favored by even half of the respondents. The plurality was a 36 percent voting block who put bottles in cages on their bike frames. The next highest vote-getter was the aerobottle mounted in the aerobars with a straw. (The cheapest and therefore most popular among beginners is the Profile Design aero bottle, pictured.) Although members were permitted to vote for more than one option, there was not much consensus.

One expert in the field, TriSports University editor Tom Demerly, says most pros have settled on a high quality bottle in the aerobars with a straw and another bottle somewhere on the frame. These they refill at aid stations with water and sports drink. But even for pros, real life considerations such as whether the bottle can be refilled quickly without knocking it out of position prevail.

“If it came down to ‘what is the best,’ that's easy,” says Demerly. “Put an aerodynamic system on the cockpit served by a rigid straw with an aero fairing on it and use a conformal bottle on the frame to enhance frame aerodynamics and expand capacity.”

“Use aid stations to replenish both during the event. Practice using this system extensively in training to do it quickly and dependably.”

What is a conformal bottle on the frame?

Demerly kindly presented these examples:

But, as usual with the triathlon crowd, one solution doesn’t work for everyone. Especially age-groupers who need to be more self-reliant on long training rides and are not interested in spending $80 on a water bottle.

Which aero bottle is cheapest? Heaviest? Demerly's chart below details the statistics. For user reviews, check out BeginnerTriathlete member experiences with triathlon hydration systems for the bike here.

compare aero bottles

Different spaces for difference races

For Emily Waitz of Hopkins, Minn., it really depends on the race.
“My standard configuration is a bottle or bottles on the frame, but it totally depends on the bike and the ride,” says Waitz (BeginnerTriathlete username BikerGrrrl).

“An iron distance triathlon requires a different hydration plan, and thus might call for extra bottles or something else entirely, compared to a sprint triathlon.  I even pick the bottle depending on the event, like size and whether it's insulated or not.”

Waitz, who is experienced in the long-course environment, even turns to the oft-maligned hydration backpack for certain conditions, such as a half-iron triathlon.

“It was the best combination for me for ease of use, I could premix my sport drink for optimal calories, and the fluid stayed cold,” she says. “I was unable to fit a second bottle on the bike frame and didn't have an aerobottle that I liked.”

Just 2.5 percent of respondents to the poll indicated using a hydration backpack such as a Camelbak. I confess to using a Camelbak on some rides, particularly if I need a place to stick a pair of sandals for when I arrive at grandma’s house.

Greg Shotts of The Woodlands, Texas, also uses different strategies for different rides.
For long training rides, he carries at most two bottles on his bike frame and a Profile Design aero bottle between the aero bars.

“For long rides in the Texas heat ad humidity I go through a standard bottle in about 45 minutes so I need to stop and refill every few hours,” says Shotts (BT username g_shotts).

For a sprint or Olympic distance race, Shotts uses an aerobottle only or nothing at all. He even removes the bottle cages from the frame of the bike to make it lighter.

For distances longer than Olympic, he tends toward what the pros do: an aero bottle between the bars and one bottle in a cage on the frame.

Are you a fighter jet or a cargo plane?

Demerly, who works with pros and has access to prototypes of new products, draws a distinction between two kinds of triathletes.

One group is fiercely loyal to their nutrition of choice and will carry 10 pounds of fluids on board in order to preserve their tried and true system for optimal performance.

The other group trains with what will be available on the course and gets used to it, enabling them to carry fewer bottles and less nutrition.

“The top pros, Andy Potts, Angela Naeth, Leanda Cave have told me and I've experienced it personally,” says Demerly. “You can get used to anything. It simply takes work.”

Stacie Tumlin of Harrison, Ohio, is one who prefers to stick with a nutrition system that works for her and keeps her free of stomach problems or energy lows. She and others in her camp feel that a few minutes lost to aerodynamics or extra weight is nothing compared to walking the run portion because of stomach cramps caused by improper nutrition.

“I use the Podium Quest aero drink system,” says Tumlin (BT username marathongirl11). Tumlin’s aerobottle has two chambers, a 23-ounce section couples with a 27-ounce section. One is for water and the other for sports drink. In Tumlin’s case, she mixes EFS powder for fuel.

“I keep additional "fuel" in one of my bike cages.  I keep the other cage open for taking water off the course.  I refill my aero bottle as needed,” she says.  “For Ironman, I also keep additional EFS powder in a baggie at special needs to be mixed fresh.”

I personally took Demerly’s advice. My A race a couple years ago was a Rev3 full distance race at Cedar Point. The drink on the course was CeraSport, which no one had ever heard of and was not sold in stores. I ordered some by mail a few months ahead and took it on all my long training rides. Although I had stomach problems during the race, it wasn’t because of the sports drink.

Even I will admit such a strategy sounds a bit extreme, and maybe isn’t for everyone.

What I don’t recommend is not having any idea what is being served on the course. I heard a lot of muttering on the course (and afterward in race reports) about the unfamiliar drink. “What was that stuff? Sierra something?”

My feeling is, if an athlete is going to spend the kind of money we spend on race entries, it’s worth reading the Athlete Guide or at least perusing the event website in advance of the race!

The bigger picture in triathlon cycling

Demerly shared a memorable comment and photo on BeginnerTriathlete.com:
“Remember all the debates about weight and aerodynamics you entertained when you were buying a bike? And then, on the day of your big race, it becomes this:

For some it’s a question of weight. For others, expense. For others, aerodynamics.

One system that has come into vogue in recent years is strapping a regular water bottle (or a specially designed one such as the Speedfil A2, pictured) horizontally in between and along the aero bars. This system performs very well aerodynamically.

Right up until the rider sits up and pulls the bottle out of the zip ties to take a drink.

Bottles designed to sit aerodynamically against the frame are also great, except you can’t toss them off at an aid station and get another one. Instead, you might be sitting awkwardly on the bike, frantically squeezing an aid station bottle of water or sports drink into your special bottle, trying to finish before you fly past the “drop zone” and are penalized for littering the course.

All of this may cancel out the amazing advantage the bottle seemed to have in wind tunnel testing.

Of course the solution to these problems is to practice drinking and refilling while staying aero. It might sound silly, but I also would have thought it was silly to run around in the front yard and practice mounting and dismounting a bike on the fly.

Until I started entering triathlons.

The tortoise and the hare

We all have our own reasons for racing.

Demerly really likes having nice, fast equipment.

“There is something utterly esoteric to this also. We're (mostly) not going to win anything in an Ironman. We're there for our own reasons,” Demerly says. “Part of what keeps me in this sport is nice equipment, beautiful equipment that helps me go faster and works well. It's elegant.”

That’s why looking at bikes weighted down with two gallons of fluids and two pounds of nutrition makes him feel a little sick.

“Think about the time and trouble you went to when choosing a bike. Looks, weight and aerodynamics were likely key factors in your buying decision. Are you really going to tape a pound of gels to your top tube, load three pounds of fluid in a pound of bottles and cages on there?”

Bill Little of Wendell, N.C., isn’t so concerned about a particular brand of nutrition. He simply doesn’t like to stop.

Little prefaces his comments by noting that he has walking the Appalachian Trail and also lived on a small sailboat for eight years. His BT screenname is La Tortuga—because he is used to carrying his home with him like a turtle. He doesn’t mind having 10 gels taped to his bike nearly as much as he minds stopping.

“I find that stopping screws up my mojo,” Little says simply. “Once I'm in the groove, I don't like stopping to fuel.”

Little also feels that good hydration trumps aerodynamics, and if your drink setup is hard to use or discourages you from drinking, it’s no good.

“Hydration is key to survival.  Lots of research indicates dehydration leads to injury, not just bonking,” says Little, of Wendell, N.C. “OK, so the pros can ride across the Sahara with a Gu and a quart bottle of water.  Good on 'em.” 

“I ain't no pro. I’m just a middle-aged dude who enjoys triathlons.”

For user reviews, check out BeginnerTriathlete member experiences with triathlon hydration systems for the bike here.


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date: March 18, 2012


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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