Road bike vs tri bike: which one should you get for training and racing?

Road bikes vs tri bikes: to be or not to be (aero), that is the question

road bike vs tri bike
(Image credit: LOOK/Cervelo)

Unfortunately most of us can't afford to have a road and a tri bike so a decision must be made. Which one should you get: a road bike or a triathlon bike? What's the main benefit of getting the latter and is there a point in investing the former if you're solely focusing on triathlon training?

For the uninitiated, the best road bikes and the best tri bikes look almost identical, maybe apart from the protruding bit at the front. However, there are more subtle differences between the two types of bikes and these could mean a lot when trying to complete the bike leg of your next race in record time.

Road bike vs tri bike: reasons why you should get a tri bike

Let's get something out of the way straight away: you don't need a tri bike unless you are a triathlete. It might not be obvious and some of you might even get swayed by the cool looks of TT bikes but unless you need one for triathlon racing, you shouldn't get one.

If you're a triathlete, what's the main benefit of getting a tri bike over a road bike? It all comes down to aerodynamics. You see, tri bikes have a specific frame geometry that allows you to take on a more aero position when using the aptly-named aerobars. The angle of the seat tube allows riders to lean into the position more, reducing drag in the process.

This areoness can mean all the difference, especially during longer races such as the full Ironman. Your upper body is the most significant source of drag when riding a bike so if you can make it 'flatter' by leaning forward, it will help keeping your legs fresh (well, sort of) for the run part of the race.

road vs tri bike: person coming around the bend riding a road bike

(Image credit: Cannondale)

Road bike vs tri bike: reasons why you shouldn't get a tri bike

However, if you've ever ridden a tri bike in said aero position, you know full well how uncomfortable it can get after a while. Worse still, most carbon fibre tri bikes have a flat handlebar design so you can't even rest your hands on it when you sit up for a bit.

Riding in aero position can also make you feel rather exposed: your arms are extended forwards and your centre of mass is also shifted away from the seat post towards the handlebar. Needless to say, you're less capable of reacting to events on the road when you're in this position, making riding fast even more risky.

Realistically, especially if you're a beginner, the only surface where you can ride in aero position is flat. Ascending/descending slopes is too dangerous riding in this position, regardless of experience, to be fair. Neither you can really lean into pedalling when trying to climb mountains, nor can you descend in a safe manner when you're all leant forward.

road vs tri bikes: person reaching for their water bottle at the back of their tri bike

(Image credit: Cervelo)

Road bike vs tri bike: verdict

If you can only afford one bike and especially if you're a beginner/non-hardcore triathlete, you should get a road bike. Unless you're competing in high levels, you won't really be able to make the most of the aorn position and therefore dedicated triathlon bikes.

Sprint (20 km) and Olympic distance (40 km) triathlons can be easily tackled using a road bike and once proved to yourself that you attending triathlon races wasn't just a phase, you can start looking around for more serious tri bikes. For a full Ironman training and racing, we would recommend getting a TT bike but if you're willing to undertake such a big challenge, we can only assume that you're not completely new to the sport.

Matt Kollat
Matt Kollat

Matt is a fitness fanatic (a.k.a. fitness and nutrition writer) who's been rambling on about all things health and fitness for over two years now here at T3. His achievements include a short-lived fitness podcast called Fit Mentality Podcast and being a judge on the Fit&Well Awards 2021. In his free time, he works out at home, runs, cycles and loves a good ol' walk around the city. He writes about general fitness stuff, fitness tech, workouts, workout gear/equipment, nutrition and much, much more.