Triathlons – especially those of 70.3 miles or longer – can be quite the logistical challenge. We need to stay warm enough and cool enough. We need to avoid sun burn. We need to stay fed and hydrated. We need to carry spare tubes and tires. Oh, yeah – and we’d like to move along quickly while doing all of these things.
This article will focus on the bike portion of these events. More specifically, we’ll focus on the ever-worsening challenge of trying to carry all of our stuff with us.
As of today, there is no ‘standard’. No best-practice of carrying food, fluids, and whatever else you want to bring along. There are simply too many ways to piece the puzzle together. Some people like clincher tires. Some like tubulars. Some prefer an all-liquid diet for their Ironman – and some like a full buffet of solid food. Some of us use a GPS, a power meter, and a Go Pro camera… and some are happy with a wrist watch and plain water.
As we will discuss in this article, much of what you carry is dictated by your equipment choice. While our own publisher and fit expert, Dan Empfield, will talk your ear off about choosing the right bike based on your physical dimensions – I’ll add another layer on top of that. Get the fit right, but you must also get the practical nuts-and-bolts right, too. Maybe your picture-perfect fit dictates two ideal frames for you – brand X and brand Y. Brand X is a TT-only bike, has zero bottle cages on the frame, a proprietary stem (with no place to put a GPS), and integrated everything. It looks really cool, too. No problem, you say – I’ll just put a rear-mounted hydration system on the back of the saddle. That’s all fine and dandy, but you must consider – is there enough space for your repair kit and two bottles? Do you ride tubular tires? Can you fold up that spare small enough to put somewhere? Do you normally do a flying bike mount in T1? Can your leg clear the bottles behind the saddle? You could also put a bottle between your aerobars, but where do you put your GPS display? And your Salt Stick dispensers… they can’t fit in to the ends of that sleek aerobar.
Brand Y may have the same fit dimensions, but offer a bottle mount on the frame and a non-proprietary aerobar – complete with a separate non-integrated stem. All of a sudden you have a lot more places to put things.
We will examine each category of items you might want to bring along on your bike, and attempt to guide you through the ins and outs of choosing the right setup for you. Categories include hydration, food, electrolytes, electronics, tools, and cameras/lights.
I’ll start with hydration for two reasons: 1) It’s important to your racing success, and 2) It’s likely the bulkiest and heaviest thing you have to carry on your bike. All other decisions flow from your hydration (pun intended).
In the photo above, you see an array of options. Behind the imaginary saddle, that’s a Profile-Design RM1 bottle carrier. The ‘frame’ carrier is a Sampson EZ cage. Up front, there are a few choices. First, the Xlab Torpedo mount between the bars. Next to that, the similar product from Profile, called the HC Mount. Finally, the Profile Aero Drink – the wildly popular vertical bottle system we’re all familiar with.
What’s right for you? The first decision to make – before anything else – is the number of bottles on your frame. Your options range from zero to two (some custom bicycles can also have a third on the bottom of the down tube).
The Giant Trinity Advanced SL, pictured above, has an integrated stem and no bottle mounts. This does not make it a good or bad bike – it simply dictates that you cannot put bottles in the frame, and you cannot put a standard computer mount on the stem. These items must go elsewhere.
The other main locations for fluids are behind your saddle and between your aerobars (a third option exists for Specialized Shiv owners – inside the frame).
Behind-the-saddle carriers are an easy way to hold a lot of stuff. There are two main potential questions to ask yourself – 1) Do I want to do a ‘flying bike mount’ in T1, and 2) Do I have enough seatpost exposed to accommodate other things I might want to carry on the rear of the bike?
For me, the first question is the reason I usually do not use a rear-mounted hydration system. Simply put, I’m not a contortionist, and my leg can’t safely clear the bottles to run and jump on my bike. Trust me – I’ve tried. Not triathlete does this, but just be aware of the potential issue before buying that new bike.
The second part has more to do with the other things you put on your bike. If you’re short and have very little seatpost exposed, a rear-mounted carrier could take up all of your real estate. Is there enough space for a rear light? What about a fender for those rainy days? Or a rear light AND a fender? As an example, here’s a 48cm Cervelo P2 with my custom PVC light mount. It has a Tacx saddle-mounted hydration system, and just enough space for the light below:
Bottle Between the Bars
Your other option is to go between the bars. Some folks swear by the verticle-style-bottle, such as the Profile Aero Drink:
These work out quite well – but they dictate that you cannot put anything else between your aero bars. If you have an integrated stem, such as the Giant Trinity or older nosecone Shiv, that leaves you improvising to put your Garmin GPS somewhere. My take-home: If you love the Aero Drink, you should probably look at bikes with standard stems.
You can also use a horizontal bottle carrier, such as this Xlab Torpedo Mount:
This style of mount has become increasingly popular. They take up most of the space between the bars, but usually still allow the use of a computer mount – positioned to the outside of the aerobar extension (which we will discuss later). The other upside is that most wind tunnel data I’ve seen shows a slight aerodynamic improvement with this style of bottle.
Aside from hydration, food choice is likely high on your priority list for long course racing. Your first option – and a very good one – is the simple ‘Bento Box’ that goes behind your stem:
We see these being used by professionals and amateurs alike. They’re simple and they work.
However, they don’t work very well on a lot of newer triathlon bikes. Many of them have cables that enter behind the stem, such as my 2010 Felt DA:
I have seen some folks wrap the Velcro straps around their cable housings, which can sometimes work. The only issue there is that it moves the bento box further back in to knee-swinging-territory. If you’re a ‘narrow pedaler’ – this might not work for you.
The next option is one of my favorites – the aerobar bento box. Here’s mine, from TNI:
These work great, but are mutually exclusive with an aerobar hydration system.
If your bike doesn’t allow a standard bento box behind the stem – and you prefer to use an aerobar hydration system, where do you put all of that food? You’re left with jersey pockets, or the triathlon gold standard:
Some people scoff at the ol’ gel-taped-to-the-top-tube. Don’t worry about those people – if it works for you, it works. I’ll argue that if you’ve never taped a gel to your top tube, you can’t officially call yourself a triathlete in the 21st century. It’s a rite of passage that ranks up there with peeing in your wetsuit. Don’t argue with me on this one.
By now, we’re starting to run out of space to put things. Lucky for you, Salt Stick has a very elegant carrying solution for your electrolyte tabs. Pictured below are my two favorite options for mounting Salt Stick dispensers:
On the right, one of the dispensers is mounted inside the back of the Profile aero extension. This alone is a huge reason for aerobar manufacturers to leave exposed ends on their aero extensions (i.e. that do NOT terminate inside the base bar). Profile-Design gets an A+, too, because there are extra cable exit holes on the bottom of the aero extensions, for those who want to plug Salt Stick dispensers in the back. You can still route the cables internally for half of the aerobar’s length. Three cheers for manufacturers playing nice together!
On the left of the above photo, you see my alternate method of mounting Salt Stick dispensers – a rubber band. I’ve used this method on a variety of aerobars; it works with most anything out there. The key is using a thick rubber band, and making sure it fits tight enough to keep the dispenser from spinning.
For those who do not use Salt Stick dispensers, your other easy option is to use a small plastic container – a Tic Tac container works well, or even an old Nuun tablet holder. Put either inside your bento box or jersey pocket, and you’re golden.
While the old triathlon guard may scoff at us, our electronic gadgets are here to stay. Where do you put them?
Above, you see the most popular mounting positions for computers and GPS systems. The first is a Tate Labs Bar Fly TT mount in between the aerobars. These little guys are sleek, simple, and sturdy.
On the stem, I have a CycleOps Joule GPS quarter-turn mount:
Note that the interface for the Joule GPS is not the same as Garmin (the mounts are unique to each manufacturer). These stem mounts are fantastic – easy to install and secure. The only hitch is that they can be too far back (too close to the rider) to see the display while in your aero position.
This is where the aero extension mounts come in handy – like the Bar Fly. These are made for 22.2mm extensions, which have become the industry standard. If you put something else between your aerobars (i.e. food or fluid) – you can but the Bar Fly mount on so it faces to the outside of your aerobars.
Xlab has their own unique solution – a computer mount that is integrated with their Torpedo bottle mount:
I’ve successfully used this with the quarter-turn stem mounts from CycleOps and Garmin, and it stands as one of the best solutions to this problem. If you have a non-computer-friendly stem and want to use a horizontal bottle, it might be your ONLY option, short of fabricating something on your own.
Tools and Spares
Most of us carry some sort of repair kit – at least for long-course racing. This typically includes a spare tube or tubular tire, a multi-tool, tire levers, and a CO2 inflator.
The obvious choice to carry these things is a bag mounted under your saddle. I really like this micro bag from Jandd:
In case it’s not obvious, this gets complicated when using a rear-mounted hydration system. Some, such as this Xlab wing, accommodate the use of a bag within or underneath the system:
What if your rear hydration system does not work like this – or you don’t want to give up the space underneath? One option is to cut off the top of a bottle, and stuff the tools inside:
I used that cutoff Zipp bottle for an Ironman, and it got the job done. The Profile system also allows placement of threaded CO2 cartridges on the side. The compromise of this choice is that you’re giving up a water bottle space – so you’ll likely need one on your frame or bars.
Cameras and Lights
The use of cameras and lights can really complicate things. You might find that after you’ve strapped on your bottles, food, electrolytes, and tools, you simply don’t have any space left.
For lights, you have an easy out on your helmet. Many modern lights have some sort of helmet mount, which frees up your handlebars for other items. If you happen to have free space between your aerobars, a good option is to make a 31.8mm accessory mount from PVC pipe, which we detailed in the article linked at the bottom of this page.
On the rear of the bike, your two location choices are the seatpost and saddle rails. I’ve seen some sleek saddle rail camera systems, which obviously displace tool kits or hydration systems. For lights, the seatpost tends to be the easiest option. If you have an aero post, a PVC adapter might be necessary, such as the Cervelo P2 shown above.
What’s best for you?
The best way to proceed is to make some sort of decision tree – and don’t wait until the day before your race to do it. In fact, this should be part of the bike-buying process. Here is a very basic of example of some of the questions you might ask yourself:
You can take this as far as you want to. Be your own devil’s advocate. Try to think of every race distance an possible setup – and the best ways to accommodate everything.
My two cents of editorial opinion – after trying nearly every bar, saddle, and frame-mounted system – is this: Keep it simple and use what you’re comfortable with. What works for others might not work for you.
Some people legitimately prefer a super minimal setup. While I’m admittedly a little jealous of their cool-looking bikes, I know from experience that it doesn’t work for me. On the flip side, I sometimes question the people with six bottles, two spare tubulars, and twenty gels taped all over their bike. Do they really need all of that? I don’t know – maybe they do.
I can tell you with certainty that it is always easier to have extra options and not use them – than to need more options and not have them. If your frame has two bottle mounts, but you only use one – no problem. Take the second cage off. If, however, you determine that you really want one or two bottles on the frame, but the frame doesn’t accommodate it – you’re out of luck.