When I first started out, I was shocked at the cost of a wetsuit and a ‘tri’ bike, for clarity they weren’t really tri bikes back then, more a road bike with clip on bars. Once you have them and you’ve paid the entry fee you are now ready to go. Then, when you turn up for your race you look around and become seduced by all of the wonderful, fast looking stuff that everyone else has, before you know it, you have become convinced that you will never be able to get any faster unless you have something new and shiny too.
If you aren’t careful you can end up a lot poorer only to find that despite having the fast looking gear, you are still going at exactly the same speed.
I went through this many times. When I started I got in to it on a modest budget and at my first couple of races I was hooked over what was available. Like everyone I started to read triathlon magazines, books (the internet ‘thing’ was only just taking off and you needed a very expensive modem and hours to wait for a web page to load) and the more I learned the more I was convinced that I needed all the fancy tech that I really could not afford but was convinced that it was these things that were needed for me to be a much more competitive athlete.
Over the next few years, I started to make these kinds of purchases. (Almost all the expensive purchases related to triathlon involve the bike so this blog will really be around that) I got a set of race wheels, an aero helmet, different aerobars eventually a TT bike and so on. To say that I was disappointed that despite all the ‘investment’, I still was nowhere close to the top third of my age group would have been an understatement.
Eventually, I did get there, and I did own quite a reasonable amount of ‘fast’ gear, what I had wished id known from the beginning is below.
Understanding the concept of marginal gains
Sir David Brailsford is famous for this term. His is that if you can extract out the smallest of gains in every aspect of your athlete and their equipment, then the sum of those gains will be very substantial. For example, remodelling the headtube of the bike might save 2 watts for a rider. That is not a whole lot. But what if you added to that another 2-watt savings from using a wider tire inflated to a slightly lower pressure. And what if you added to that another 4 W from using a lighter more aerodynamic wheel or even a ‘rounder’ wheel as the GB team were once famously accused off by a rival cycle federation…and so on it goes.
You can see that the original marginal gain from the headtube was not that big of a deal but when added to all of the other marginal gains you suddenly had a substantial difference. In triathlon in particular, athletes are similarly looking for marginal gains. Save a little bit here and a little bit there and you will eventually end up saving a whole lot. BUT and this is the crux of the problem, the amount of that ‘savings’ is going to cost you a significant investment in monetary terms and the results may not be quite as big as you think. For example, there is no question that a carbon disc wheel is a faster wheel than any other rear wheel on a time trial bike. But how much faster is going to depend on a couple of factors; how long you are riding it for and how fast you are going. In general, the biggest time savings are going to be for those people who are riding the fastest for the longest amount of time BUT even slower riders get benefits from aerodynamic technology because although they are not moving as quickly, because they are out there for a longer time, they benefit from being more aero for longer. A disc wheel is known to save time but you may be surprised to hear just how much time. Over a 40km race (standard Olympic distance) the time savings for a disc wheel is 30 seconds over an aero wheel and as much as 2 minutes over a standard wheel. When you figure the cost of a disc being north of £1,000 that works out to as much as £33/second saved. That is assuming that you are travelling at the minimum speed to realise those gains.
Are the gains worth it?
Recognising that marginal gains are real and that they can be prohibitively expensive leads to an important consideration; are they worth it? That is a tough one to answer. In practical terms the question is pretty simple-if you are a Pro or competitive athlete fighting for a podium spot or a qualifying slot to a World Championship then clearly, every second counts and at that point £33/second likely does not seem like that big of a deal. But for the average athlete, this kind of expenditure does not seem justifiable.
There is a world of difference between want and need though.
Which gains should be prioritised?
There are a lot of ways for you to spend your money and I am not saying that you shouldn’t buy anything, just that you should prioritise where you spend your money. With that in mind here is a list of the various things that you can buy for your bike to be faster along with the amount of time you can expect to save as well as the costs and the cost per second saved:
Now pay special attention to the top three things on the list: properly fitted tri suit, aerobars and an aero helmet. Those three things in sum will cost you no more than a few hundred pounds/euros and will save you a significant amount of time, more than any of the much more expensive things on this list.
The combination of a super bike and a professional fit with aero wheels +/- a disc wheel will get you a lot more savings but this should be saved for more advanced/serious athletes who have no significant budgetary constraints!
Have fun racing out there.