Choosing The Right Bike For A Hilly Race

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  • Published Apr 29, 2010

A triathlon bike is better suited than a road bike for solo riding. But the geometry and componentry of a road bike is preferable for hilly, twisty roads.  So which bike is best for a hilly race like Ironman St. George, Escape From Alcatraz or Wildflower?

Mary Beth Ellis and others choose to ride a road bike at the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon. Photo: Kurt Hoy

Written by: Aaron Hersh

There is no doubt that road bikes have certain advantages over triathlon bikes.  They are more stable, often have more braking power and the controls are easier to reach. These attributes are all helpful on a hilly course, but I’m a big believer in using a triathlon bike for nearly any course.

Some people claim tri bikes are difficult to control, shift poorly, put too much pressure on the soft parts, weigh too much… but these complaints quickly disappear after logging a few miles on a well-fitting triathlon bike.  And the bottom line is that they get from T1 to T2 faster and leave more in the tank for the run than a road bike.

The races this weekend feature some of the most fearsome bike courses in the sport so a road bike might be an appropriate choice for some racers.  When deciding between the tri bike and the road bike, consider the following characteristics of these bikes.

  • Triathlon bikes are faster in a straight line.
  • Road bikes are more stable, so a cautious bike handler might be faster through corners on a road bike.
  • Triathlon bikes (except those with Shimano Di2) can only shift from the aerobars and brake from the base bar.
  • Road bike brakes and shifters are both accessible from the drops or the tops.
  • Triathlon bikes tend to be heavier than equally priced road bikes.
  • Road bikes force the rider into a more upright position, which increases aerodynamic resistance on flat and downhill segments.
  • Tri-specific geometry minimizes strain on the rider’s glutes and hamstrings, which saves them for the run.

Escape From Alcatraz, Ironman St. George and Wildflower all boast unique challenges that can affect your bike choice.

The pro bike of choice at Wildflower tends to be the triathlon bike. Photo: Kurt Hoy

The Alcatraz bike course has tight turns at the bottom of high-speed descents.  Andy Potts says that he always races his road bike with clip-on aerobars at Alcatraz because he feels safer taking these technical turns on his Kuota road bike than on his triathlon bike. And if an experienced cyclist like Potts is weary, that speaks loudly about the course’s difficulty. Potts spent many years racing the draft-legal circuit so he is accustomed to this position but if you are going to follow Andy’s lead, make sure to train extensively in your race position.

The Wildflower course is famous for its rolling hills, rough pavement, unpredictable winds and a steep climb just a few miles before T2 known as Nasty Grade.  Although the Wildflower bike course has many technical turns, the tri bike can help save a little strength to get over the Nasty Grade and back into transition.

2010 is the inaugural Ironman St. George so the bike course is relatively unknown. Race Director Paul Huddle compares the course to Ironman Lake Placid because of the two major hills in the middle of the course.

So Which Bike?

A triathlon bike can be faster and more efficient over nearly any bike course, no matter how hilly.  But chose the bike you are most comfortable using on the specific course.  If you feel unsafe taking corners at high speed on the triathlon bike, the road bike will be faster.  Otherwise, the benefits of a tri bike outweigh the negatives, even on a hilly course.

Whichever bike you decide is your best option, make sure you log most of your training miles on that bike.  Regardless of aerodynamics, cornering stability, weight or any other characteristic the bike will not be comfortable or fast if you aren’t accustomed to it.

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