Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Frugal Triathlete

The first thing a new triathlete gets is a list of equipment needed to start training, which typically includes the following (minor generic items and consumables have been left off):

General Stuff:
  • TCSD Membership (required to get discounts from club sponsors)
  • TCSD timing chip (highly recommended: helps for the free club races)
  • Tri-kit (two-piece top/shorts pair) or trisuit (one-piece) (highly recommended)
  • Sports GPS (monitor and track run/bike/swim, recommended)
  • Heart monitor (recommended if no Sports GPS)
  • Gear bag (recommended) or Transition bag (optional)
Run Stuff:
  • Running shoes (highly recommended if you don't go barefoot)
  • Elastic laces (recommended)
  • Race belt (recommended)
  • Fuel belt (optional)
  • Hydration pack (optional)
Swim Stuff:
  • Triathlon swimming wetsuit (long-sleeved and/or sleeveless, highly recommended)
  • Latex swim cap (freely available)
  • BodyGlide and/or TriSlide (skin/wetsuit lubricant, highly recommended)
  • Open-water swim goggles (highly recommended)
  • Nose/ear plugs (as needed)
  • Neoprene swim cap (recommended for cold swim conditions)
  • Swim booties (recommended for cold swim conditions)
  • Swim suit (optional)
  • Pull buoy (optional)
Bike Stuff:
  • Road bike (required for beginners)
  • Bike shoes (highly recommended)
  • Tri/TT bike (optional)
  • Tri-shoes (optional)
  • Clipless (cleat) pedals (highly recommended)
  • Clip-on aero bars for road bike (optional)
  • Bike computer (recommended if no Sports GPS)
  • Spare tire (recommended)
  • Spare tubes (highly recommended)
  • Chain lube (required)
  • Tube repair kit (highly recommended)
  • Tire levers (if using clinchers, highly recommended)
  • Sew-up glue (if using sew-up tires - not for beginners!)
  • Floor pump (required)
  • Hand pump and/or CO2 inflater + cylinders (highly recommended)
  • Allen wrenches (highly recommended)
  • Under-seat tool bag or tail mount (highly recommended)
  • Food box ('speed/bento box', recommended)
  • Water bottles and cages (at least 1 of each highly recommended)
Whew! If you walk into local stores and try to buy all of the required and highly-recommended items above, it is impossible to get minimally 'decent' equipment for less than $2000, even if you make full use of all available TCSD discounts. Even $3000 would still be near the low end. I've seen new triathletes with money to burn easily spend $5000. And there is no limit: Some triathlon addicts spend over $10,000 on their gear!

There is an important saying in triathlon, something I call the 'Comfort Rule': Everything that touches your body must be comfortable. And, unfortunately, low-end gear is seldom comfortable.

Does this mean you should take on debt or liquidate a large chunk of your savings just to get into triathlon? What can you do if your budget is more in the range of around $1000? What trade-offs are available? Let's look at the more expensive items one at a time.

First, the bike: The obvious cost-saving measure would be to get a good used bike. When it comes to value, a good used bike will have higher-quality components than a low-end new bike. The 'Comfort Rule' above absolutely applies, which means you must get a bike that fits you, and is comfortable to ride for hours at a time.

What does it mean for a bike to 'fit' you? It means the fundamental dimensions of the bike frame, stem, bars and seat-post are compatible with your body, and the bike bars and seat have been adjusted to maximize your riding comfort, power and efficiency. Getting all this done is called a 'bike fit'. When buying a new bike from a local bike shop, a bike fit is included in the cost of the bike. It is not uncommon for the stem to have to be replaced as part of the bike fit process, and occasionally even the seat-post and/or bars.

If you choose to get a used bike, plan to spend additional money for a good bike fit at your local bike shop. However, most bike fits are done after the bike is purchased. How can you tell if a specific used bike will fit you before you buy it? I know of only one solution to this problem: Buy your bike fit first, then go shopping for your used bike!

Unfortunately, there are very few bike shops in the nation that will sell you a bike fit without either buying a bike from them or already owning a bike. Fortunately, we have one bike shop in San Diego that provides this service as a separate product: TCSD sponsor Moment Cycle Sport in Point Loma offers their 'Fit First' service, which puts you on a 'fit bike' that is adjusted until a good fit is obtained. A set of numbers describing the fit are given to you at the end, along with a thorough explanation. They charge about $200 for this service, though they do offer a substantial discount to TCSD members. (It is possible that other bike shops will provide a similar service in the near future, so be sure to ask around.)

So, you got your bike fit numbers, and now you're ready to buy a good used bike. The first place to shop is the TCSD Classified Ads, on the TCSD website. I've seen many truly excellent bikes listed there for around $400. Then check Craigslist, eBay (local only), local bike club sites, and the classified listings at local newspaper sites. You should be able to quickly find a decent bike that's within your budget. The goal is not to get 'the perfect bike', but instead to get a bike that won't hinder your first year of triathlon training and racing. The good thing about a $400 bike is that you'll probably be able to sell it in a year for the same price you paid, assuming you take good care of it. Think of it as a only a 'first bike', and not a lifetime commitment.

After you buy your bike, you may be able to adjust it to your fit numbers on your own, though if you have problems, a local bike shop may make the adjustments for a small fee (or possibly for free).

Now, I've talked only about getting a road bike. You could get a tri/TT bike, but that is certainly not recommended starting out, though you may well want to get one eventually as a second bike.

A side note: When shopping for used triathlon gear, it very much matters when you shop! Many triathletes get the urge to upgrade in the late winter or early spring, and will sell their old gear for whatever they can get in order to help fund their new gear. Another thing to keep in mind is to maximize the use of coupons, sales, and your TCSD discounts. There are several local vendors who, even though they are not TCSD sponsors, will still offer impressive discounts to TCSD members. And remember, REI annual member rebates are usually 8-10% of the price paid, so combining that with an REI sale can sometimes yield an unbeatable price.

So far we've spent under $200 for a bike fit, and about $400 for a decent used bike, for a total of $600 spent. Can we get everything else we need for just $400 more?

The next most expensive item is typically the swim wetsuit. A new one can range in price from $150 to $800. There certainly are used wetsuits available, but many of these will have some degree of damage that may be expensive to repair. Another option is to get a 'seconds' or 'demo' or 'return' wetsuit from a local manufacturer (of which there are at least 3 in San Diego, and at least 1 of them is a TCSD Sponsor). If you shop carefully, you should be able to find a quality wetsuit that fits very well for no more than $100. If you ask around, you may be able to get a perfectly serviceable wetsuit for free. I would recommend getting a long-sleeve wetsuit first, since sleeveless wetsuits can have several disadvantages for beginners.

One important note: Be sure to swim in your wetsuit before you buy it, or ensure you can return it. A wetsuit that fits well on land can have serious friction spots when worn in the water. Be sure to use BodyGlide around the neck when wearing a long-sleeve wetsuit. TCSD has a free Wetsuit Loaner Program (no link available) that lets you easily try many different wetsuits, and the Thursday evening TCSD Open Water Bay Swim clinic (see the TCSD Calendar) has its own inventory of free loaner wetsuits provided by clinic sponsor

Let's say you got lucky and found a comfortable wetsuit for free (it isn't really all that hard - just ask around on the TCSD email list), so we still about $400 left to spend.

The next most expensive must-have item brings us back to the bike: Bike shoes and pedals. It is almost impossible to find road shoes + pedals for less than $200 new, and tri-specific bike shoes and 'cool' pedals can add much more to the cost. Getting them used is difficult. And remember, the 'Comfort Rule' certainly applies here!

Fortunately, you can get new mountain bike (MTB) shoes + MTB clipless pedals (clone of Shimano SPD) for well under $100 (as low as $50 is you shop hard). Mechanically they work just as well as fancier road-specific shoes and pedals, and they even have some advantages for beginners. If you go this route, get MTB shoes with non-flexible soles that have laces with a single velcro strap over the instep (such as the Shimano MT31), then replace the laces with elastic laces. You will get most of the convenience and functionality of tri-shoes for a fraction of the price. Plus, the stationary spin bikes in many gyms are SPD-compatible.

That gets the total spent so far up near $700, leaving at least $300 to get everything else. If you shop carefully, you can get all the non-electronic items remaining on the list for under $300. For your apparel, be sure to check the TCSD Online Store, which has the best-looking and highest-quality stuff for great prices.

A note about electronics: This is one area where I urge beginners to either splurge a little, or have a serious talk with Santa. Rather than get a separate bike computer, heart monitor, pedometer and sports GPS, I'd recommend getting them combined in a single multi-sport unit. If you shop carefully, you can get a Garmin Forerunner 305 with heart monitor, bike pod, shoe pod (optional), and bike mount kit (which also includes a velcro wrist-band) all for under $300. Having this unit, and using its features as part of your training and racing, will pay significant dividends. And the bang-for-the-buck for this specific model is huge, since it can give you detailed performance data for all 3 sports: Run, bike and even swim.

So, if you do get the Garmin, then we've blown the $1000 budget. But you'll certainly be under $1500, even if you have to pay for your wetsuit.

Another important item to consider spending extra on is your bike saddle. This is where the 'Comfort Rule' really matters. If you have any discomfort or numbness after your first 10 hours of riding, consider getting an ISM Adamo Road saddle. It costs under $150, and even elite competitors use it. When I got mine, it changed everything for me.

Finally, a note about online shopping (other than at the TCSD Store): I'm against it, particularly for beginners. You will very much need the support and wisdom of local vendors, since you will have a million questions, need some fast returns, and quick service. They are well worth it, and deserve to be supported, especially if they are one of our amazing TCSD club sponsors! The only possible exception would be for the electronics.