Road Bike vs Tri Bike: What’s the Difference?

This article originally appeared on Triathlete

If you are a new triathlete, you may be wondering what is best: a road bike or a triathlon bike. Although many triathletes have strong opinions about the best triathlon bikes for beginners, the truth is that you probably do not need a tri-specific bike for your first race. Every bike is just fine for your first triathlon, whether it’s the mountain bike you already have in your garage or the road bike you borrow from a friend. Your first triathlon should be about having fun and learning the ropes – not about spending money.

But once you are hooked (and you get hooked!) After your first race, we can return to the issue of road bike versus triathlon bike. Which will be better for you and your favorite racing style? To get the answer, it is best to understand the difference between the two.

RELATED: Tri 101: How to get started in triathlon

A photo showing the differences between a road bike and a tricycle.

A photo showing the differences between a road bike and a tricycle.


Our whole world has specialized tools: cutting knife and cutting knife, minivan & coupe, brush and roller. The same has road bikes and tri-bikes overlaps and precise advantages.

The handlebars are the most obvious difference between the two. A road bike has the classic “drop bar”, and a triathlon bike has a base bar, armrests and aero extensions. A closer look at the geometry shows that the road bike frame places the saddle a little further behind the pedals and the handlebars a little higher. This gives a road cyclist a better ability to climb steep slopes, descending winding turns and creating explosive accelerations. The triathlon bike geometry places the saddle forward, almost above the pedals, and the bars lower. This gives the tricycle a more aerodynamic position to cut through the wind with ease.

A triathlon bike can still climb, lower, swing and accelerate quickly, but not quite as well as a road bike. This is because most triathlon tracks are flat and straight-like compared to famous road climbs like the Alpe d’Huez – which is one of the reasons why you typically do not see aerobars on most stages of the Tour de France.

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“Why” of racing bike vs. tri-bike design can be boiled down to one word: pull. The road bike leaves the rider taller, his hands wider and more “in the wind” than the tri-bike. When properly mounted on a triathlon bike, the rider is stocked up, with narrower hands / elbows / arms and a flatter torso – also known as the “aero” position. All this is combined to let the triathlete glide through the wind. The result is faster speed at the same effort.

There is easy logic behind these differences. Road cycling allows for drafts. The rider in front does most of the work, while the riders behind roll 30% easier by sitting in their wake / out of the wind / in their tow. “Draft-legal” triathlon is found in the Olympics, at national championships, at many amateur races around the world and is extended to reach more recreational triathletes. These events require road bikes. However, the vast majority of the age group triathlon is non-drafting and the USA Triathlon rules require a 7 meter distance between the riders. The triathlon bike provides a position that is far more efficient in non-draft racing.

To the left, tri-bikes in a race.  To the right road bikes in a race.

(Photo: Getty Images)

When and where

When comparing the use of a road bike or tri-bike, “when” and “where” overlap so beautifully. A triathlete running a triathlon without drafting typically needs to be on a triathlon. When riding a draft legal triathlon (a rare but growing subgroup of the sport), athletes must be on a road bike.

There is also a common theory that a technically challenging bike path, one with lots of climbs and descents and sharp turns, would call for a road bike, even when it is a non-drafting race. However, a skilled cyclist can almost always find an advantage by riding a triathlon bike, even on a technically challenging track. Cycling skills such as swinging, climbing and descending are important elements of triathlon. They should be prioritized for both safety (during training and running) and speed. Once the cycling competence is achieved, a triathlete realizes the value of the aerodynamic position in almost every race on the planet.


There is a natural progression of bike ownership for most triathletes. When someone enters the sport, they typically acquire a road bike and ride a few races on that bike. Next season, it’s common to add a set of clip-on aerobars to the road bike to help reduce their resistance and get a little faster. The road bike is not really designed to be ridden this way, but it is an acceptable half goal.

Do you want to make your road bike work for tri? READ: Your guide to setting up a road bike for triathlon

After a few years, a triathlon bike is usually procured, and the athlete has a road bike to use for recovery trips, group trips, super hilly routes. Plus, they can use their triathlon bike for race-specific training in aeroposition, typically alone, and at training intensities designed to improve race performance. The more time you spend on the sport, the more you will learn about which bike is best suited for which workout.

Ian Murray is the USA Triathlon Level III Coach, Head Coach for the LA Tri Club and is a Master Bike Fitter.

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