The Evolution of a Tri-Bike, for Nerds and Bike-Geeks

So a full disclaimer right up front, this is a good read for old triathletes, bike geeks, or anyone interested in one man’s evolution of their bicycle over 30 years in the sport of triathlon.

1990’s Nishiki, not actually my bike

The first triathlon I participated in was as the cyclist for a relay team back in 1989, on a used Nishiki road-race bike. It was a size too small with a long stem, a Suntour group set, and it creaked when you got out of the saddle on the hills, badly. I finished the race, our team did well, and I was hooked. That bike had 6-speeds, toe clips and straps, with 54/42 chain rings, built for racers and sprinting, the antithesis of the kind of rider I was. It only cost $140 and it had gotten me back into the sport of riding, commuting once or twice a week to work and eventually into riding centuries.

Diamondback Master TG

The following year I signed on to do my first solo triathlon, as well as another relay, so I bought a brand new bike, a Diamondback Master TG, on sale for $700. The bike industry was making headway into their component groups and this bike came with the new Shimano 105 group set, with 7-speeds and indexed shifting, albeit like all the bikes of the day, still on the down tubes. The bike was different from most road bikes in that it wasn’t a lug and tube bike, it was TIG welded steel as Diamondback was known at the time for their mountain bikes, so when they started building road bikes that was what they did. I added a set of Profile clip-on aerobars, eventually moved the shifters up to the end of the aerobars, and a disc wheel cover for the back wheel. I thought I was styling and fast, and maybe I was. I still couldn’t swim very well and would take years to learn how to pace the bike so I could have better runs, but it was a start.

By 1992 I found myself holding a McMahon titanium mountain bike frame, just the frame, in the local bike shop that was supporting the area’s triathletes (Santa Barbara Bikesmith’s), and couldn’t believe how light it was. I immediately decided I needed a new road bike frame made of this material, so I ordered a frame, fork, and headset for $1800, a pricey sum. Steve McMahon was making titanium bicycle parts in a shop down the road in Carpinteria, CA, and he was spec’ing out frames from Litespeed who built them to his specs, which I believe were essentially a Litespeed frame with a McMahon sticker on it. The tubes were double butted and ovalized at the ends, for lighter weight and stiffness in the right plane.

’92 McMahon, early 90’s Tri

Four weeks later I had the frame in hand and to save money I stripped all the parts off the Master TG and built up the McMahon. My bike was suddenly 2-3 pounds lighter (the steel framed Diamondback with 105 group was around 21 pounds), and of course I knew that I was going to ride a lot faster! Of course I also got the added benefit of a much nicer ride, because even though steel framed bikes are known to ride comfortably, with the Diamondback TIG welding process a lot of that nice ride went away, replaced by stiffness and responsiveness, a typical tradeoff. The McMahon frame was at least as stiff and rode better, at least by my seat-of-the-pants opinion.

Over the next few years I would upgrade this frame with parts bought on eBay, which back then was just coming into being a good source of after-market and used parts. I found an Ultegra 600 brake set with levers and eventually derailleurs to match and the bike was looking much better. Eventually the original wheel set from the Diamondback needed rebuilding so I decided to get a new set of wheels, sourcing out a local set of Chris King hubs, 8-speed now, kind of pricey, but very cool, with some nice Mavic rims. Those rims got ridden off and on for the next 20 years, so a good purchase at the time.

When I finally started taking my triathlon training and racing more seriously I once again looked to upgrade my bike, because everyone knows that spending money on your bike naturally makes you faster, right? Right! I think it was either 1997 or ’98 that I bought a 9-speed Dura Ace group set, the whole thing, with Shimano STI shifting right on the handlebars, and I was set. I was probably on my second or third clip-on aerobar by now, having downsized from the original oversized Profile design, and with the addition of the STI shifters I lost the shifting at the end of the aerobars, while riding a “tri-bike” with road handlebars.

I was to ride this combination until just recently, even as I moved on to true tri-bike frames, as I only owned one road bike and did most of my riding in a group, not liking having to reach out front to shift while in the pack. It was certainly not the most aerodynamic combination, but on the technical and hilly courses I was training for and on, I just preferred this approach. I did at some point buy a set of HED Jet race wheels, aluminum rims with a carbon fairing glued to it. They were heavy but fast once you got them rolling and as I had moved up into racing half Ironman distance tris I needed all the help I could get. Of the three sports, cycling is my strongest one, so any advantage I could gain to get me further away from the fast runners the better off I would place.

Griffen Vulcan, full-aero, very fast

In 2004 I decided to go all in and buy a real triathlon bike, made by another local company, Griffen, made of another ex-military developed material, Metal Matrix Composite, MMC. In reality it was just another kind of aluminum, that was stronger, lighter, and easier to shape into the complex airfoil shapes required by tri-bikes of the day. The frame and fork went for around $1800 I think, which was a deal because our local Santa Barbara Triathlon Club had an arrangement with the owner of Griffen to get us a nice discount. Once again I stripped the parts of my old bike, the McMahon, and built up the Griffen. This was an Ironman distance ready bike and I was hoping (at the time), to qualify for Ironman Hawaii with this bike as my ticket. I did get close a couple of times (within 1% on time, so close but yet so far!), but eventually I realized that I was just that little bit behind the real qualifiers when it came to the long run off the bike. Oh well, it was fun trying and I was still getting better.

Griffen Kompressor, a little more comfortable

Unfortunately for me this frame had a problem that presented itself at the start of the 2007 race season. The complex seatpost/mast, which was a welded and bonded part, started to delaminate from within and needed to be replaced. When it came time to pick out a new frame I decided to “downsize” a bit, meaning, instead of the full aero Vulcan frame I stepped down to the Kompressor frame. It still had the full-aero downtube, but with a regular round seat tube. This was less complicated to build, less expensive (not a problem for me as it was a one-to-one replacement), and lighter. I felt like I would not be doing a lot of Ironman distance races, going back to just Olympic and half IM distance tris, so I decided that lighter would be better.

I did my only Ironman distance tri in New Zealand in 2008 with this new frame, and I decided it was time to upgrade my original race wheel set. I bought a nice set of used Zipp 606’s (a 404 up front with an 808 in the back), mimicking the depth of the old HED Jets, albeit much lighter, and of course at this point I was moving up to 10 speed, so new derailleurs and switch gear to go along with the new wheels.

Cervelo P2, computer wiring to be re-worked

The bike shop that I had been dealing with the past 15 years, Hazard’s Cyclesport, was a long time Cervelo dealer, specializing in their triathlon bikes. In 2009 Cervelo decided to switch to another local shop that was more into road bikes so I had one last chance to buy a new Cervelo to support my favorite shop. I purchased a Cervelo P2, preferring the look of the P2 over the P3, knowing full well that if it was good enough for Chrissie Wellington at IM Hawaii that it would be more than good enough for me.

The only glitch was that I really only wanted to buy a frame but the frame only option was painted in red, and I’ll be polite here and say that I was not a fan of the styling of the paint job. So my only option if I wanted a non-red/ugly bike was to buy a complete bike in blue (actually blueish purple?), with a Shimano Ultegra 10 speed group set. Once I received the bike I swapped the Dura Ace group set from my old Griffen, put it on the Cervelo and put the Ultegra group set on the Griffen, which I then sold to my friend for his son who had outgrown his previous tri bike, so two problems solved at once. This was a good bike, it rode nice and I was happy, well until…

When Shimano came out with their Dura Ace electronic shifting, being the bike geek, I looked into it but decided that at the time upgrading for just the sake of upgrading was a bit pricey. Lucky for me within a year or so they came out with a new and improved version at the Ultegra level, which I upgraded to. The shifting was quicker, self-truing, and even after a junction box short and a couple of dead batteries, I was happy with the addition.

At this point I was once again happy with the bike and had no plans to upgrade it as by now my long course racing career was winding down, while I continued to race Olympic and sprint distance tris, but the bike had other ideas. On our local Saturday morning ride, while getting out of the saddle to hit this one steep section the rear derailleur hanger broke, which of course allowed the rear derailleur to break free and into my rear wheel. Somehow I managed to control all this and not crash, only to learn later that the rear derailleur hanger is not replaceable.There’s a company that builds and repairs carbon fiber bikes, Calfee, but they would charge about $400 to fix it and I would need to find a donor frame with a new rear derailleur hanger, so it was the end of the line for my P2.

Cervelo P3, Flo Cycle wheels, super quick

I worked with the guys at Hazard’s and Fastrack (the new Cervelo dealer), and got Cervelo to give me a big discount on a new P3 frame, around $2200 if I recall, in surprising to me a very nice looking paint scheme. While installing the 10 speed Ui2 group set to this frame I had to purchase a new rear derailleur, which now supported both 10 and 11 speeds, and ran into some issues trying to get it all sorted out. In the end I had to upgrade the system from 10 speeds to 11 speed, and that’s how the bike sits today. Well that’s not completely true…

When I bought my Specialized Roubaix a few years back, my first official road bike in some 27 years, I decided it was time to finally put TT bars on my TT bike, imagine that! Of course I had already added the electronic shifting to my aerobar ends, so this was just a question of adding a base bar to support my clip-on bars, and then add electronic shifting to them. This is how the bike actually does sit today. 11 speed, Ui2 shifting in both positions, and unless another unforeseeable accident happens, this will probably be the last tri bike I have to buy, as these days, the only thing slowing me down is father time and motivation.

Hum, don’t new bikes usually provide you with a renewed sense of motivation? Maybe there will be another chapter to add to this story someday, but for now, I think we’re good.


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