Beating a plowshare into a sword

I have never been a fan of “making it work” when it comes to tools.  I don’t like taking one tool and repurposing it for another use.  It never works as well.  I have always been of the philosophy that if you are going to do anything, do it the right way.  If you can’t make the full committment, just be patient until you have the funds to get the tools you need.

That being said, I found myself in the hypocritical position of having to take a tool designed for one purpose and beat it into something that would work in my situation.  Standing on principal is fine when you have the means to do so, but my conflict was that the equipment (in this case a dedicated road or triathlon bike) was WAY beyond my means.  Yet I set a goal of competing in triathlons, which requires just that specialized type of gear.  The prospect of even an entry level triathlon bike ($1800) was just out of the realm of reality.

And in the case of a triathl0n bike in general, it is a unique piece of equipment that is purpose built.  Buying a tri-bike commits you to a lot of things.  The riding position, geometry, components… everything is just set up different.  It’s not a bike to buy “first”.  What if you don’t like triathlon?  What if you can’t commit to the training?  You now have a piece of equipment that is pretty much useless in other situations and downright illegal in others (mass start races).

So…  Now what.

Last year I bought a Kona Jake.  It’s a great cyclocross bike that you can go just about anywhere on.  It’s comfortable, has decent, entry level components and was the perfect choice for me at the time to use as a commuter/trail bike.  It has road bike geometry, drop handlebars, knobby tires on 700c rims.  I really like the bike.  I paid about $1000 for it at an end of season sale.  So why not just use it?

Because I know me.  Unless I jump in the water and go straight to the bottom, I WILL be doing this for a while, hopefully.  In fact, on the same day I signed up for my first triathlon, I also signed up for the Club National Championships.  No pressure there…  But I felt it was the only way to force myself to make the committment necessary to the training.  I needed a big goal.  Otherwise I was worried that I would just do my first one and it would end up being my only one.  Even though, at the time, I had never swam a lap for exercise in my life.

So with the reality of having to use the equipment I had staring me in the face, I started looking at what I would have to do to beat my plowshare (cyclocross bike) into a sword (triathlon acceptible) bike.  What are the differences?

Let’s look at a triathlon specific bike.  I’m not going to go to far into the world of geometry, angles and the other nuances that triathlon geeks can spend hours at the bar talking about.  Here are the basics.

  1. The seat tube (the one your seat post goes in) is usually closer to vertical than a road bike
  2. The rider sits in a position more forward (closer to the handlebars) and over the pedals than a road bike
  3. The handlebars are usually lower than the seat.  This puts you in a more aero position.
  4. Real triathlon bikes also have aerobars that drop the rider into a more comfortable (allegedly) and aero position.
  5. The front fork is usually at a little more relaxed an angle.
  6. The top tube (the one that goes from the handlebars to the seat) is usually shorter to move the rider forward.

Now, what about my bike?  This type of cyclocross bike is basically a beefed up, entry level road bike.  The components are adequate to start.  The tires are knobby and have a high rolling resistance (they slow you down compared to real road tires).  The seat tube is more relaxed which moves the rider back.  The bar stem (attaches the handlebars to the front fork) is angled up to give the rider a more upright riding position and also has spacers under it to raise the rider up even more.  It has 3 chainrings on the front (where the pedals are) and the biggest chainring is still smaller than the biggest chainring on a road bike.  It has an extra set of brake levers mounted on the inside of the handlebars.

So there are quite a few differences…  I asked a local expert if it was possible to make enough changes to be able to use this bike for my first season.  Surprisingly he said that my bike wasn’t that far off of being a decent entry level bike.

Here is what we did:

  1. We had to replace the handlebars.  I wanted to mount some clip on aerobars to them but the way the handlebars on this particular bike are designed they taper at just the wrong spot so there was no way to mount them properly
  2. Since we had the front of the bike apart, I removed the granny levers since I don’t need them and they were in the way.
  3. I put skinny tires and tubes on my existing rims.  Be prepared!  Training/racing tires are EXPENSIVE for the tiny amount of rubber you get.
  4. I put a new seat post on.  The old seat post swept back (toward the rear tire) at the top and would have left me really stretched out trying to reach the aero position.  The vertical post moved me forward almost an inch and a half, which put me in a nearly perfect position.  Good enough to start!
  5. I put on Shimano 105 clipless pedals and got triathlon specific bike shoes.

Total cost of all this was about $400.  So to take my bike ($1000) and make it usable (+$400) saved me $400 over buying a triathlon bike ($1800+).  And I still have all the parts so if I get into this and just hate it, I can always swap everything back out and go back to my regularly scheduled programming.

So what was the result?  The bike is awesome.  It’s very comfortable, much faster and perfect for a beginner like me.  Triathlon has changed my philosophy a bit about equipment.  Honestly, right now I don’t have a triathlete’s body.  I’m about as “aero” as a basketball.  I can learn on this bike, get in shape on this bike and compete on this bike for at least a year.  When I look in the mirror one day and I see a triathlete looking back at me and I am at my ideal weight, maybe the equipment will start to make more of a difference.  Until then, the extra weight of this bike (maybe 3-4 lb heavier than an entry level tri-bike) is actually a good training aid!  And maybe the extra beef in the frame will keep my fat butt from breaking it…

So to make a short story REAALLLYY long…  If you are thinking about getting into triathlon, your first order of business is YOU.  Get your body in shape.  Triathlon isn’t easy (even the short ones) or everyone would do it.  Don’t worry about your bike (unless you don’t have one…!) because you can make what you have work to start.  Then, once you get hooked and have put in a year of good training and competing, you will know more about what you want and need.  Make sense?

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