The country may be experiencing a recession but the bills still have to be paid, so it's little wonder that a new racing bike is slipping down your list of things to buy. But even if your finances have taken a clobbering, there are still some good-quality, great-value bikes out there.
As Olympic gold medallist Nicole Cook, author of Cycle for Life (Kyle Cathie, £14.99), told Triathlete's World: "It's vital to find the right bike - one that you'll want to train on. But you don't have to spend a fortune."
Here's how to get the right bike - at the right price.
Step 1 Find the perfect bike for you
Buying a bike can be a complicated business. And there's a good chance you'll be overwhelmed by technology (and put off by price tags) when you first start looking.
"If you're just starting out in triathlons, a few hundred pounds will get you a basic road bike to take you through your first races," says Cook. "As you improve you can then think about keeping your first bike as a dedicated training bike - and buy a better bike purely for racing."
To start, you simply need a basic racing bike. The extras come later, as you become more ambitious. The Association of Cycle Traders (www.thecyclingexperts.co.uk) recommends spending not less than £200 on a new bike - but others recommend going higher. "A decent new racing bike will set you back about £600," says Derek Wilson, a cycle repair expert in Sutton Coldfield. "You should be able to get a good secondhand one for £200."
However, the experts agree you should steer clear of bargain-bucket, flatpack bikes that you assemble at home. "In essence you are looking at a poor-quality bicycle - particularly hard to assemble to a safe standard," says the WhyCycle group (www.whycycle.co.uk). "You get what
you pay for. Try to get the best you can afford."
Befriend a bike enthusiast at your local triathlon club who will help you find the perfect bike for your needs. Ask club members why they chose their brand of bike. Find out the pros and cons of various models and learn from the mistakes of others.
It's also worthwhile looking at internet sites and posting questions on forums. Best
of all, visit a good local bike shop and ask to be measured for the perfect bike.
"Size and fit are crucial," says Sam Murphy, author of Triathlon: Start to Finish (Kyle Cathie, £14.99). "Never buy a bike without test-riding it, and get professional advice about the correct frame size and set-up.
"While lots of components of a bike are adjustable, the frame itself is not - and this has a strong influence on the riding position."
In simple terms, the size of a bike is determined by its frame size. However, the way measurements are taken can vary from brand to brand.
"Today, we tend to refer simply to small, medium and large frames," says Richard Wallace of Tri UK. A 'small' will fit a person up to 5ft 9in, a 'medium', from 5ft 9in to 6ft, and a 'large', 6ft and above."
According to Why Cycle, if you are standing flat-footed there should be a minimum clearance of one inch between you and the top tube of the frame of a racing bike.
But buying a correct size is not just about height from the ground. As bikes become bigger, they also become longer. So even if you can stand astride a bigger-framed bike, you need to be sure you can still comfortably reach the handlebars and manage the controls.
"Once you've been professionally measured, and know which frame you fit, the rest is down to you," says Wallace. "Try out bikes until you find the one that feels right; then have it fine-tuned to fit you perfectly.
"You need the perfect balance between body and bike. The slightest adjustment can make a huge difference."
Step 2 Find the best price
Buy an old model
Bikes are constantly being improved, upgraded and relaunched. But many bike shops still stock perfect bikes from old ranges. For example, with the launch of Giant's Defy range, many old-style SCR models may now be on special offer.
Secondhand doesn't have to mean second best. But approach it in the same way as you would when buying a secondhand car. Follow the steps above to work out exactly what type and size of bike you need.
Then find out from cycling groups or a local tri club if any triathletes are planning to upgrade soon.
Scour classified ads in local papers, internet sites (for example eBay, gumtree, ad-trader), and the back of cycling magazines. If you enter your specific requirements many internet sites will email you when the perfect bike comes up. Know in advance exactly what you are looking for and don't settle for something that only approximates your needs. (It took four months for me to find my perfect Trek 1000, for £180 - but it was worth the wait.)
When you think you've found the perfect bike, take someone knowledgeable with you to check it out. "First impressions count," says Wilson. "If the bike looks filthy, with bits hanging off, don't give it a second glance. It hasn't been looked after and it won't serve you well. But if it looks good, take a closer look. Check if anything is loose or the tyres are badly worn. Try the brakes. Lastly, give it a trial run.
And, after buying, always have it serviced and adjusted by an expert bike mechanic."
Derek Wilson, who's my local mechanic, told me the tyres on my secondhand Trek 1000 needed replacing, the bottom bracket was wearing (but I'd get another 12 months use before it needed replacing) and a chainring bolt was missing. But overall, he said, I'd bought a decent bike.
A check, service and adjustment cost £30. I paid £27.90 for new tyres and 50p for a chainring bolt, giving a total of £58.40. Add that to the £180 purchase price and I spent £238.40, which was only slightly over my original bike budget.
Remember to source extras as locally as possible - to save on postage and petrol fees. You may feel bad if you don't buy from the shop you sought expertise from, but you can assuage your guilt by taking your bike there for adjustments, services, repairs and upgrades.
Snap up an ex-demonstration bike...
A good bike shop will offer customers the chance to test-ride models to find the bike that suits them best. (In fact, you should always try before you buy. If your shop doesn't offer this service, try elsewhere.) These demo bikes are then sold off in the autumn to make way for newer models.
Paul Smith, of Bikeworks Cycle Shop in Bangor, Co Down (www.bikeworkscycleshop.com), explains: "Our ex-demo bikes are put on sale usually through August and September. Some have done more mileage than others but all are in good condition and given a thorough service. You'll save up to 40 per
cent, depending on the model and type of bike."
...or an ex-hire bike
Alternatively, try bagging yourself a bike that has been hired out over the triathlon season for events such as the London Triathlon.
Each September, Tri UK (www.triuk.com) sells off approximately 200 hire bikes that have been used for events in the previous racing season. "You'll pay an average of £365 - with savings of up to £100 on the brand-new price," says a spokesperson. "And they're all fully serviced."
Other ways to save:
I didn't buy a new bike, but while browsing I asked about available discounts if I paid in cash. Every shop agreed to either give me a discount or throw in some cycling equipment. The worst that can happen is that you'll be told 'no'.
Get your boss to cough up
Investigate the Government's Cycle to Work scheme - a tax incentive aimed at encouraging employees to cycle to work. You could save between 38 and 45 per cent on the price of a new bike. For more details see www.bikeforall.net. If your employers are not involved in the scheme, try to persuade them to give it a go. Simply print off the details and explain how your boss will benefit from fitter, healthier, more alert workers.
It's also worth looking at tri packages. Some tri companies put together a package of tri essentials - which includes a top-quality bike - that can save you a lot of money.
SBR Sports is offering an £829 starter package, comprising a Trek 1.2 Road Bike (£550), Orca Equip Trithalon Wetsuit (£150), Orca Equip Tri-suit (£50), Giro Indicator Helmet (£35), Shimano TR31 Triathlon Bike Shoes (£90), Look Keo Classic Pedals (£30), SBR Saddle Bag (£15), SBR Bento Box (£15), SBR Neoprene Waist Bag (£19), SBR Race Laces (£5) and SBR Race Belt (£5).
Step 3 Make it last
When you get your dream bike - treat it well. "A bike can last a lifetime if you look after it and maintain it properly," says Nicole Cook. She recommends giving your bike a thorough clean once a week with soapy water and a soft cloth. While cleaning, check for signs of wear and tear. Rinse off, lubricate moving parts, then leave to dry.
Remember to store your bike in a damp-free place. Keep tyres pumped up to reduce the risk of punctures. And have your bike serviced at least once a year.
Cutting costs elsewhere
Keep it local. Triathlons often start very early. Avoid having to fork out for accommodation the night before by entering races that you can drive to.
And keep it small. This year the London Triathlon (www.thelondontriathlon.co.uk) costs £73 for the individual sprint or £78 for the Olympic distance, but the Leicester Flashman Triathlon cost just £21 to enter (sprint distance) in 2008. (See www.leicestertriathlonclub.co.uk for details.)
Discover the joys of secondhand tri gear. I snapped up an almost-new tri-suit on eBay for £14 - a fraction of the amount it would have cost new.
Try clothing discount ranges. Aldi's Crane Sport cycling tops and jackets start at approximately £6.99 and are hard to beat for value.
Get swapping. "I couldn't get on with my bicycle saddle - and heard another club member complaining about his saddle," says Duncan Hough of the Birmingham Running and Triathlon Club. "We swapped - and discovered a perfect fit."
Join the British Triathlon Federation (either Triathlon England, triathlonscotland or Welsh Triathlon) and you'll save up to £5 on race entry fees, according to spokesperson Peter Holmes. It's cheaper to join as a club member than as an individual (£40 compared with £51 for Triathlon England) - so it's well worth joining your local tri club, too. For more information on the BTF, and to find your nearest registered club, log on to www.britishtriathlon.org. Joining later in the season can also mean a discounted membership fee.
A helmet that meets British safety standards. It's essential for races and many tri clubs won't let you train without one
A good lock. Police recommend you spend 10 per cent of the value of your bike on a lock
Reflective clothing and lights
(Stuff you'll gradually acquire)
Cycle shoes and pedals to give more power to your pedalling. If you aren't ready yet, fit toe clips or cages onto your ordinary pedals
Glasses to protect your eyes from grit and bugs
Cycling shorts/leggings and other clobber to make your ride
www.thecyclingexperts.co.uk (Association of Cycle Traders)
www.tritalk.co.uk/tritrade/index.php (this has links to classifieds and eBay links)
www.britishcycling.org.uk (this has a classifieds section)