Dabbling in triathlon is relatively easy; you can use any old bike, and people do. It’s like dating, there’s no real commitment, you’re simply having fun, seeing where it goes. Then things get more serious, the times begin to matter, you say those three little words to your three favourite sports and you invest in some proper gear. Further down the line, you decide it’s time to get a dedicated triathlon race bike. This is like buying a ring and getting engaged, so you’d better get it just right.
With great affordability comes great responsibility. Entry-level tri bikes have a duty to the sport to help aspiring triathletes progress. Like your first bike as a child, you have to enjoy riding your first proper triathlon bike so that it doesn’t put you off. Even more than that, while you develop as an athlete, your first tri bike has to be able to grow with you, which is to say, it has to be worthy of upgrading. In practice, that means the manufacturer’s focus must be on the frame and the cost saving should come from the parts that are either easily changed or which have little overall effect on your speed, such as the tyres and bar extensions, respectively.
They say it’s tough at the top but it can be even harder at the bottom. For around a quarter of the price of
a top-end bike we still expect these cheaper triathlon bikes to be fast, ride well on the road and have most of the same features. Here we have three bikes from three very different brands, all aiming to combine high performance with a cheaper price tag that doesn’t trigger your gag reflex and each with their own way of achieving it.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
BMC is a huge brand with economies of scale on its side to help keep the price down and lots of experience designing top-end bikes for pro athletes, a handy combination. The Timemachine02 is the same shape as the range-topping TM01 but reduces cost with the use of lower tier carbon fibre. This bike, with a Shimano 105 groupset and RS010 wheels, retails for £2,499 through a traditional dealer network.
The Boardman ATT 9.0 is cheaper, at £1,899, yet comes with the same drivetrain and comparable wheels, achieved thanks to direct sales via owner Halfords and online, cutting out the middlemen of distributors and dealers, creating a saving that can be passed on to consumers. Boardman have always sold direct; it’s the less-than-magic trick behind the excellent value spec we’ve become used to seeing.
More affordable again is the Ribble Aero TT, just £1,594 as tested despite a complete Shimano Ultegra groupset and upgraded 35mm aero Mavic Cosmic Elite wheels, a compelling value spec made possible by a third kind of business model. Not only do Ribble sell direct online, they also buy open mould frames from the Far East and do no design or manufacturing themselves, though, of course, they test new frames before getting them in to make sure they’re up to scratch. Whereas BMC and Boardman have loads of aero expertise, Ribble do not. Pitching it against these rivals in a wind tunnel is a tough test but if it’s close to them, or simply doesn’t get a kicking, then it could be cheap enough to make sense.
Another appealing aspect of the Ribble buying experience is the chance to completely customise your build, right down to the colour of your bar tape and including important matters of personal preference such as gearing, crank length, extension shape and saddle. It’s unlikely that you’ll be satisfied with all of those things from an off-the-peg bike, so any required upgrades on the Boardman or BMC add to the cost and only make the Ribble even better value.
Happily, all of these bikes are very well specified. The cockpits are all lower end, of course, but each is widely adjustable, a reasonable aero shape and fitted with comfortable pads. Better still are the saddles: a Fizik Arione Tri2 on the BMC, a Selle Italia SLR Tri Gel on the Ribble, and an ISM Adamo Road on the Boardman. All are comfortable and well-padded for a forward rotated position, though the round noses of the first two is a matter of preference, and it wasn’t ours. You always feel perched, less supported, whereas the ISM is a dream.
There are aero bikes – some wing-like frame shapes and pointy handlebars – and there are true tri bikes, designed by people who understand the unique demands of our sport away from time trialling. The Ribble Aero TT gives a big clue with its name: it’s a budget time trial bike and there’s nothing especially triathlon-minded about it. The absence of extra bosses for bolt-on storage isn’t a big issue – there are enough aftermarket options to get around that – but the seatpost angle and clamp is of more pressing concern.
For a start, it uses that annoying type of clamp that sets the angle with the front bolt and then tensions with the rear, requiring trial and error to set the final angle once the saddle has been torqued down. The bigger issue, though, is the relatively slack effective seat tube angle that really limits how much you can get over the bottom bracket to maintain a more open hip angle through the pedal stroke and thereby save your legs for the run. If you’ve particularly long legs, you should be fine but then you might struggle with the short head tube – check the geometry carefully
RANGE OF MOVEMENT
The Boardman doesn’t offer any storage solutions but it does have a smart four-position seatpost clamp that creates effective seat-tube angles of 76-79°. Along with the long rails of the ISM saddle, it makes for a huge range of adjustment. Incredibly, though, the BMC can trump it.
Not only does the Timemachine02 have a multi-position seat clamp, it also has two different locations for the seatpost itself, creating a vast effective seat tube range of 71.5-81.5º. If you’re so inclined, you can position the nose of the saddle well ahead of the BB, even with it set tall for long legs.
The frame has a hole for the post to drop into, or you can bolt on a separate clamp that positions the post further back as in our photos. It means the bike can be UCI legal for the brand’s pro road team without compromising the riding positions of the BMC-Etixx professional triathlon squad, or you.
If you run the more forward position it opens up room for a rear storage box to carry all the tools and spares you might need for an Ironman, and there are extra bosses on the top tube and down tube for food and hydration solutions. It’s a true tri bike.
SHIMANO VS SHIMANO
With all three bikes running Shimano drivetrains we had the perfect opportunity to assess the value of the Ribble’s upgrade to Ultegra from the 105 on the other two. And it’s barely noticeable. Of course, Ultegra is usefully lighter than 105 and it certainly contributes to the Aero TT’s very impressive 8.1kg weight, but with each bike fitted with the same gear levers the shifting feels indistinguishable.
All three shift with a pleasing crisp accuracy at the rear and a swift smoothness between the chainrings from the non-indexed front shifter. These days 105 is so well made, too, that we wouldn’t expect a significant difference in longevity when maintained properly. It pours cold water all over the idea that the Ribble’s cheaper frame can be specced higher into a better bike.
Braking is more divisive, however. The BMC and Ribble use conventional front brakes but only the Swiss bike places a dual-mount caliper behind the bottom bracket. There’s an aero benefit to this but also a practicality trade-off and during our test it was awkward to centre and prevent from rubbing, plus we know that this location leads to faster degradation from road muck and prevents the fitting of certain power meters, including Stages and Infocrank. At least this particular caliper won’t lose all its leverage when opened up to take wider aero wheels… which is exactly what happens to the TRP 922.1 caliper slung beneath the Boardman’s chainstays.
What’s more, the ATT’s front V-brake hidden inside the fork is weak and spongy, we suspect a result of the lever’s cable-pull not matching the needs of the caliper. A bit surprisingly, rather than costing the Ribble points, its strong and easy-to-service conventional brakes are a win here.
HARD RIDING ANSWERS
As ever, hard riding is revealing and sorts these bikes into order. The wheels and tyres play a big part. The Ribble feels as light as it is but its Mavic Cosmic Elite wheels feel flexy when out of the saddle, and the Yksion Elite tyres wrapped around them don’t roll anywhere near quickly enough to be race worthy. They’re 23mm and do nothing to help what’s a firmer ride than we’d like. The Aero TT handles well – stable at speed, accurate through a corner, readily trusted to take roundabouts on the extensions – and doesn’t do anything badly but it doesn’t feel fast or rewarding and, therefore, isn’t especially enjoyable to ride.
Costing a full thousand pounds more, the BMC rolls heavy under
the burden of expectation. Unfortunately, it never stops feeling heavy. Its 9.1kg total weight is less of an issue than the extra 300g in its wheels, which makes climbing and acceleration lethargic and frustrating. The Conti tyres roll sweetly and the wheels don’t want for rigidity but the fork does; it feels inadequate, blurring your inputs, adding a sheen of vagueness to cornering and, disconcertingly, less stability at speed. It’s the bike that will have you out of the extensions and sat up on the base bar sooner and more often than the others as you seek more control. On top of that, it offers no more compliance than the Ribble and it made a lot of unpleasant cracking noises over bumps. It’s disappointing.
The Boardman is the cream of the crop and it floats to the top of the class as quickly and readily as it floats up hills. It’s a touch heavier than the Ribble and its own-brand 35mm wheelset is only a fraction lighter but it isn’t about weight.
The ATT is stiffer in the frame and wheels, rolls fast and smooth on classy Vittoria 25s and simply feels sorted. It’s instantly much more impressive and fun to ride, and remains so as the miles increase. It gives you the confidence to descend at speed and carve through roundabouts from the extensions and it’s the most comfortable, too, clearly helped a lot by the bigger and more supple tyres as much as the excellent contact points.
The wind tunnel changes everything, with this giant lie detector able to cut to the absolute truth of a bike’s performance. To our surprise, the BMC was edged out on aggregate by the Ribble, just 1W (Watts) ahead at 10º and 8W down on the cheaper bike at 0º. The latter figure amounts to an estimated 32 seconds over a 40km Olympic-distance bike leg, over two minutes for a 180km Ironman bike split.
Both were put in the shade by the Boardman, though, the British bike comfortably faster at both angles for an emphatic win, especially at the 10º angle, to go with its superior road ride. So it’s the best to ride on the road by a long way and the fastest in the wind tunnel, too. It’s also thoroughly deserving of upgraded wheels and needs nothing else. Only the weak and spongy brakes blot its copybook.
Aero is in the blood at Boardman Bikes, bequeathed by the founder himself, Chris ‘The Professor’ Boardman. They understand aero and to make something that’s merely aero looking is entirely anathema. Sling some properly fast wheels in this bike and it’s ready to win races, big races.
Some tests are really tough to call. This isn’t one of them. The Ribble and BMC are both decent bikes with positive aspects, but significant drawbacks that hold them back and limit their appeal.
The Ribble is a budget bike and only makes sense when built as such; we’d suggest 105, cheap wheels and then add secondhand race wheels when you can. Stiffer and more aero wheels with faster tyres would help it a lot but the wind tunnel test, alongside its firm ride and lack of tri focus, places a low ceiling on how far it’s worth upgrading it. For how much more expensive it is, the BMC disappoints. The wheels are offensively heavy and unraceable, and it failed to deliver in the wind tunnel. Its tri-specific features are great but can’t make up for its shortcomings.
The Boardman is the clear winner. We’ve rated them highly for years and won’t apologise for doing so again. It’s a top first tri bike that could see you all the way to the age-group world champs.