How to Buy a Bike for Your First Triathlon

Josh Powers, your NMA-approved bike coach for the day.

Triathlon newbies everywhere have been befuddled with the same question since the beginning of the sport:

What kind of bike should I buy?

Is it possible to go to Walmart, pick up a cheap beach cruiser with a flowered basket, and coast through your first triathlon?

Yes and no.

For your first triathlon, you probably can get away with it. In fact, while training for and racing in your first triathlon, there’s no need to go out and drop thousands of dollars on a swanky new bike. If you already have a mountain bike that you’re comfortable riding, by all means, hop on that sucker and pedal your little heart out. But if you have to go out and purchase a bike, or if you simply don’t feel like flaunting your newbie stank at your first race, then you’re probably wondering where and how you should go about this purchase.

Lance lied: It’s TOTALLY about the bike.

When I signed up for Ironman, I actually had been training on a mountain bike and an indoor spin cycle. Occasionally, I’d borrow a friend’s road bike. When it came time to purchase my own bike for training and racing, the process actually took me over two months – there was so much to learn! It doesn’t have to be so lengthy and overwhelming, NMAs, I promise.

I’ve recruited the help of Josh Powers of Powers Endurance to help give you some pointers. Josh has been a professional cyclist and cycling coach for 7 years, and has become my favorite riding partner as I’ve prepared for Ironman Wisconsin. He’s made a 112-mile training ride through the freakin’ desert FUN; He’s also wicked smart when it comes to bikes. Naturally, I asked him to help craft a few simple guidelines to keep in mind when browsing the sales floor:

Identify your best bike shop.

Josh and I tend to favor our small, local, mom-and-pop operation or triathlon shop over the big-box bike conglomerates. Not only will you get a bike, you’ll also become part of the community associated with that shop. Smaller shops will invite you to group rides, remember your name and favorite brand of chamois cream when you stop in, and have more patience with you when you ask stupid questions.

You WILL ask stupid questions. That’s okay! You won’t know the answers unless you ask the questions, and a good bike shop will be happy to help you out. If you visit a shop and they get annoyed with this, walk away and find a shop that will embrace your newbie stank.

However, as Josh has taught me, even the most enduring of cycling experts can grow short on patience, so be respectful of their time, use efficiency in your line of questioning, and (most importantly) bring beer. That’s called bribery and it will get you everywhere, especially in the bicycle industry.

Bikes are not one size fits all.

When you go shopping for running shoes, you likely try on multiple pairs until you find one that is the right size, the right style, maybe even the right color. The same principle applies when bike shopping. When you go to your bike shop, let them give you the once-over…they’ll be able to suggest bikes that will work best with your particular body type. They’ll also listen to what your abilities and goals are and suggest a particular type of bike that fits what you’ll need.

The first thing they’ll identify is what kind of a bike you’ll need: a road bike or a triathlon-specific bike (also known as a “tri bike”).

From there, they’ll suggest certain bike brands, sizes, geometry, and frame compositions.

Variety is the spice of life – and bike shopping.

The first bike you try out is probably going to feel “just fine.” But if you buy that bike, take it home, and take it for a 20-mile ride, “just fine” could very well turn into “hella awful.” It’s important to listen to the folks at the bike shop, but it’s even more important to listen to your ass. That’s right, people – we said listen to your ass. You get on multiple bikes and ride ’em. After you try out a couple of different brands and styles, you’ll have an idea of what’s comfortable for you and what’s not.

If you feel like your arms and legs are too stretched out or cramped up, if the saddle feels too hard or too soft, or you’re concerned about sitting up too high or too low on the seat post, don’t give up on the bike immediately. Let the clerk tell you if any modifications are possible. Most bikes will require minor adjustments to be made during a proper bike fitting after purchase.

We can’t stress how important it is to have a bike that fits you well. If you are even the slightest bit uncomfortable on the bike, you’re not going to have an enjoyable experience. If you don’t have an enjoyable experience, you won’t train. If you don’t train, you won’t race. And if you don’t race, you won’t get to be a bad-ass triathlete. That would just be sad.

Pimp your ride!

Once you’ve selected your bike, don’t rush out of the store. There’s a few more items you’ll need to purchase. You know I’m a stickler for safety, people…so get that helmet and wear it every single time you ride. Josh also wants to make sure we put this out there: Have the people at your bike shop adjust your helmet and KNOW WHICH DIRECTION IT GOES ON. Seriously, people – he’s seen enough noobs out there with backwards helmets, and it only does you any good if you plan on crashing backwards.

Other essential items: Glasses (keeps bugs and debris from flying into your eyes – plus you get to check out other hot cyclists without them knowing!), padded bike shorts, RoadID, and a seat bag with a spare tube, multi-tool, and inflation device. If you don’t know what to do with the items you’re toting around in your seat bag, run – don’t walk — to your local bike shop and ask them to teach you how to change a flat tire.

If you really want to cover your newbie stank, there’s a few optional items that will give you more tri cred. However, be warned: Make sure you’ve mastered the fundamentals of riding before you jump up to the next level of add-ons.

If you get a road bike, aerobars can be added to your handlebars fairly easily, though you will need to adjust the fit of your bike and get comfortable shifting and riding in a different, more aerodynamic position. You also can get specialized pedals and bike shoes which clip together, so your feet are always connected to the pedals for a more efficient pedal stroke. Last but not least, if you’re planning on logging some serious miles, invest in a bike computer that will keep track of how fast you’re going, how many miles you’ve traveled, and how many cupcakes you’ve burned off.

Okay, so maybe Lance was a little bit right.

The right bike will make all the difference in the world, but it isn’t solely about the bike. Once you have the bike, it’s up to you to ride it. You can have the fastest, most efficient, most expensive bike in the world, but if you don’t spend the time in the saddle, you’re going to look like a real ass when you get passed by someone on the beach cruiser with the flowered basket from Walmart.

So get out there and ride, NMA tri-noobs. You’ve got a reputation as a bad-ass triathlete to earn.

This post is part of a six-part guide designed to help the beginning triathlete get started (without screwing up too badly).  Check out the entire series!



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  1. Hi! I know this has nothing to do with the post, but what is your favorite AFFORDABLE protein poweder that is non whey or soy? Where can I find it? I Thanks!

    • Hi, Nancy! I prefer hemp protein powder…it is a great source of protein and also is high in iron, a critical element for female vegetarian athletes, and often are high in other elements, such as fiber and Omegas as well. I don’t have a preferred brand…you would need to take a look around your local health food stores. Whole Foods carries several varieties, so that is a good standby — in my region (Arizona), I usually get my hemp protein from Sprouts Farmers Market.

  2. You have no idea how long I have been looking for a post just like this one!! I have been tossing around the idea of biking, but had no idea how to go about picking a bike. I scoured the web for advice – surprisingly I didn’t find much. Thank you thank you thank youuuu!

  3. Great post Susan! Just a couple weeks ago I was the one asking stupid questions at Dick’s Sporting Goods, next time I’ll check out the independent store. Do you have any idea which brand of bike would be the most bang-for-your-buck? I’m interested in cycling, but was topping the budget at a couple hundred. Maybe a used one on Craigslist would do the trick.


    • I would never suggest a specific brand — it’s all about the fit, really. So if you have a price range, search within that price range, but ride each bike before you make a choice to buy and figure out which one fits you best. Used bikes on Craigslist can be great (I actually bought my first road bike on Craigslist, too!) — you also can e-mail your local cycling and triathlon clubs to see if anyone is selling an old bike…they love helping newbies get in to the sport. 🙂

  4. Tri-ing Something New says:

    Great article. During my first triathlon last week, I WAS the person on the beach cruiser from Walmart! No basket, but it did have a bell and fenders.I am in the process of finding a “real” bike. Any tips on whether to go with a tri bike or a road bike? I am very new to cycling, so I am thinking of modifying a road bike because I have heard that they handle better.

  5. Great tips here guys. Yes I believe that a nice bike really does make a difference, I found that I was able to train and race for quit a while with just an old cheap mountain bike . . . I have a couple tips here that might be helpful

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