This is a blog post that I’ve been thinking of writing for the past couple of months. I just wrapped up my first season of road racing and logged a few road races and a handful of crits and time trials, so it’s a great time to draw a few comparisons between triathlon and cycling. Its been a great season for me and I’ve had some awesome experiences meeting new athletes from both disciplines. But one thing that has struck me is the lack of crossover between cyclists and triathletes, though I don’t think its for a lack of wanting to try the other.
If there’s one thing that I learned between racing triathlon and road racing, its that athletes shouldn’t be anxious or afraid of crossing over between one discipline and the other. Largely, the atmosphere in both sports is one of respect and welcome towards each other’s two wheeled cousins. Most cyclists I’ve met have some appreciation for the multi-sport nature of triathlon and the endurance required in its longer events, and many respect that triathletes can certainly make good time trialists. On the other hand, I’ve rarely met a triathlete who didn’t have loads of respect for the way that a thoroughbred roadie can drop the hammer and grit their teeth in the most Jens-Voigt manner possible.
That being said, it’s not as though I’ve never heard an offhand remark from a snide roadie about someone coming into the sport from triathlon. A common gripe that the peloton has with some triathletes is their underdeveloped group riding skills. It’s a fair comment and anyone getting into road riding should take the time to do an early season clinic, or get out for some more casual local shop rides before jumping right into a crit or road race. Safety is first and foremost, and handling your bike in a group setting is important not only for your well being, but the well being of the dozens of riders around you. But to any cyclist who has a bad attitude towards a newbie or triathlete in Cat 5, if you don’t like some of the new riders in the peloton, let your legs do the talking and ride yourself into a higher category, or deal with those riders by trying to help them and giving them pointers on the sport.
So, now for a comparison between the two…
Cost of Competing
Road Racing Raf: Well, all you need is a road bike and the appropriate equipment to get into road racing. That doesn’t mean that we won’t find a way to turn a sport with a relatively humble equipment requirement (who doesn’t have a bike? Or at least didn’t have one as a kid?) into an obscenely expensive sport. We pride ourselves on “n+1”. Roadies take a perverse sort of pleasure in spending amounts money on equipment that normal people would find otherwise incomprehensible. A bike that costs more than a university student’s car? Easy. A bike computer that costs as much as a Playstation4? Sure, we can get one of those. A powermeter that costs more than a computer? You’d be hard pressed to find one cheaper than a decent computer. Carbon fibre, deep dish, light weight, tubular wheels? Child please.
Triathlon Raf: Triathlon is expensive. You can definitely find ways to make it not expensive, but small budget triathletes are the exception rather than the norm. Take all the expenses of road racing and then add a few hundred bucks for a wetsuit and some shoes, and you’ve got your gear all set. But then you need to add race fees that range from $80 for a local sprint, to $800 for an Ironman. Then add to that your cost of accommodation for most away races, transportation, nutrition, and licensing, and you’ve easily doubled the cost of road racing. When I first started road racing I was dumbfounded to learn that most road races are just $40 or $50.
Advantage: Road Racing. Believe it or not, its cheaper than triathlon.
Road Racing Raf: Cyclists are masochists and think its awesome. To get anywhere in cycling you need to be able to endure unmitigated pain, push yourself to your physical breaking point, and invest in hours on end in the saddle, and then you’ll have a chance, just a chance, of winning a race. More than likely in cycling you’ll count yourself lucky just to finish the race without getting dropped. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, you aren’t a cyclist. If that *does* sound fun and you aren’t already a cyclist, then go sign up for your first race right now. Speaking for myself, I love it. The combination of strategy, athleticism, and grit IS fun and it will always draw me back to the saddle.
Triathlon Raf: Speaking from the background of a long distance triathlete, most of the time triathlon isn’t necessarily fun per say. You spend long hours training in the pool, running on the track or on pathways, and riding your TT/Tri bike in sort of an awkward position (who are we kidding, tri bikes aren’t nearly as comfy as road bikes). A lot of that time is spent on your own and triathletes have to actively find ways to make training fun. Road racing on the other hand is fun whether you’re challenging your buddies on a training ride, or attacking the peloton in a race. But where triathlon does score some big bonus points is in the midst of the race when you’ve got crowds of supporters cheering you up to the finish line.
Advantage: Road Racing by a narrow margin. Its just plain fun.
Road Racing Raf: Fun factor and challenge go hand in hand for road racing. The person who is going to win in cycling is the person who will push himself or herself the furthest and will go into those dark corners where your legs are telling you they can’t go any harder. I’ve literally finished crits light headed and seeing stars from how hard the last push was. What separates road racing from many other sports here is how much of yourself you have to give just to hang on. Anyone who has been in a road race and ended up chasing the group in a crosswind, or trying to stay away in a break knows how much work you can do and simply watch the cycling gods giveth and taketh away as they wish. Its tough, very often thankless, and yet so rewarding.
Triathlon Raf: There’s that moment in Dark Knight Rises right before Bane breaks Batman’s back where he asks, “I was wondering which would break first. Your mind? Or your body?”. That’s what triathlon reminds me of. In my toughest moments in cycling I’ve never experienced the highs and lows that I have during the Ironman marathon. Road racing is straight forward in that to finish a race, you’ve physically either got it, or you don’t. Triathlon is different in that the limiter is so often mental and the race is against yourself. Again, I’m speaking from the experience of longer distance triathlon here, but it’s a sport where for most competitors, simply to finish is to win. Triathlon, and specifically Ironman is that hard. And if you’ve done the long haul and found it easy, then you didn’t go hard enough. There are few other events in sport that can so proudly represent the fruits of hard work, determination, and grit, the way that Ironman does. So if you want to see what you’re made of, you can find out half way through the marathon at Ironman after swimming 3.8k, and riding 180km.
Advantage: Triathlon. Your toughest competition is yourself.
Atmosphere and Other Intangibles
Road Racing Raf: On television road cycling looks awesome. Flip on coverage of the Tour de France and you see miles upon miles of roadway adorned with fans and a media circus following the colorful and lively peloton. In reality, road racing is a far cry from anything like that. Races are often in rural areas and small towns that don’t really mind a pack of lycra clad dudes slowing down or stopping traffic for a couple of hours. There are some pretty rad cycling events in Alberta like Banff Bike Fest, Tour de Bowness, and any one of our four Gran Fondos, where the community gets pretty enveloped in the festivities, but for the most part at the local ranks, the appreciation for road racing is pretty underwhelming. That’s not a complaint though, cycling is just a sport that bestows its gems to its participants.
Triathlon Raf: Earlier on I gave the edge for “Fun Factor” to Road Racing, and I stand by that. If you dropped me into the middle of a bike race, I will invariably be having more fun than I would be having in a triathlon. I mean seriously, at any point in a bike race you’re either talking to folks in the peloton, turning yourself inside out in a break, or hammering the pedals in an attack. In the middle of a triathlon I’m either in the water wishing the swim to be over, on the bike praying I don’t get a mechanical and watch precious minutes evaporate alongside months of training, or running and wondering why my legs feel so weird and wishing I had the bike again. However, in the days leading up to a triathlon you can relish in the anxiety, hear the amazing stories of other athletes, and celebrate months of training. And whether you’re racing or a spectator, nothing replaces the finish chute of a triathlon for tear jerking moments and well earned high fives.
Advantage: Triathlon. “[Your name here], you are an Ironman!” ‘Nuff said.
I’ve raced triathlon for almost five years now but before that I considered myself a cyclist. It was probably two or three years before I really even considered myself a “triathlete”. To be perfectly honest there are so many parts of both sports that I love dearly. There are so many moments, people, and stories in triathlon that are truly moving. I first fell in love with the sport years before I even thought I could do Ironman myself. It was watching the NBC coverage of the Ironman World Championships in Kona that I was inspired by the tenacity of triathlon’s athletes and supporters and became hooked. And I think that every athlete who’s ever finished Ironman will tell you that if they could have bottled up the feeling of crossing the finish line for the first time, they would have filled one of those obscenely large bottles of Moet & Chandon that you see in rap stars music videos. In triathlon, Ironman asks you to do what you’d otherwise think impossible.
On the other hand, road racing can be characterized by the rush of endorphins in the field sprint, the taste of blood in your mouth on the climbs, or the courage of a tragic Greek hero trying to get away in what’s most likely an ill-fated breakaway. Its not hard to romanticize the appeal of a sport where so many attempt, and so few succeed. And when you aren’t in the thick of a race and are just out on a long training ride, the calm and serene nature of road biking is something that one day, you just “get it”. The culture and comradery in cycling brings some of the most appealing parts of team sport, into races that will only produce one winner, and that’s pretty rad. Cycling is a sport of grit and determination, and if you’ve got plenty of that you’ve got a chance, just a chance at winning. The very name of this blog is a nod to an adage of one of cycling’s heroes.
So who wins out?
Winner: Too close to call. Sorry I had to go with the cop out answer. But I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
Great write up Raf! I’ve done sprint triathlons and group ride on my road bike quite often. Haven’t tried racing crits yet but I’m planning to next year. For me it’s Road Racing, I love the camaraderie and ever changing dynamics of a road race. The attacks, the chase, the pain and grit… it’s definitely something I love to endure.
I do like the sense of accomplishment from completing a triathlon, and may one day consider a half or even full IM (it’s the swim that kills me), but between the two, road racing will always be on top.
Hey Vince! Thanks! Yeah that’s one of the big things that keeps drawing me to road racing, it’s like a game of chess packaged into a sport that just takes a tonne of grit and fight.
Swimming was always my limiter, and still is in triathlon. But if you’ve got a big engine on the bike (which I know you do), you’ll crush it.