Looking to buy a used triathlon bike or used road bike?
Whether you’re in the market for a used triathlon bike or a used road bike, there are a lot of important things to know to make sure that you’re making a good purchase decision. Unlike going to the local bike shop to look for a road bike or triathlon bike, used bikes are a little trickier since you’re at the mercy of whatever you happen to find on your search through the inter-webs. As someone who works at a bike shop, I’m happy to have sold hundreds of new bikes, and through my own personal fleet turnover, sold probably a couple dozen road bikes used. So here are my thoughts on buying a used triathlon bike, or a used road bike (if you’re just looking for information on what to look for with a used road bike, feel free to skip waaaaay ahead to the What To Look for Section).
There are a lot of compelling reasons to buy a triathlon bike. A lot of people will ask me whether buying a triathlon specific bike is useful for a half or a full Ironman, and almost all cases I say absolutely. But the caveat to that is whether or not its worth it, because if you limit your options for a tri specific bike to just new triathlon bikes, then the value proposition for that bike can quickly erode.
I decided to write this blog post because there are lot of really compelling reasons to purchase a USED triathlon bike. The foremost of them being that getting back into training for Ironman Canada 2020 I myself decided to purchase a used Cervelo P3 to train and race on. Triathlon bikes can be prohibitively expensive for all but the most dedicated of athletes. For me, the simple fact of the matter is that I really enjoy riding my road bike and mountain bike as well, and to put all my chips into a triathlon bike would mean that I’d be sacrificing time and money spent on other types of cycling that I really enjoy (and lets face it, mountain biking and road biking are far more fun that staring at the pavement in a TT position).
So, here I’m going to get in to “why go with a triathlon bike”, where and how to find a good used triathlon bike, what to look for, and that perfect balance of how to spend your money to get geared up for the ride.
Why go with a triathlon bike?
When I’m chatting with newcomers to the sport one of the question I get asked most often is whether or not to buy a triathlon bike. There are a ton of webpages and blog posts dedicated to this exact question (here’s a good technical examination of the topic from Wheelworx) so I’m not going to cut too deep into this here, but long story short, if you’re a strong athlete with a background in other sports, chances are you’re leaving a lot of time on the table if you don’t go to a triathlon specific bike.
But I will share a quick anecdote that lines up pretty well with the link shared above from Wheelworx, two years ago my friend Ian Jeffery and I went head to head at the Havana Half Ironman. Him on a Specialized Shiv with 80mm wheels, and me on a Trek Madone SL6 with 48mm wheels. Ian and I were nearly pound for pound the same weight, and we each put down ~193 watts for the 90km. You can find the link to my Strava activity here, and you can find the link to Ian’s Strava activity here. Ian put 15 minutes into me on 90km the bike course. Now this may not sound like a ton of time but think about what you run specialists would do to take 15 minutes off of your half marathon time, or extrapolate that out to a full Ironman and we’re talking about a 30 minute time difference.
So is this difference worth a new $5000 triathlon bike to you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But is it worth maybe $1500 to you? Very possibly…
Why go with a USED triathlon bike?
Okay so we’ve done the math around the value proposition of a triathlon bike. Now lets get in to why you may want to go used.
Well, first of all, if you haven’t figured it out already, you’ve chosen one of the most expensive, bougie sports known to man to take up. So there’s that. Getting into triathlon you’re going to be paying for race entries, travel expenses, countless visits to the pool, a wetsuit and goggles and all that stuff, shoes, funny looking triathlon suits, and maybe even a coach. Sure, you could throw a new Trek Speed Concept on to the credit card as well, or foresake your kid’s college savings for a new Cervelo P5X, or you could hit up Facebook Marketplace or Pinkbike and find a bike thats got 95% of the speed at 25% of the cost.
Even on days when I’m selling new bikes at the Ridley’s Cycle I’m often advocating for guests serious about training to spend a little less on the bike and a little more on the accessories. Things like shoes, helmet, pedals, bike pumps, etc, add up. But more importantly I’m often reminding them about the tools that’ll improve their training, things like bike computers, watches, and power meters.
At the end of the day, its not about the bike. Thats a big part of the equation, but powering the bike is an engine, and that engine needs to be measured and monitored. Watches that act as fitness monitors can measure your heart rate and heart rate variability and tell you if you’re in the zone, if you’re overtrained, if you’re underperforming, and all the like. Devices such as powermeters effectively act as the perfectly objective measure of your energy output to tell you whether you’re pushing too hard or not hard enough in training and racing. Together these devices work to optimize your output to the best possible outcome. But a watch like the Garmin fenix 6 will easily run you upwards of $700, a powermeter will run you over $500, and a bike computer will set you back another $300.
If you asked me at the end of the day would I prefer to have a $3000 bike with no watch, no powermeter, and no bike computer, or a $1500 bike with all those goodies, I’d pick the budget bike every day of the week and twice on Sunday. If you ask me, racing an Ironman without a powermeter and a proper computer is akin to driving down the highway with the dashboard all covered up, you can do it, but you’re going to make a lot of mistakes that’ll cost you.
How much faster or better is a new triathlon bike than a used one though?
I’ve anticipated this question so here’s my response. Regarding the “faster” part of the question, the majority of the drag generated by a cyclist moving through air is generated by the rider, not the bike. Simply look at a cyclist or triathlete from the front, and think about how much of the surface area facing is you is the human rider, and how much of the surface area is the front of the bike. Ergo, how aero your position on your bike is matters just as much as the bike if not more. There’s a really great piece in Triathlon Magazine that can be found here, that breaks down all the miniscule differences between bikes, helmets, position, etc, that I really encourage you to read.
What I’m getting at is that we’re starting to split hairs if we’re talking about how aero a 2011 Cervelo P3 is versus a 2019 Trek Speed Concept. Don’t get me wrong, the Speed Concept is very likely faster, but we’re not talking about a difference in orders of magnitude, we’re talking incrementally faster.
All that being said, you may be asking why even bother with a new triathlon bike then? Well bikes have gotten a lot better over the years and the compelling argument for today’s triathlon bikes versus those of years gone by is probably the level of integration that goes into them, making the ride better for the cyclist. Compare the Cervelo P3 of a few years ago versus the Cervelo P-Series of today and you’ll see a lot of differences. At first blush the may seem similar, but look closely and you’ll see integrated water bottles and top tube storage, internally routed cables, out of the box support for electronic shifting, disc brakes, etc.
What to look for in a used triathlon bike or used road bike…
So lets say now you’re sold on a used triathlon bike. What do you look for? The considerations are pretty much the same as if you were looking for a new bike, with the important consideration of the condition of the used bike, which I’ll get to later.
First and foremost when you’re buying a new bike, you should be looking for a bike that fits. There’s a lot that goes into this and if you’re unsure of where to start with bike fit, blog.bikefit.com (aptly named) has some great resources and content to get you started. And this is where you’re a little bit at the mercy of what’s out there, because unlike your local bike shop your selection is sadly limited to whatever you find on Kijiji or Pinkbike or whatever.
Regardless, bike fit is the first and foremost, more important than whether the bike is Dura Ace or 105, or red or blue, or Giant or Pinarello. A bike that doesn’t fit properly is going to have you stretched out, crunched up, kinking your neck, sitting too upright, or all of the above, among other things. On the other hand, the bike that fits you like a glove is going to allow you to get into an comfortable, slippery, aerodynamic position.
I’ll say it one more time, the most important part of buying a bike that you love and that will work for you, is buying a bike that fits you.
I’ll just gloss over this one because its worth mentioning. Your options for frame material for most modern road and triathlon bikes is aluminium or carbon. Over the years carbon fibre bikes have come down in price, while triathlon bikes have gone higher and higher end. The result, almost all triathlon bikes that you’ll find today are carbon fibre frames. But if you do manage to track down an aluminium triathlon bike, I’ll compare your options below.
The main benefit to aluminum bikes is that they’re less expensive than carbon fibre. They’re also slightly heavier and more brittle than carbon fibre bikes. When I’m talking to people about aluminum bikes I generally ask them one main question, how much are you planning on riding the bike and how long are your rides? If you’re riding your bike 3 or 4 times a week but for twenty to forty or fifty kilometres a ride or less, I’d suggest an aluminum bike. At this volume you’re right a serious rider, but unless you’re racing or training at an intermediate or higher level, or are just really stoked on bikes, I don’t really see the value in spending more on a carbon frame.
Once you get beyond that ride volume, that’s where the light weight, or plush frame characteristics of carbon start to shine. A carbon frame will dampen road noise from the pavement making your ride more comfortable. If you’re riding for an hour, that frame noise (small bumps) won’t amount to much, but if you’re putting hundreds of miles a week into the bike, that’s where that frame noise will add up to rider fatigue. Add to that lighter frame, and that’s where the value proposition of the higher end material starts to make sense.
When you’re looking at a used triathlon bike you’re going to come across a whole gambit of component groups spanning generations of SRAM and Shimano product development. For this discussion I’d argue that there’s less of a difference between Shimano and SRAM than with road bikes, since on triathlon bikes the bar end shifters between the two brands work essentially the same. So I’ll break this section down in to groupset level (SRAM Rival / Shimano 105 and SRAM Force / Shimano Ultegra, versus SRAM Red / Shimano Dura Ace), groupset generation (10 speed versus 11 speed), and mechanical versus electronic.
In ascending order, the level or quality of the respective group sets from SRAM and Shimano are;
- SRAM Rival / Shimano 105 – This is your good value pick journeyman level stuff. A properly tuned triathlon bike with these components will get you through your Ironman no problem. Mechanically, these work the same as the higher end components and the tradeoff your making is with weight and maybe long term durability. If you’re doing an Ironman next year, or a couple half IM’s, this will get the job done no problem.
- SRAM Force / Shimano Ultegra – This is you mid level groupset that’s a little lighter and a little shinier. I’ve seen professional athletes riding this stuff, and pro tour teams even using high wear items such as cassettes and chains from these groupsets to save money of pricier Dura Ace or SRAM Red components. This will get you to the finish line just as fast as the higher end groupset and will have a little better long term durability than the entry level components.
- SRAM Red / Shimano Dura Ace – This is the good stuff. Its light, its shiny, and its expensive. But honestly its not going to change the world for you if you’re reading this. Having ridden two generations of Shimano Dura Ace and Ultegra, and SRAM Rival and Force, I can honestly say I’ve never based my decision on going this high end on my groupset. In both cases where I rode Dura Ace components, it was because that was a part of the deal when getting a good bike that fit.
10 Speed versus 11 Speed
This is where you need to be a bit more careful. The reason cyclists move from 10 speeds on the cassette to 11 speeds was to have more gears, often within the same gear range. What that means to say is that many cassettes will have as few as 11 teeth on a cassette, and as many as 28 or even 32. When the industry moved from 10 speeds to 11 speeds, that didn’t change. But 11 speed cassettes gave riders more options within that range. Its a subtle but noticeable difference that cyclists, especially cyclists that need easier gears, have learned to appreciate (whether they realize it or not).
I’ll break this down a little bit more. If you’re riding a particularly hilly triathlon course, you’re going to want a wider gear range, which means rather than an 11-25 cassette, you may opt for an 11-28 or 11-32. You’d think a few teeth wouldn’t make a big difference, but when you’re climbing a 3km, 6% grade hill, it does. It really really does. Now when you go to those wider ranges, the gaps in the number of teeth between gears becomes wider. This is where having that one extra gear to help space out the gaps really helps.
Add on top of that the fact that 10 speed and 11 speed chains, cassettes, shifters, and even some cranks aren’t interchangeable, and which groupset you’re opting for matters a little more. You’ll still find 10 speed parts at any reputable bike shop, but since those parts were phased out of manufacturing circa 2015 at the 105/Rival level and up, you may want to keep an eye out for 11 speed drivetrains.
Electronic versus Mechanical
If you have the money in the budget, I’d say that electronic drivetrains (Shimano Di2 or SRAM Red eTap) on triathlon bikes actually do make a lot of sense. The major benefit to an electronic drivetrain on a triathlon bike is the ability to shift gears from the brake levers. Mechanical drivetrains on the other hand require cyclists to move their hands from the brakes to the shifters in order to shift gears. And when are you most likely to be shifting gears? When you’re going up or down a hill. And when are you most likely to be putting your hands on the brakes? When you’re going up or down a (steep) hill.
That being said, an electronic drivetrain used triathlon bike is still going to run you at least $2500, so you’re starting to spend a bit more coin, so I’m not going to spend too much time talking about this. One more word of warning though, Shimano stopped manufacturing 10 speed Di2 parts in 2015. So replacement parts for those are going to be harder and harder to come by in the coming years. So that smoking deal on a 10 speed Dura Ace Di2 Trek Speed Concept may not be as much of a deal as you think (that’s the last brand new triathlon bike I purchased and sold in 2015).
Quality and Condition of the Bike
Whenever you’re buying anything used, whether its a used triathlon bike or a used road bike, or a used GPS watch, or a car, its important to your due diligence. Making sure that everything is in good working order is key to not getting ripped off. I’ve gone through just about everything else about the bike here so now its important to highlight a few things to look for with the used triathlon bike that you’re looking for.
This section can just as easily apply to used road bikes as well as used triathlon bikes. So take heed if you’re in the market for any used bike.
First of all, expect to spend a couple bucks on new parts for the drivetrain, specifically the chain and cassette. The simple fact of the matter is that these are parts of the bike that wear out and you should be replacing seasonally or every other year anyways. Unless the previous owner of the bike specifically indicates that they just replaced those parts, assume that you’re going to spend about $150-$200 replacing them. Chains and cassettes wear together, so you can’t really replace one without the other.
If the drivetrain looks to be in pretty pristine condition (the front and rear derailleurs, shifters, etc) but the bike still isn’t shifting great, you’ll likely also want to change the cables and possible the cable housings throughout the bike. Its very possible that the cables have just stretched and the bike just needs a tune up, but since its new to you, I’d also say this could be a good time to replace the shifter and brake cables.
The Wheels and Tires
Check that the wheels are spinning true, and if there are any wobbles in the wheel, that could be a pretty big red flag that either the bike hasn’t really been well loved, or even worse, its been in a bit of a fender bender. Besides that, even on really old wheelsets, there’s usually plenty of life left on the brake track so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. If you’re shelling out a whole bunch of extra dollars for bougie Zipp or HED or Dura Ace wheels with deep dish carbon rims, thats a bit of a different story, but I’ll leave that out of this post because its a whole other discussion.
The tires are another wear and tear component that you could reasonably expect to have to replace. No big deal, you should replace the rubber once or twice a season depending on how much you ride anyways. But if you’re looking at the tires on the bike and they are looking pretty smooth and flat down the middle, you’ll probably want to replace them sooner rather than later, unless you really love changing flats.
I can’t really talk about used triathlon bikes without talking about carbon frames and durability for a second. First of all, carbon frames are very durable. They’re made to see action and they aren’t the fragile, delicate matters that they were twenty years ago.
That being said, carbon frames are most commonly damaged in one of two ways. Crashes (obviously), and people tightening car rack or bike repair stand clamps on them. While carbon is exceptionally absorbent of force on the vertical plane, and exceptionally strong on the horizontal plane, it doesn’t take well to being pinched or clamped down on by things like racks. And crashes can obviously wreck any bikes.
The way to tell if the carbon has been compromised is to look for obvious things like cracks in the frame or breaks in the paint. If the crack is obvious, then nope, thats it, you’re done, don’t buy. If theres a dent in the paint or some spot where the person selling the bike suspects there may be an issue, a quick test is to pinch or squeeze the spot in question. If there’s any give at all, or if the frame feels a bit soft or squishy, then the frame is compromised. Look for these kinds of issues on top tubs, seat stays, seat posts, etc.
Now, if there’s damage to the paint, and you can see exposed carbon, thats not the end of the world. For example, cervelos are notorious for dropping chains, and on some of them you may see a spot behind the crank where the chain jammed in between the crank and the frame, taking away a layer of paint. The visual test is whether or not there are any threads of carbon protruding from the blemish. If there are, then yes, the carbon has been compromised, it may not be catastrophic like a frame crack, but there could be an issue. Its up to you whether you want to ride that or not, but if you do, you’ll want to keep an eye on it.
This is a problem so prevalent with triathlon and time trial bikes that yes, I’ve decided to dedicate a whole sub-section to it. Sweat will drop from the forehead of the bike’s previous owner, onto the handlebars, into the steerer tube, and into your nightmares. As a bikeshop person, I can verifiably say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the worst offenders for not taking proper care of dealing with sweat caused corrosion, are triathletes.
Its not entirely their fault, the position of a triathlete on a bike places them such that sweat will drop straight from the head, into the head tube (the part that connects the stem and handlebars to the frame). Its got this nasty way of bleeding down along the headset bolt and into the headset. Unscrewing the bolt at the top of the headset and removing the headset cap will reveal the condition of the steerer tube. If you see a clear, clean star nut, you’re good. If you see salty, white corrosion, then you’ve got a problem and I’d probably take a pass on the bike.
Less critical, but still worth noting is sweat and corrosion on the bolts along the handlebars and aerobars. Typically this can be remedied by dropping the bolts into Coke, which is a powerful solvent (makes you wonder about what you’re putting in you) for a couple of days, and then scrubbing them clean.
Its not about the bike. When I decided to go back to Ironman Canada in 2020 I decided I wasn’t going to spend all my hard earned money on a shiny new triathlon bike. I opted to go to a 2011ish Cervelo P3. I rode my first Ironman on a 2011 Cervelo P2 and at the time, the Cervelo P3 was the next best bike that I’d be riding if I could somehow level up.
When I did my next Ironman in 2013 I was riding a new, Trek Project One Speed Concept with 10 speed electronic Dura Ace. Was I faster on the Speed Concept than the Cervelo? Maybe, maybe not. Two different courses, two different days. Sure the newer bike had more creature comforts, and was progressively better than my older P2, but I definitely didn’t shave $5000 worth of minutes off my bike split though.
Bottom line, if you’re getting into the sports of cycling or triathlon, or buying a new or used road bike or triathlon bike, you’re going to spend a bit of money, so its best to spend it wisely and get the most bang for your buck. That being said if the thought of a used bike just doesn’t excite you, thats fine too, get a new bike because you should get a bike you’re excited about. At the end of the day, the goal is a healthier, happier lifestyle, and which bike gets you there is totally up to you.