When it comes to triathlon kit, the bike is likely to be your biggest single purchase. Don't be surprised if your eye is drawn toward top-of-the-range time-trial bikes with exquisitely sculpted carbon frames, swooping aero bars and deep-section carbon wheels. They are beautiful-looking machines that go very fast, but there are other considerations.
You may wonder if you need a training bike, too. Then you'll find yourself adding up the hours you're expecting to ride in competition and then the training hours - newcomers typically train 10 times longer than they spend actually racing in a season - and you may begin to get the queasy feeling that you're involved in a sport that's going to have you digging very deep into your pockets.
It doesn't have to be that way. One bike will do you when you're new to the sport. To prove it we rode and assessed five road bikes ranging in price. Then we set them up with a USE Boost Bar (www.use1.com), adjusted the seat position and assessed them afresh, this time as time-trial bikes. There you have it: two bikes for the price of one.
Alongside the five tri-friendly road bikes, we decided, purely in the interests of comparison, you understand, to test a full-on tri-specific race rig, in this case the CEEPO Viper. Used by regular podium toppers such as Belinda Granger and Gina Ferguson you'll see this one at half and full Ironman races around the world in 2010.
FOCUS Cayo 105 £1,500
Focus continues to grow in size and standing, supported by some heavy marketing from Wiggle. Its reputation for great builds and value is creeping into the system and it's beginning to undercut many of the leading brands. The Focus Cayo 105 will only enhance its reputation.
As well as an all-new carbon frame in 2010, this bike features a tapered head tube like that on the top-of-the-range frame; tube diameters that vary with frame size to give the same stiffness across the whole range; and carbon-fibre dropouts.
The frame weighs 1,280g, according to Focus, and it's a classic example of yesterday's top-end technology trickling down to bikes most of us can afford. It's equipped with Shimano 105 gears and Fulcrum 7 wheels, and it makes quite a statement with its white paint job and striking blue decals.
Once riding this bike, I am happy to note that manufacturers are these days becoming more competitive with their frame offerings, finding an excellent balance of stiffness and compliance. On the move the carbon frame glides effortlessly over the rougher road surfaces and a neutral yet stable steering setup soon has me throwing the bike around.
Out of the saddle the Cayo responds well, the combination of the chunky bottom bracket body and the slightly oversize chain stays eliminating any chance of drive flex. The 105 drivetrain works well, the gears are slick, and the brakes are smooth and reliable.
It takes little time to drop the USE Boost Bars onto this bike. The cockpit seems a little bit roomier than I expected, allowing me to get into a better position down on the bars, and the headset stack allows me to really drop the stem low to make the most of an aero position.
It seems to me that the classic frames (ie not compacts) convert better to time-trial rigs with the small adjustments we are making. The ride as a TT bike is encouraging, I can imagine some deep-section wheels and an inline seatpost, and this bike would be ready to race half-Ironman UK or the Helvellyn Triathlon. So, as far as races go, this would be a great all-rounder.
Frameset: Focus Cayo Carbon Fibre
Shifters: Shimano 105
Seatpost: FSA SL280
Wheelset: Fulcrum Racing 7
Sizes: XXS (48cm), XS (50cm), S (52cm) M (54cm), L (56cm), XL (58cm), XXL (60cm), XXXL (62cm)
How it rated
As a road bike 8/10
As a TT bike 8/10
Boardman Road Bike Team Carbon £999
The range of Boardman bikes looks great, with the marbled carbon appearance giving every frame a quality sheen. The company points out that the ultralight unidirectional T700 carbon fibre monocoque frame is designed to provide an optimum strength-to-weight ratio, so I wanted to test that claim.
We tested the popular Team Carbon edition, representing great value at £999 and kitted out with SRAM Rival 20-speed gearing.
At first the bike felt fine, its neutral angles delivering the sort of handling one would expect from a bike with stock road geometry, and certainly on the flat and in a straight line this bike has plenty to recommend it.
Heading deeper into the countryside I encountered hills and got out of the saddle to give the bike some welly. And this is when I was hit by a curious feeling: I had the sensation that my legs were on a day off - I could see them going round but there was something missing. The new oversize 1.5" lower headset bearing makes for accurate steering and maximum strength but unfortunately it also makes for a solid and block-like front end. Then, at the bottom bracket, there is no give and this translates into a heavy feeling.
I was disappointed as I trundled back to fit the USE Boost Bars and push the seat forward to achieve a racier, TT position. Back out on the road, I had another go, this time delivering hard seated efforts.
The bike goes, don't get me wrong, and with the Boost Bars attached I could get into a fairly good tuck, but the ride still felt unresponsive and wooden.
In summary, this bike did not deliver what I was expecting. And then I remembered it costs less than £1,000. It does feel as if shortcuts have been made in frame design to deliver a bike at this price with the equipment it has - SRAM Rival is fine and the Ritchey finishing kit is as good as ever.
Overall, the bike represents fairly good value for your money, but try before you buy to see if you like the ride.
Frameset: T700 Carbon Fibre monocoque
Shifters: SRAM Rival
Seatpost: Ritchey Comp
Wheelset: Ritchey Pro
Sizes: S (54cm), M (55.5cm), L (57cm), XL (58.5cm)
How it rated
As a road bike 6/10
As a TT bike 6/10
Cervelo S1 Ultegra £999
(Frames, forks, headset and seatpost). Full build, as tested, £2,600.
Best For TT
The Cervélo S1 is an interesting animal. The bike I tested was equipped with a full Ultegra groupset and carbon/alu RS Eighty wheels (total cost, with all the trimmings, was £2,600) so Cervélo hasn't scrimped to bring this bike together and it feels good on the first ride. After 20K I am thrilled to be pushing the bike hard - the slim, aerofoil Smartwall 2 tubeset seems to be slicing the air with ease as I complete laps of Richmond Park.
However, I still suspect that this bike won't appeal to everyone. Some riders out there may feel that the idea of aluminium is a just a little old school and others may have horrible memories of the harsh ride that aluminium can give.
Being honest, the bike is not as comfortable as a carbon machine, but the combination of the tested Cervélo frame, carbon post, and Continental tyres give a very fast yet compliant ride. I'd be happy to sit on this one for a four-hour training ride or a flat-out 40K time trial.
So that's what we did on the test - as soon as I dropped the USE Boost Bars onto this machine and reversed the Cervélo's proprietary aero carbon seatpost, giving a 76-degree effective seat angle versus the standard 73 degrees, I was rewarded with a transformation I could hardly believe.
The front end on the Cervélo can be brought low by the removal of headset spacers and this allows a good aero tuck to be achieved. The bike is seriously quick. I was impressed.
Being aluminium means its tough, too, and this will suit any of the power-hungry big riders out there who demand strength in their bikes.
The aero-frame design, with its teardrop down tube, flat bladed fork and internal cable routing is a clear indication that this bike came from a family full of thoroughbred TT racers.
This bike is a great entry point for weekday training and weekend time-trial racing. It's a quality package (albeit a little pricey) and with its pedigree, aerodynamics and spirited performance it cannot fail to put a smile on your face.
Frameset: Cervélo Smartwall TrueAero
Shifters: Shimano Ultegra
Seatpost: Cervélo aero carbon seatpost
Sizes: 48cm, 51cm, 54cm, 56cm, 58cm, 61cm
How it rated
As a road bike 8/10
As a TT bike 9/10
Cannondale Super Six SRAM Rival £2,699
Best For Road
Cannondale has been weaving technology into its bike frames for a long time and this year's offering, the Super Six range, continues the tradition.
I gasp as I take the new SRAM Rival-equipped machine from its box because my hand hardly reaches around the down tube. Cannondale has always liked the big tubes and seems to relish the challenge of finding the perfect balance of stiffness and compliance in its frames.
Looking at the stack of figures on the tech sheet, I can see that this frame is stiffer and more compliant than most of its competitors.
First indications are good: the bike gets many admiring looks as I climb on and soon I'm spinning my way happily along the local roads. The ride is tight, almost compact, and the frame has a spring to it, making it accelerate encouragingly - the bike seems to pull you along; it makes you want to go faster. And faster.
It also corners and stops well; in fact, the only slight letdown for me is the modest-grade SRAM Rival gear train, which seems a bit clunky. Everything else is fine - the FSA carbon crankset looks great and transfers the power efficiently.
Suitably impressed and exhilarated, I head back to base to set the bike up for time trialling. On go the oversize USE Boost Bars and the saddle is pushed forward. Out on the road again the Cannondale becomes a different beast.
The heart is still there but the bike has been transformed into something else. And, to be honest, it doesn't feel so good. I suddenly realize why I liked this bike in the first place - it's a road bike, designed for road riding. It really is a pure-bred with the road racer in mind.
And that is what it comes down to: if you want to go fast, zip up hills and jump away from the bunch, then this is the perfect weapon, but for sitting down and knocking out a fast 40K, this machine feels a little cramped, and a little too upright. I roll home and do the decent thing - I take the aero bars off and log on to the Cannondale website to look at their tri-specific Slice.
Frameset: Super Six Carbon
Shifters: SRAM Rival
Seatpost: Cannondale C2, UD Carbon
Wheelset: Mavic Ksyrium Equipe
Sizes: 48, 50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 63cm
How it rated
As a road bike 9/10
As a TT bike 5/10
Giant Defy 2 £825
The Giant Defy 2 is a budget-priced entry-level racer. It features a clean-looking fluid-formed aluminium frameset, Shimano Tiagra for the shifting work and Shimano Sora in the braking department. No doubt about it, this is solid, reliable equipment.
A Giant-branded finishing kit is functional, as expected, and the Mavic CXP22 wheels come with Kenda treads. All in all, what we have here is a trusted, no-nonsense combination from this value-for-money super-manufacturer. On paper it looks like a bargain, but Giant bikes usually do. The real test is out on the road.
After an initial testing session I was a little nonplussed. This bike rides well; it does everything right, but something's not right.
Firstly, it is quite heavy, but then it's a budget bike. The extra weight means it takes more effort to get to speed and it's slower over the hills. But the geometry is sound and when climbing it is balanced and stable.
It also descends well; the Sora brakes are not as smooth as they could be but they work powerfully enough. Perhaps a softer set of pads would improve that situation.
This aluminium frame lacks some refinement and the ride is somewhat harsh. I know that over a longer training ride this bike would tire me, and in a race scenario, being tired on the bike isn't something that is going to help you on the run. So the Giant definitely loses a point or two there.
When fitting the Boost Bars to this bike, I find that the front end is brought up higher than it is on the other bikes. I notice that the geometry is the most relaxed of the bikes on test and this does not make for a truly aero position. But once again, when out riding, the bike does everything asked of it and it behaves well; road vibration at the front end is not transmitted through the arm rests, thanks to the carbon fork.
I'd give this bike the nod for a first-year triathlete on a budget or someone finding out if they like the sport or not. It's a valuable stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Frameset: Giant ALUXX SL
Shifters: 18-speed Shimano Tiagra
Seatpost: Giant Connect SL (composite)
Wheelset: Mavic CXP22
Sizes: S (46.5cm), M (50cm), M/L (53.5cm), L (55.5cm), XL (58.5cm)
How it rated
As a road bike 7/10
As a TT bike 6/10
CEEPO Viper £3,500
(Frame, forks, headset and seatpost). Full build as tested, £5,500.
This is an out-and-out TT racer designed with triathletes in mind. As your eyes wander over the Batman-like curves of the high-modulus carbon frameset, you can only think that this thing is designed to go fast. Very, very fast.
Since CEEPO owns and designs its own carbon-frame moulds, the company can control the complete design, engineering, production and material selection for its bikes. This machine is designed to cut through the air like a scythe.
Exploring the low-rise front end, the heavily bladed aero fork with rear mounted brake, the internal cabling and, again, those sweet, intriguing mould curves, it becomes apparent why in 2010 the Ironman M dot will be seen on CEEPO Viper frames. This bike has been designed and built to offer long-distance time-trial performance and comfort.
That's the hype. But how does it ride? Crouching low over the integrated CKT Concord bar I was happy to find a comfortable, lightweight and notably stiff front-end setup. The benefits of internal wiring - for aerodynamic benefit and sleek lines - are clear and a built-in speedometer and HRM holder are nice touches.
As I pedal up the road, power transfer is as direct and immediate as you would expect. Something I didn't expect was the behaviour of the bike off the power and in the turns. Stopping power from the Tektro units was adequate but not punchy from the carbon rim brake setup. However, I liked the compliant ride of the 38mm Carbon CEEPO Racing rims. The Dura Ace gear train gives its usual reliable performance as I zip along the A4074.
Overall, this is an impressive bit of kit on the Tarmac, fast but strangely comfortable, too. I can see that CEEPO has done the work when it comes to building a TT bike that allows the athlete to get off and run.
Capable of aiding PBs this bike will be impressive on all-out flat TT courses, but with an equally impressive price tag, it is likely to stay in the elite market. If you're lucky enough to be able to dig deep, get ready for some fast times and plenty of admiring looks.
Frameset: Ceepo Viper High Modulus Carbon
Shifters: Dura-Ace bar-end shifters
Sizes: M, L
How it rated
As a road bike n/a
As a TT bike 9.5/10
Selecting a winner from the bikes we tested here wasn't easy. However, leaving aside price considerations, the first-choice bike has to be the road bike that excelled as a Time Trial convert and
the Cervelo S1 was the bike that impressed the most in this area.
It performed superbly, and its various features only add to its ranking as best of the bunch. The FOCUS Cayo is a close second place as a time-trial convert, and I most enjoyed my time on the Cannondale as a pure road bike.
The bike market is big and incredibly competitive, and manufacturers are constantly developing products that better meet riders' needs.
But in this time of economic uncertainty, it makes sense to focus on what's out there for the huge numbers of people who are new to the sport or cannot justify spending money on more than one bike.
And for those people, there needs to be a solution - bikes can be tweaked with clip-on aero bars and different saddles to produce the best compromise between road trainer and time-trial racer. As our tests show, it is possible to achieve a compromise with a decent road bike, a little adjustment and a lot of commitment.
We also tested an out-and-out thoroughbred to give an indication of what this kind of machine is capable of. Hopefully, one of the bikes on test (possibly not the Ceepo to begin with) can help you reach your goals in the exciting race season to come.