The tri bike landscape is shifting. I hope that's clear. Companies are making some very fast framesets and by that I mean frames, forks, seat posts and brakes, though sometimes that means brakes you have to buy and retrofit to the bike to bring out the frame's best performance. But that's kind of fun in a way. We don't make motorcycles, where what you buy is pretty much what you ride. We make bicycles, and they are made to be fiddled with.
I'm excited by the new generation of tri bikes but I am also frustrated waiting for the aftermarket to catch up. Can I list both the products that I can't find, that somebody ought to make, as well as further frame ideas sitting out there waiting to be developed?
First, I am just stunned that TriRig's Nick Salazar is the one-man aftermarket wrecking crew. Nick is taking Profile Design, FSA, 3T, Deda, PRO, and every other brand to the woodshed, if not in sales, in product innovation. TriRig makes the most desirable aftermarket stems, brakes and handlebars on the market. Nick doesn't give these away. He's not afraid to charge. And, his parts aren't available to dealers. They are available to OEMs, which might seem strange. Usually an aftermarket parts maker sells to dealers but can't afford to sell to OEMs because he can't take the margin hit. Nick says OEMs are fine, because it's a bulk buy and because OEMs pay. He doesn't want to sell onesies to retailers and then chase payment.
But this leaves a huge market out there for a Profile or FSA to exploit, because we heavily rely on our local bike shops. Yes, FSA has made a center pull brake, direct-mount, but it showed this brake upwards of a year ago and still hasn't brought it to market. The only company to make its superbike mortal with a stem that looks like it's made for the frame is Felt (it's pictured above). But even here, if it were me I'd have drilled a housing stop into that Felt stem, and then stuck a rubber plug in it. A flush plug would have given the stem a finished look, much like the plugs in the various bosses placed on tri bikes' top, seat, and down tubes, which you can access or not. Yes, you can use a TriRig center pull brake with its own add-on housing stop but I like that clean look of a bare cable leading down to the caliper.
I don't think anybody needs to make a full size and pitch run of these stems. Just make them –17°, flat to the horizon, and we'll get our elevation by pedestaling the pads. Very few triathletes need these stems to be longer than 100mm (tri bike stems are shorter than that same rider's road bike stem, usually by about 25mm). The fore/aft adjustment of the extensions and pads suck up some of the duty of length adjustment. So, just make this stem in 70mm and 90mm and you're there.
Look at bikes like the P2 and 3, Ordu OMD, PRfive, IA 10, E-117 and others, make a super-mortal-stem that is the best cosmetic match for these frames. Perhaps mold the underside of the stem as a headset dust cover, so that the stem sits flush on the frame, like a superbike's stem.
Do you like descending on pursuit bars that have no upturn at the end? I don't. I can't brace my hands against anything when I'm descending or braking. Felt makes something like what I'm asking for, which is pictured here. It's close. I don't know why Felt isn't selling a set of these to go on every Speed Concept (though I suppose Felt would prefer you just not buy the Speed Concept). But I'd really like something that not only braces my weight, but changes the aspect of my hand. What I want is something like a rubber door stop: wedged, triangular, and molded to fit the profile of human hands, that fake my hands into thinking the pursuit is upturned a bit. It probably needs to be made like Felt makes its version, that slides over the bar. There are so many flat pursuit bars out there, why hasn't somebody made something like this? To make these bars livable?
Now let's talk about what we aren't seeing in tri bikes, and this stems from the glaring clash in current road bike design. What are the two hottest road bike stories right now? Road disc brakes, and aero road bikes. These two design imperatives clash, or at least they seem to. The narratives clash. What you don't see, yet, are both of these design features showing up in the same bike. But you will. It's inevitable. Too many people want to ride with the confidence of road discs, which don't require special brake pads, function in all weather conditions, and don't cause your brakes to thump, thump, thump with a minor out-of-round or -true in the rim.
But there's the aero penalty. Right? I asked Chris Yu from Specialized about this. "In our research, we've found that yes, disc brake setups today are a touch slower than rim brake setups, but by a smaller margin that most expect. Typically, we see a difference of between 4-10 sec/40km between the two depending on yaw angle."
Whoa. Let's now rethink this. First, how much of that can you gain back if you have brakes that function better? Let's say it's 10sec you lose with disc brakes. Can I gain 2, 3, or 4sec back through more confident descending, and through beginning my decelerating later as I approach the turn?
But that's not where the real benefit lies. What if you reimagined the whole bike without rim braking? What if you didn't have to contemplate rim brakes when you designed the fork? And the wheel? What if you were able to build a whole new wheel that did not have to withstand the pressure of rim calipers, and with braking surfaces of a specific angle and width? What if the fork didn't need to make a place for these calipers, either in front of or behind the crown? What if the cluster of frame parts – the head tube, down tube, and fork – right at that crown area did not require caliper braking?
You might think we could know the answer to this question if we just look at what gets ridden on the track, but I don't think so. All the race wheels used on the track still contemplate rim braking. The economics don't exist to make money with a dedicated track bike, absent government grants to make these bikes, and they still end up using road wheels fitted with track axles and hubs.
Giant, Cervelo, Trek, Specialized, Felt and others are very successful with their newer aero road bikes. This is clearly the trend. But so far none of them have integrated discs into the aero road category. To do it right would require a major rethink, and in my mind a partnership with a wheel brand. Trek and Specialized have wheel brands in-house. The Speed Concept is an example of Trek's ability to play nicely with its Bontrager cousins. Enve makes wheels and forks. SRAM makes wheels (Zipp), disc brakes (SRAM and Avid) and, if you cast the net widely, forks (RockShox). SRAM could conceivably partner with bike brands on a project like this. 3T makes wheels and forks. Enve and 3T each now makes CX disc brake forks as well as wheels (3T's is pictured here), so each is not that far away from supplying a bike maker with a front end (each also makes aerobars as well, so it might be a nice project).
Once disc brakes make their way to tri bikes, are they mechanical or hydraulic? The latter. It's not that hard to bury hydraulic lines in a frame and, really, it's probably easier than routing mechanical cables. Certainly no harder than routing electric cables. Frames can be built pre-routed. The truly ambitious bike maker might think about all the bearings in a bike – wheel, headset, and bottom bracket for example – and contemplate how rotary unions or joints might maintain hydraulic pressure in the frame. Rotor is just now announcing its hydraulic groupkit. Maybe the age of bicycle hydraulics is really just dawning.
Jordan Rapp just won Ironman Mt. Tremblant on a SRAM 1x groupkit. He didn't have a front derailleur, in other words. For those who think SRAM is reinventing something that's been around for generations (I built my own 1x tri bike 25 years ago), these 1x groups from SRAM and Shimano are quite specialized. The shape of the chain ring, the clutch rear derailleur, prevents chain slap and front ring derailment.
The problem with 1x in triathlon is the range of gears available. Yes, Jordan Rapp can ride 11x30 with a 54t chain ring, but I can't. Not if I'm racing Wildflower, where I need to climb a 9 percent grade, but also pedal down a long 2 percent decline. Using a 2x I need a 50x34 to get up those grades and this yields a gear of 33.1 inches, and I barely have enough gear to pedal the shallow descents. If I ride that 10x42 cassette SRAM offers, I get 126-inch gear with only a 48-tooth chain ring. Jordan had 129 inches with his 54x11. A 38-tooth cog on the back would give me 33.1 inches, the precise equivalent of a 34x27.
So here's my perfect 1x set up: 48-tooth chain ring, and an 10x38 tooth cassette. But it's not made. What is now made is the 10x42 cassette, so, okay, I'll take it until an 10x38 comes along.
The problem is that the driver for any cassette starting with 10 teeth is not used in any current tri-specific wheel. Ah, but SRAM has a wheel company! Can you imagine a Zipp disc, and a Zipp 808, built around a disc brake hub that incorporates SRAM's XD body driver? To use the current driver on currently made hubs, this means that the bike itself would be built with both disc brakes and 1x in mind. Why not?
Staying with 1x for a moment, I imagine what I might prefer for a front shifter if there was only one shifter I had to accommodate. Does it need to be a single paddle shifter, as we currently use? I can imagine an aerobar bridge, such as we used to have, and a twist shifter, which are the first shifters SRAM ever made, built into the bridge. This would make the shifting elegant and symmetrical – shiftable by either hand.
In fact, why aren't electronic shifters like that? Why aren't there "head units" right now that incorporate shifting and other metrics? Why can't Shimano's Flight Deck act as an aerobar extension bridge (remember, Shimano owns an aerobar company), and all metrics and shifting are viewed and controlled from there, along with the ability – as long as a power meter is installed – to turn on pre-programmed automatic shifting based on cadence, power and perhaps road gradient?
Sometimes it's hard to break out from the established way of doing things. One thing I have lamented for years is the requirement handlebar companies have imposed on themselves to slide a shifter up a road handlebar's round tube, when a handlebar can be made entirely ergonomic, non-tubular, everywhere except the 31.8mm section where it affixes to the stem. Why not a boss on the handlebar that the front shift-brake control simply bolts onto? No, this does not allow you to position the front control where you want it, but if you made a truly ergonomic bar that mated to the control ergonomics, there would only be one place you'd want that control.
The bike industry tends to think in these linear terms. We make better gills, and yet better gills, and wonder if we might be able to live for longer periods of time on land if we perfected the gill. Bike makers have a hard time with lungs because it is, at base, a conservative industry and values the artistry and tradition of the well-executed gill.
Nevertheless, these are the incremental, and eventually the systemic, changes that I hope are now contemplated in road and, especially, in tri bike manufacture.
Not that I am unhappy with what's currently on the market. I want an electric car with a 500-mile range between charging, but if I hold off updating my current car until that time I'll be driving around in a jalopy.