Cycling vs. Triathlon – A Tale of Two Disciplines

Cycling vs. Triathlon – A Tale of Two Disciplines

Pedalling a bike is pedalling a bike right? Whether we are doing it in a bunch race or sandwiched between a swim and a run? As in most things in modern life, there is no simple answer but if I was forced to choose between ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as my only alternatives, without any clarification, I would answer, no. Of course, that would be a very short article so let’s discuss.

The first complication is that there are two sub-disciplines in both the sports of cycling and triathlon namely: the time trial and the road race in the former, and non-drafting and draft-legal in the latter. The similarities are obvious there so let’s compare like for like as we go.

Non-drafting triathlon and cycling time trials – First the similarities: Both make use of time trial or ‘tri-bikes’ with handlebar extensions and aero positions akin to those adopted by downhill skiers in order to make the cyclist a smaller target for air resistance as they charge forward. These are not legal to use in either of the bunch formats of the two sports for obvious, safety reasons. In both time trials and non-drafting triathlon, every legal aerodynamic piece of equipment is used. From aero helmets to solid disc wheels, all aimed at shaving seconds off a time which is as fast as the rider can cover the set distance. The last two sentences were not technically correct for both sports though, and here we find our first differences.

I used the word ‘legal’ when discussing aerodynamic equipment. Both sports have comprehensive sets of rules but they differ. In cycling, there are a complicated set of these controlling the riders position on the bike. A rider’s height dictates how far forward they can position their saddle and handlebar extensions relative to the bicycle’s bottom bracket. Before going to the start ramp of a time trial, a rider places their bicycle in a jig which determines if their position is legal and they will not be able to take the start if they do not conform. There are also limitations to the bicycle frame itself, prohibiting designs which could be considered fairings that are only on the bike to cheat the wind rather than any other functional application. The bicycle tubes can be made to be more aerodynamic but nothing can be added to the bike or the design of the bike, simply for aerodynamics sake.

In triathlon this is very different. Pretty much anything goes except, that you cannot add on temporary aerodynamic fairings to the bike. A rider’s position is not governed by any parameters and spaces in the frame can be filled in to make a bike less of a target for the wind, or to allow smoother airflow over the frame. For this reason it is correct to differentiate between a ‘time trial bike’ and a ‘tri-bike’. A time trial bike can be ridden in a triathlon but a tri-bike can not in a cycling time trial event.

The second different is indicated when I mentioned that a rider in a time trial and one in a non-drafting triathlon is going as fast as they can. This isn’t one hundred percent correct. The pacing of the two disciplines is quite different for obvious reasons. In a cycling time trial, I rider will often spend more time warming up than they wil spend in the actual race because they want to get straight into their maximum sustainable effort from their first pedal-stroke. In a triathlon there is obviously the swim first, this will definitely get the body up to operating intensity but there are always a few moments in the early part of the cycle where the triathlete has to allow the heart rate to drop slightly after the swim and the run through transition. They are also generally sorting out their gear after transition. Tightening up shoes, getting the number belt positioned correctly etc. Then the work of actually pedalling in anger can begin.

In a bike race, a rider will be on their limits throughout the effort and will try accelerate and ‘empty the tank’ in the final kilometres. A triathlete will always be mindful that they still have to run, so the effort is generally about 10-15% lower than they would be able to sustain if the race ended at the end of the cycle. Most often a triathlete will not hold that intensity all the way to the dismount line either. There is always a minute or two where the triathlete transitions mentally into being a runner, even before they get off the bike. A little less pressure is applied to the pedals and, in the last few metres, the feet are taken out of the shoes in preparation for the dismount.

There are more similarities in bunch cycle races and the draft-legal format of triathlon. For one thing, the bicycles are the same. Triathlon has adopted all the rules of cycling in this regard. From design parameters to minimum weight restrictions. The biggest differences are found in the distances and the way the rides are tackled. Here cycling and triathlon are at opposite ends of the spectrum. In cycling, road races are long and time trials are short. In triathlon, draft-legal is 20-40km, which is the usual distance of a cycling time trial and non-drafting races are up to 180km in an iron-distance race, which is approaching the distance of a cycling road race.

In a cycle race, riders will ease off from the start line and gradually settle into the day ahead. There is often chit-chat and a relaxed air in the bunch and the race will build gradually as the kilometres pass. The race favourites will come to the for in what is termed the ‘finale’, when the real action starts to happen. That is usually in the last hour of the race. In a triathlon, most of the damage is done in the first few kilometres when gaps created in the swim are consolidated by those ahead, or closed by those behind. This results in a very aggressive first few kilometres which are attacked at well over the intensity that the riders would be able to maintain for the whole ride. Once groups are established, the pace settles down to a more steady, sub-threshold pace where those less confident in their running try to build an advantage to take into the final leg, and the stronger runners try to conserve their energy without losing too much time.

When it comes down to it, pedalling is simply pedalling whether you are doing it in a bike race or a triathlon but the demands of each discipline require different strategies in the races and therefore, different plans in training.

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