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Setting up your bike for Triathlon

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Article posted: 14/02/2013

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Whether you’re racing Sprint, Olympic, 70.3 or full Ironman, the cycling leg of a triathlon is proportionally the longest discipline and, unless you’re strong on the bike, you won’t do justice to the race as a whole. Your bike needs to be paced with the run afterwards in mind and, if you’re cycling fit and can ride relatively fast without dipping too deep into your reserves, a strong run should hopefully follow. Especially for 70.3 and Ironman racers, the British Cycling Sportive Plan can easily be used as a template to give you strong base of cycling fitness that’s essential for success. With optional non cycling workouts scheduled in and maybe switching one weekend ride for a long run, you can still keep on top of your running and swimming but know for sure that the key bike leg is covered.

Unlike a sportive where, once you’ve ridden over the line, you’re done for the day, in a triathlon, you’ve still got a run to do and, if you’re racing Ironman distance, this is a full 42.2 km Marathon. This demand, along with the non-drafting time-trial format of a triathlon bike leg, means that special attention has to be paid to bike setup. A sportive setup road bike won’t maximise your aerodynamic potential and a full-on aggressive time trial position won’t leave you in a fit state to run.

Fortunately On the Insight Zone we have Olympian, 2009 ITU Long Distance World Champion, 2010 Ironman 70.3 Champion and recent winner of Ironman 70.3 South Africa Jodie Swallow on hand to give you her top 10 tips for triathlon bike setup success.

Don’t just stick aerobars on your road bike for race day

Many age-group triathletes race, train and even commute on the same bike. The advantages to this are obviously that it’ll save you the expense of multiple bikes and that you’ll be totally used to riding that one bike. The problem is a typical road setup isn’t aerodynamic, so the usual solution is to just clip on a pair of aerobars. This can potentially totally throw your riding position off as the geometry of a road bike isn’t designed for this and you can easily end up with an uncomfortable, less run friendly and slower setup. As well as clipping on the aerobars, you might also need to consider moving your saddle forwards, changing to an angled seat post that gives a steeper position and fitting a shorter stem. 

"Having a super expensive aero bike that’s perfectly fitted to you is great but, unless you’ve got the fitness, you won’t be going anywhere quickly."

You’ve got to run off the bike

This is the single most important factor for triathlon bike setup. You can have the most aggressive and aero position, ride a blistering bike split but, if you’re then crippled and have to hobble round the run, it’s pointless. Your position has to be run friendly and the biggest contributor to this is an open near to ninety degree hip angle. Again, this can be the problem with just sticking aerobars on a road bike as it tends to give a very stretched out position with a compressed hip angle. Imagine your position on the hoods of your road bike and then just rotate that forwards. This is what a steeper seat angle and forward saddle does, giving an aerodynamic but run friendly position. 

You’ve got to be able to hold your position

The number of age-groupers you see on super expensive aero bikes but sat up riding on the bull-horns is staggering. If you can’t hold your aero position, it’s wrong. Your aero position should be super comfortable and, if it’s right, you should look forward to riding in it and be able to hold it indefinitely. The same applies to long tailed aero helmets. Great if you stay in a tight and stable position, not so good if you drop your head continuously sticking the tail straight up into the air. Aero gains on paper can easily become aero losses in reality.

Train on your race bike

If you have got a second tri-specific race bike, don’t only ride it on race day. You’ve got to get used to the different position and how it handles. You don’t need to do all your training miles on it but a significant proportion should be. Riding some time trials is an excellent way to get miles in on your tri bike.

Aero vs Power

In the quest for aerodynamics there is often a trade off with power but, as long as it isn’t too big, your net speed will be faster. However, go too far and gains will rapidly diminish and soon become losses. Experiment on a test section of road and see how tweaking your position affects your power, speed and heart rate. Remember the key points though of having to run off the bike and being able to hold your position.

Professional Fit

If you’re going to spend a significant amount of money on a tri race bike, the relatively small outlay of a professional bike fit is a no-brainer. First though, make sure they’re aware you’re a triathlete and have experience of fitting for them. By measuring you on a jig, looking at power output and using motion analysis, they’ll be able to make precise recommendations about frame size, stem and bar choice and even specific brands that’d suit you. They will also be able to optimize your position on your current bike but be prepared to potentially spend some money on some new components.

Evolve your position

Even if you’ve had a professional bike fit, don’t be afraid to tweak, adjust and experiment with your position. Your body will adapt to your race setup and this is another reason why training on your race bike is essential. Make incremental adjustments to one aspect of your position and see how it affects how you ride. Don’t make large wholesale changes overnight as you won’t know where any gains have come from and run the risk of injuring yourself.

Attention to detail

Once you’ve got your position 100% dialed in, make sure you replicate it every time you get on that bike. This especially applies if you’re traveling to a race and your bike has to be disassembled. Make sure you’ve got all the key measurements noted down and have a tape measure in your luggage. When you change your cleats, make sure the position is the same and, believe it or not, the difference between the thin chamois in a race suit and the thick one in standard cycling shorts can be significant to saddle height.


If you compare the bike setups of pros compared to age-groupers, often the most marked difference is how clutter free the pros’ bikes’ front ends are. You won’t see massive bento boxes or untidy thick wrappings of bar-tape. Keep your front profile clutter free and try to store your nutrition and spares out of the wind. Also make sure your race number is low on your back and not fluttering away in the wind.


It’s mostly about the engine

Having a super expensive aero bike that’s perfectly fitted to you is great but, unless you’ve got the fitness, you won’t be going anywhere quickly. You can buy some speed but most of it comes through hard work and consistent training. Follow a structured training plan and, if you really do want to spend some money, working with a coach for six months will definitely make you faster than a fancy new set of wheels.


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