Most people will attempt their first triathlon on a road bike before investing in a triathlon-specific rig; it’s only at full Ironman races that the transition racks are filled with superbikes. Of course, the allure of a tri bike, with its aggressive geometry and wind-cheating, flamboyant, UCI-flaunting frame designs, is borderline sexual in nature. But it’s wise to exercise caution before making a big purchase, because the same position you assume on a triathlon bike that saves you time in a race is awkward and uncomfortable, much the way a golf swing is for first-time players. Or, as one GP editor’s girlfriend comments, “Why is that seat so high? It looks like a torture device.” Instead of a triathlon bike, riders can get some of the benefits they afford by outfitting their road bikes with clip-on aero bars. In this WTGT, we look at the advantages of going whole hog with entry-level Cervélo triathlon bike versus spending less on the relatively new Switch Aero System by Redshift.

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Cervélo P2 105

Cervelo-Individual-Gear-Patrol

This comparison isn’t a strict apples to super-apples: since what we’re really upgrading is the quality of the aerodynamic position, the choice of any triathlon bike is going to be a little bit arbitrary. However, Cervélo is always the most common brand at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, and their P2 105, updated for 2014, is arguably the best entry-level bike out there.

As we’ve alluded to, fit is king with triathlon bikes, and the new P2 frame comes in seven different sizes (from 45 up to 61), which is virtually unheard of with tri bikes. The smallest size comes with 650c wheels, so smaller triathletes get a bike built to scale rather than just a small frame on large wheels. This number of frame sizes, combined with highly adjustable Profile Design T4 aero bars, means that virtually any triathlete will be able to get on the P2 and ride in an aero position that saves them time and effort.

Besides coming in a wide range of sizes, the bike’s frame is almost identical in shape and exactly the same in carbon composition to the more expensive P3 frame. The P2 is also built to accommodate several water bottles without sacrificing much in aerodynamics, with bottle bosses on the downtube, toptube and a seatpost accessory mount for more one or two more. Finally, the frame has what Cervélo calls “future-proof cable management”, which means that it’s compatible with Di2 shifting and hydraulic rim brakes, should you decide to upgrade from the (already good) components over the life of the bike.

At less than $3,000, this is a great value for a beautiful machine that will make you look like a contender when you rack it up at T1. Whether you really need it as a fledgling triathlete is a separate question, and $3,000, even if it’s a good value in the context of tri bikes, is still an awful lot of money. For that reason, let’s take a look at what you can get for one-tenth of that price.

Redshift Switch Aero System

Redshift-Individual-Gear-Patrol

If you’ve already got a road bike or you know that you like road biking and may want to make the jump to triathlon, the best and most obvious option is to install aero bars, allowing yourself to get in a more aerodynamic and thus more efficient riding position. The challenge here is that most road bikes have a center of gravity that’s farther back in relation to the bottom bracket than tri bikes, so if you simply install aero bars you’ll alter the handling of the bike, close up your hip angle (potentially weakening your pedal stroke) and generally be stretched out too far.

The solution is to make adjustments to your bike by raising, moving forward and adjusting the tilt of the saddle, which is exactly what Redshift did in its very clever Switch Aero System, designed (and originally funded on Kickstarter) by a mechanical engineer who wanted to solve this very problem for himself.

The two-part system is composed of 1) aero bars that attach very easily using a quick-release dovetail clamp, and 2) a dual-position seatpost that switches between the road position and a steeper angle of a tri bike. The aero bars are highly adjustable for pad width, stack height and extension reach, and you can choose between S-Bend and L-Bend shapes made of aluminum or (for an additional $40) carbon material. The seatpost uses a four-bar linkage system that can switch between a standard road position (16mm of rearward offset) and an aero position (34mm of forward offset), a switch that happens by giving the seat a good push in either direction (where it stays thanks to a spring-loaded stop). Should you want to tilt your bike seat forward in the aero position, you can also do that up to five degrees by making an adjustment with an allen key on the front of the seatpost. And should — or rather, when — you want to accessorize with some tri-geek flourishes, Redshift offers an optional water bottle mount and cage that goes between the aerobars as well as a computer mount.

So for $300 you can modify your road bike for triathlon, including the seat tube angle (though we’d still suggest seeing a bike fitter to help you fine-tune the bike to your anatomy). You don’t get the fancy aero frame and a bike that’s truly built for triathlon needs, but you do get to reap the benefits of tucking into the aero position, at a price that makes your jump into triathlon a reversible decision in the unlikely event that you wuss out after your first race.

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