Pimp my tri bike

What does it take to turn an ordinary bike into a speed machine? A little (OK, a lot) of cash and some of the sweetest components on the market.

You don't need a fancy bike to compete in a triathlon. In fact, most experts will advise you to start small before moving up to the high-ticket, high-end tri bike. And that's what most people do.

But that doesn't mean we can't dream of owning the pimped-out carbon dream Kuota Kalibur, ridden by Normann Stadler to victory in the 2004 Hawaii Ironman. (Bike split 4:37:58.) Of course, if you have $5,000-plus handy, you can duplicate Stadler's ride.

Most of us don't have that option. Pimping out our tri bike sometimes takes time. Maybe you start with aerobars. Then a pair of race wheels. And if you save up, this is the year you might spring for Shimano Dura Ace or Campy Chorus components.

If you can't afford any of that, maybe a new water-bottle cage will have to do. Or you could shave some weight off of your own frame rather than your bike. But what fun is that? If a pimped-out ride is what you're looking for, here are the places where you can turn a normal bike into a pro-level speed machine.

The starter: Felt F90

If you're starting from scratch and interested in an entry-level road bike, the Felt F90 is one of the best bangs for the buck you can find. With a suggested retail price of $630, you'll get a quality ride with an aluminum frame and carbon-fiber fork (which helps dampen some of those bumps in the road). As with most bikes in this price range, here's what you can expect:

  • Frame. Usually standard road-geometry frame, made of aluminum or steel. The carbon-fiber fork in this price range is rare. You usually have to pay more or expect a steel or aluminum fork.
  • Standard spoked wheels. While the DT Swiss spokes on the felt are high-end for the price range, standard spoke wheels are heavier and produce more wind-resistance than racing wheels.
  • Components. The Felt features Shimano Sora 8-speed shifters and front derailleur. It has a Tiagra rear derailleur. Both are at the low-end of Shimano's line.
  • Pedals. Comes with cages rather than clipless pedals. Fine for beginners, but you'll want to add clipless pedals and cycling shoes if you ride for very long.
  • Pimped out

    1. Frame
    The Italian carbon-fiber Kuota Kalibur frame retails for around $2,500. The clear-coated beauty is constructed using the monocoque method, meaning that it is made as a single piece rather than welding or glueing separate pieces at joints that can break more easily. This process is expensive, but it produces a lightweight frame that tends to be stiffer and very good for the time-trial racing done in triathlons.

    In this case, the bike also has a carbon-fiber fork, seatpost and crank. Carbon-fiber enables greater flexibility in design, allowing the cool cut-out in the seat tube that provides better aerodynamics for the rear wheel.

    The Kalibur also features the proper geometry of a time-trial bike, rather than the road-bike design of the Felt F90. This puts the rider in a more aerodynamic position. If the carbon-fiber ride isn't to your liking, other high-end bike frames are made of titanium.

    2. Aerobars
    This bike has Hed's Carbon S-Bend Extension bars ($250), which allow the rider to lean forward in a more aerodynamic position. High-end bikes like this one have shifting levers on the aerobars to allow riders to change gears without moving from the aero position. Brake levers are also extended outward on the Profile handlebars to make them easier to reach than on traditional road bars.

    While this is the configuration of most high-end time trial bikes, for less money you can also add clip-on aerobars to traditional road bars. You'll have to move your hands down to shift, but you're always in the big ring anyway, right?

    3. Components
    This is the stuff that makes the bike go: Bottom bracket, crank, derailleurs, shifters, etc. The Kuota here is outfitted with Campagnolo Chorus components, befitting an Italian frame. Chorus is certainly high-end, with a complete group coming in around $1,000, but you could even go higher with the top-of-the-line Record, which can be as much as $2,000. If you prefer Shimano's high-end offering, Dura Ace is also around $1,000, depending on how much of the group you need.

    What do you get at that price? Lightweight components that let you shift smoothly and ride powerfully. Shimano components range from top-end Dura Ace to Ultegra, 105, Tiagra and Sora. Campagnolo has, from high to low, Record, Chorus, Centaur, Veloce, Mirage and Xenon. You can certainly tell the difference as you make your way up. But if you can't afford the top-of-the-line stuff, Shimano's Ultegra and Campy Veloce are very solid. Also remember you can upgrade a few pieces at a time to keep the cost lower.

    4. Wheels
    While race wheels are expensive, you'll find no other upgrade that has as much immediate gratification. Riding on high-end wheels makes you feel smooth, powerful and fast. The new carbon H3 wheels featured on the Kuota are among the best. They're extremely light (front: 670g; rear: 830g in 700c) and offer much less wind-drag than a traditional 32-spoke wheel. But they are pricey -- $610 for the front and $685 for the rear.

    If you don't want to go that high, you don't need to go full carbon-fiber (although you have to admit, they sure suit this bike). A wide range of aerodynamic wheels are available at several price points. But you should still expect to pay at least $500 for a pair.

    5. Pedals
    You'll need to get rid of those toe cages. Clipless pedals are easier, safer and more efficient -- which means that you'll ride faster. The new Ko Ti Pedals from Look are featured here, and they're a thing of beauty at only 95 grams and $400.

    But you don't need to have cutting-edge titanium to rest your feet on. You can get inexpensive clipless pedals for under $100 that work just fine. Remember that you'll also need cycling shoes, which range anywhere from $60 to $500 and up. It sounds like a lot of money, but once you ride clipped in, you won't go back.

    6. Accessories
    These not-necessarily expensive add-ons can help make for an easier -- and faster -- way of staying hydrated and well-fed. Starting in front, Profile's 32-ounce Aerodrink is a great way to stay in the aero position on those shorter races while ensuring you get enough to drink. It will run you $15 plus $12 for the bracket to attach it.

    The Bento Box is a nylon container that sits on your top tube to help carry energy bars and gels. It should cost less than $15. Finally, the Xlab Flatwing is a creative device that attaches to your seatpost and holds a couple water bottles in addition to CO2 cartridges and an inflator. It retails for around $30, custom pimped-out water bottle not included.

    Special thanks to Mission Bay Multisport, www.missionbaymultisport.com, for their expertise in pimping out the bikes


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