There comes a time in every committed triathlete’s career when the tri bike equation looms into view. While the initial outlay for a bike used for a tri-specific cycle may seem high, the time savings on the bike – and the run – are significant.
Studies by our sister title Bikeradar.com, have shown an aero set-up (complete with aero tubing, tri-bars and deep-rim wheels) can save you nine seconds per kilometre over a road bike build, which equates to around 25mins over the 180km Ironman bike leg. What’s more, a tri bike won’t just make you faster on the bike. A further study by Central Lancashire University has reported that the steeper 81° seat-tube angle of a tri bike saw its test subjects register 5km run times 49secs faster than those following a ride on a 73° angled bike.
- What are different parts of a triathlon bike?
- Which is best for descending; a triathlon bike or a road bike?
- What should be measured in a good triathlon bike fitting?
So, with the time-saving benefits made clear, what should you demand from a triathlon bike? How comfortable is this speed-focused position after 60 minutes, let alone hour after hour of riding? Will fatigue punish you when it comes to overall performance? And can it transport your race-day fuel in a practical and aerodynamic way? Here we put three tri bikes from three major brands to the test.
Giant are one of the few big bike brands to offer an aero bike for under £3,000, let alone under £2,000. This simplified version of their Trinity Advanced Pro misses out some features – notably the fancy leading edge fork and aero storage add-ons – but you still get a powerfully quick, top quality ride with full local dealer sales and support benefits.
It might be missing the big hydration reservoir fairing and ‘bayonet’ style AeroDrive fork of the Advanced Pro 2 (£2,499), but the skinny blade-legged fork still has trailing edge brakes to smooth airflow. Plus, you still get the under chainstay-mounted rear brake, just not the big plastic shark fin used to hide it on the Pro.
It’s worth noting that optimising this frame for the storage systems and long-haul triathlon comfort means the Trinity Advanced gets a relatively tall head tube (140mm on the medium frame compared with 100-115mm tubes on other similar bikes we’ve tested this year). The Giant Contact extension bars also come with a massive stack of spacers as standard for an ergonomic over pure flat-back aerodynamic position. It comes with a full set of shorter bolts so you can reduce that ride height down, but you’ll never get it quite as low as other aero bikes. It’s also short in reach for the height of the frame so downsizing isn’t really an option.
Elsewhere, the Trinity’s mainframe is all about the business of getting you wherever you want to go as fast as possible. The start of the down tube is a classic teardrop section to keep airflow clean, with the tail of that teardrop cut away further down the down tube, though, to help peel air away and round the single bottle cage mount for a holistic aero gain. A hidden seatpost clamp further minimises drag around the base of the vertical carbon seat tube.
Giant provide a lot of the kit as well as the frame, with their SR2 low-profile wheels shod with Giant Gavia Race 1 tyres set up tubeless as standard. The aero cockpit is Giant own brand and the brakes are
Giant-branded Tektro. That leaves only the workhorse Shimano 105 transmission and stubby and split ISM PS 1.0 saddle as non-Giant items, but we’re not complaining as it’s all sound stuff.
Onto the road and it’s clear that Giant are aiming the Trinity at intermediate over advanced riders, as the chainset comes with smaller 50 and 34 tooth chainrings. These give more lower speed and climbing options for less powerful legs but limit how fast you can crank the Trinity along. The carbon composite frame instantly maximises the gain from whatever watts you can put through the pedals. Obvious stiffness and solidity under power is matched by a taut steering feel and easy speed sustainment from the frame aerodynamics.
While they’re high, the Giant bars are comfortable and the stable steering means you can stay in them confidently even on fast, swerving descents. The ISM saddle has a naturally-cradling profile that combines with the multiple saddle clamp position options of the seatpost to hold you in the most efficient sweet spot for pedalling. While the skinny front forks rattle over rough road surfaces, the frame is surprisingly forgiving to keep fatigue at bay hour after hour. The tubeless tyres definitely help in this respect, with a fluid feel that holds speed better on back road sections as well as the self-sealing peace of mind in the event of a puncture.
The only obvious downside is the comparatively high weight of the Trinity, which especially counts against it on climbs. The powerful stride and easier gears mean it ascends better than we expected, though, and confidence on descents helps offset losses. And the fact that you can buy this bike through your local Giant dealer should help with a basic set-up and positioning options, something you won’t get from the remote retail brands that dominate the affordable end of the aero market.
Terry Dolan’s bikes have underlined the achievements of many of the best British riders on the track and road over the years. The Scala TT/Tri bike is a proven campaigner suited to smooth, gear-spinning riders who want an equally smooth cruiser rather than a masochistic muscle bike.
The Scala frame might have been around a few seasons, but its exaggerated aero sculpting still looks sharp and works well for slicing through a full range of wind conditions. The 115mm head tube on our medium sample keeps the front end low for an efficient tuck, while the 72° head angle means a naturally stable ride. Control cables are all internally routed and there’s a flared mid-section to divert air around your water bottle.
While long-course triathletes should note there’s only one bottle mount on the frame, the Fizik Mistika saddle can be fitted with twin backside bottle mounts, as well as a C02 cartridge clip. Skipping the second bottle mount lets Dolan use a radical Cervélo P3-style wheel wrapping seat tube, but the short stub upper means you might have to cut the seatpost down to get your preferred height (especially as the Mistika saddle works best 1cm lower than a conventional saddle).
The rear brake is positioned under the bottom bracket, which can make removing/refitting the rear wheel a fight, so be sure to practise the knack before you race on it. And it’s worth noting that the 53mm top tube and 400mm reach are short for a medium/54cm seat-tube frame.
Our Scala has the big puncture-proofing bonus of Mavic’s new Cosmic Elite UST wheels, set up tubeless with Mavic Yksion Pro UST tyres. That means there’s liquid sealant inside to plug holes before the tyre deflates and Mavic’s set-up is one of the most reliable. The UST tyres also give a smooth ride even with 30mm deep, semi-aero rims. They’re one of several options on the Dolan bike builder menu, where you can specify crank arm length and rear cassette size for your chosen groupset.
Flex in the base bar and quality arm rest pads means it’s a comfortable place to be. Not only are the bars and tyres conspicuously comfortable, but the tapered mid sections of the fork and rear stays give the Scala a naturally sprung and floated ride. Allied with the stable handling, this makes it a relaxing and long-distance efficient bike to hold a tuck on. While we’ve no definitive drag numbers to back up feel, it cuts cleanly through straight or yawing winds with acceptable handling even on gustier days. The fact there’s minimal shoulder burn from road rattle makes it easier to stay relaxed and tucked for free speed.
The downside to all this compliance is obvious bounce from the front end or twist in the rear if you unload a tonne of torque through the pedals or wrestle the bars up a climb out of the saddle. If you’re happy to rev rather than wrench the gears, its comparatively low weight makes it an efficient climber. Similarly, you can get it snaking if you really chuck it around through corners and the mushy brake feel doesn’t inspire confidence. Otherwise it’s vice free on descents even at high speeds, and it’ll cope with mid-section wheels and winds without too much drama.
Having gained so much in his pro career from the ruthless pursuit of aero efficiency, it’s no surprise that Chris Boardman always pays special attention to his wind-cheating machines. And you’ll soon be able to book a session at the wind tunnel that’s part of the new Boardman Performance Centre in Evesham to dial in your aero position.
The frame itself starts with a short, tapered head tube that lets you get really low on a frame that’s already comparatively small for a 54cm/medium. There’s a neat sync between frame and fork but no extra flashy overlaps or lumps. The ATT 9.0 uses a conventional front brake rather than the hidden V brakes of the pricier models, which adds a bit of drag but keeps the bike affordable and makes for a more practical
set-up, especially if you upgrade to deeper and wider wheels.
All gear and rear brake control lines insert vertically into the frame behind the stem to reduce drag. There’s a slight wheel hugging cut-out on the back of the tube and rearward facing dropouts to alter clearance. The chunky chainstay to mainframe box junction and underslung brake combine with the reverse dropouts to make wheel insertion and removal hard, too.
There are some aspects of the Boardman that are possibly too efficient. This includes very short taped sections on the base bars that aren’t long enough for a full hand hold and make life anywhere but the extensions distinctly uncomfortable. Yet the Zipp Vuka extensions are light, and the wide open pads and gentle ski bend made it easy to find a sweet spot on straight away: you’ll be happy to stay tucked for hours on end. If the stock set-up doesn’t agree with you there are plenty of readily available adjustment options.
In keeping with its performance focus, the Boardman is the only bike here with ‘full size’ 53 and 39 tooth chainrings matched to a mid-sized block. That means you’ll be stomping slowly or standing up early on climbs and the short reach of the frame can often cause sore-knee-on-armrest scrapes. On the flat, the bigger gears give it the legs to really stride out fast, which is obviously the whole point of the bike. Power transfer of the frame is good, although we’re never convinced how wattage-efficient FSA’s alloy BB30 cranks are as they always seem to dull pedal feel. The reasonable overall weight still give it keen acceleration for an aero machine, and the sharp, agile handling also keeps it friendly for more technical courses (although this can make it nervy on descents).
You can expect the braking response to vary, as the anodised sidewalls of the Vision wheels gradually wear off to a grippier naked finish. The frame feel is also definitely on the firm side, which means you need to get the chopped nose Fizik saddle exactly in the right position (1.5cm lower than our usual saddle height worked for us).
The reward for masochistic moments on rougher road sections and occasional twitchy steering moments is a blisteringly quick ride. While we didn’t get the chance to corroborate it in Boardman’s wind tunnel, there’s a quietness about the Boardman that suggests it’s as aero efficient as it looks and the position it puts you in is predatory, whether you’re hunting down faster swimmers or a new PB.
The Overall Verdict
As well as proving you don’t have to spend loads of money to get a rapid, drag-dropping race weapon, this test shows that there are plenty of different ride characters to choose from when it comes to tri-specific bikes.
From the smooth rolling tubeless tyres through to the forgiving frame and the comfortable cockpit, Dolan’s Scala is designed to be a very comfortable speed cruiser. Add the ability to change different components before you buy and that makes it a great choice for kit-fastidious riders focused on reducing fatigue rather than ferocious power delivery. In contrast, Boardman’s ATT 9.0 is a low slung, high-efficiency predator that doesn’t shy away from the occasional slap or shimmy to take seconds off your PB.
But it was the Giant that impressed our testers most, with an obviously powerful yet surprisingly comfortable ride that’s literally geared to be inclusive rather than intimidating. Add serious upgrade suitability and the fact it’ll be set up, sold and serviced through your local shop to reduce novice/newcomer stress, and the Trinity is the top of our tri trio.