The fastest ride money can buy

There's a saying that goes, "A penny saved is a penny earned." My guess is that the person who coined this statement never rode a triathlon or time trial bike. If they had, the saying might go, "A penny spent may be a minute earned."

Triathletes live and bonk by this philosophy. We're early adopters. Give us that new technology -- aero this, ergo that -- anything and everything to shave those precious seconds off our end time. We'd race with a bottle full of electrolyte-enhanced booze if we thought it'd guarantee a podium spot. At least I would.

But what's really worth spending all our hard-earned pennies on? Flipping through a buyer's guide issue of any sports-specific rag does nothing but induce bewilder-driven drool, sometimes leaving us with more questions than we started with. So what's the answer? What upgrades will give us -- and our bike -- the edge that's worth giving up so many pennies?

Wheels

Disc wheels
You hear them before you see them. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, you want to turn but you're afraid it has finally happened: robots have taken over the planet and are on a mission to destroy (you in particular). Then the whoosh passes and with a sigh of relief you find out that it's only a bike with a disc wheel.

That settles it. Obviously, a disc wheel (a solid rear wheel made of carbon) is a wise investment. After all, you just got smoked by one. But slow down, Highspeed, a disc wheel is expensive, and, for lighter riders, it's hard to handle if there is any kind of crosswind. This makes many riders opt for a Hed 3 type wheelset (about $1,200) which offers a carbon tri-spoke design for better handling in all weather conditions.

Either of these only give any real advantage at high speed (approximately 24 mph plus, from everything I've read). So unless you can maintain that velocity, you may want to keep that credit card in your pocket. Price: $2,000 to $4,200.

Good for: Professionals and extremely aggressive age-groupers.

Deep-V wheelset
A deep-V carbon wheelset may be a more prudent decision. The name derives from what you'd see if you took a cross section of the rim, starting wide at the rim and coming together in a V shape toward the hub. The more dramatic the V, the more aerodynamic the wheel.

These are probably the most common racing wheels out there and every year there are more options. With so many companies making these wheels, there has been a slight drop in price, but they are still expensive, in some cases costing more than a good bike. And generally you only want to race on these wheels, as they are fragile and not worth damaging on the streets during training. Price: $1,300 plus.

Good for: Professionals and aggressive age-groupers.

Technical note: Many deep-V racing wheels offer two types of rims -- clincher and tubular. Clinchers are the more common and generally easier to use. The tire and tube are independent of each other, so if you get a flat you just have to replace the tube. These are like the wheels that most likely came on your bike.

Tubulars are lighter and integrate the tire and tube into one unit. You have to use glue to secure the tire to the rim and if you flat, you have to replace the whole tire. Because the entire rim is carbon you need special brake pads to ride these rims.

High-quality wheels
There is an answer for those on a budget and still hoping to be competitive. For around $500 you can get a fast-rolling wheel with bladed spokes that offers a noticeable improvement without filing Chapter 11. A wheelset like this will generally offer a shallow, aerodynamic V shape, but will be made of aluminum, not carbon. Here's the best part: you can train on them too. Price: $500 to $1,000.

Good for: Age-groupers.

Aerobars

Not much can match the efficient beauty of Lance Armstrong powering through a time-trial stage during his record-breaking Tour run. Unlike most age-groupers, Mr. Seven Tour Wins is in a very aggressive aero position. Though he started his athletic career in triathlon, these days he doesn't run a step, let alone a marathon, after getting off his TT bike, which allows him to be more aggressive than the average triathlete.

Getting used to aerobars takes some, well, getting used to. But once you're comfortable, aerobars will give you some extra oomph (emphasis on the MPH). You can spend a lot on aerobars, but generally this is a very affordable upgrade. Price: $60 to $700.

Good for: All triathletes.

Powermeter

And you thought you got your power from a chewy candy-like bar that may or may not taste like what its label claims. How wrong you were. Powermeters are the latest in the ongoing effort to create the most efficient cyclist. These handy little devices are integrated into your bike's rear hub or crankset and measure your power output, heart rate, speed, etc.

By measuring a rider's power output (watts) they can very accurately determine energy spent, providing a plethora of data to further advance their training. For the average racer, this is well over the cost-versus-gain threshold. A heart-rate monitor and cycling computer with cadence will give you enough data to make great strides in training, and you won't have to take out a second mortgage. Price: $1,000 to $5,200.

Good for: Professionals and extremely aggressive age-groupers.


Tyson Hart is a bicycle mechanic at NYC Velo and lives in Brooklyn.

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