Choosing the Right Car for a Triathlete

If a car can measure up to a triathlete's standards, it's the ultimate athlete's car — whether for a weekend warrior or a hardcore devotee.

Why? Triathletes have to carry tons of stuff (a bike, clothes and shoes at the very least) and typically have to go a long way for races. Because the number of triathletes is growing — the U.S. sanctioning body, USA Triathlon, reports annual memberships are now more than 110,000 — there is a large field of athletic-car test drivers.

We talked to a lot of experts, and offer their tips and advice here. Unlike a triathlon, the list starts with the bike — the biggest and most expensive piece of equipment used by triathletes.

What They Carry
You don't need a ton of stuff to do a tri. Some athletes, however, bring much more than the essential gear, and that's when the cargo area becomes critical:
Tri suit
Bike shoes
Tire pump
Food and liquids (gallon jug of water, quarts of Gatorade)
Warm-up suit
Post-race wear
Street clothes

Yes, you can use a bike rack, but a better option for folks who are new to racing, or who are easily stressed out, is a car that's big enough to carry the bike inside. As triathlon-advice website points out, racks can be tricky to install, may scratch a car and may require you to remove the front wheel of the bike, which can be stressful for newbies.

Experienced triathletes Joe Adamson, Laura Sophiea and William Marshall, who have collectively raced in hundreds of events, say they like to carry their bikes inside the car, keeping them safe from theft and out of the elements.

"If I am traveling with more than one bike, I look for a car that my bike can stand up in with the front wheel off," Sophiea said. "The car also needs to look cute."

If you're looking for just a car and want to go the inside route, make sure the car is large enough to hold your bike. At the very least, measure your bike and bring those measurements and a tape measure along on your test drive. Cargo areas can appear huge, but it's the size of the opening that's crucial. A coach from triathlon training company Vision Quest admitted that one car that looked big enough to hold a bike (with only one wheel removed and the seat partially folded down) actually wasn't — a fact confirmed only after the car was purchased.

Click to see video.
Video play button    Carrying a bike inside a car is a good option for race newbies.

If you bring your bike to the test drive, you'll be in good company: Three Vision Quest coaches did just that.

If you end up transporting your bike in an open cargo area, make sure you secure it using tie-down cords to avoid injury in case of an accident. Your bike — and your skull — will thank you.

Rack Option

While an exterior rack isn't for everyone, a couple of Vision Quest coaches say having the option of a rack you can easily load a bike onto is a nice option to have.

Using a rack also makes sense if you have kids, dogs or other space-eating accouterments — something has to go outside, and the bike usually loses the fight.

A roof rack is a good option for cars with less cargo room.

A roof rack is a good option for cars with less cargo room.

Racks are even popular with some who don't necessarily need them. Triathlete Therese Bynum usually rides to races in a team vehicle, but she said if she could have just one feature on a car it would be a built-in bike rack. She pointed to the Nissan Xterra as a good example of a triathlete-friendly SUV.


A rear hatch — think wagon, van, minivan or SUV — greatly increases a vehicle's utility. You can use it as a place to sit and relax without fear of getting run over or rained on, plus it works — if the car is large enough and the windows are screened well enough — as a place to change if you forgot to put on your swimsuit before leaving the house. Pretty much any hatchback, SUV or van that can swallow a bike whole should meet this criteria.

Easy-Clean Seats
The Dodge Caliber offers stain-resistant seat upholstery.

The Dodge Caliber offers stain-resistant seat upholstery.

TriathaNewbie calls these "nasty-proof" seats. Experts there say most triathletes don't get a chance to shower after their events, and instead climb right into their cars for the long drive home. The coaches recommend an interior that's easy to wash and doesn't absorb too much odor or event grime.

Also, as Vision Quest coaches point out, there is the wetsuit to consider. Some of the coaches we polled prefer to lay their suit out on a seat to dry after a race, rather than stuffing it in a bag and dropping it in the trunk.

Park and Run

Some races require you to parallel park on city streets, so good visibility in a car is an obvious plus. But, as TriathaNewbie points out, at other races you may have to drive off the pavement to find a spot — not a big deal, until you realize other athletes may be stretching, warming up or sitting on the ground, where they're hard to spot. Running over your competition before the race shows atrocious form.

A Modicum of Comfort

Once you've pounded through your race, you really want to ride home in a comfortable seat. A reclining seat is a nice feature, and adjustable lumbar support is especially nice. In any case, whenever you buy a car, seat comfort shouldn't be overlooked in favor of style.

Along those lines, one Vision Quest coach bemoaned the fact that many cupholders can't securely hold a standard water bottle used on a bike. A Mega-Mouth Big Drink filled with empty calories from the local convenience store — sure, that fits without flopping around, but a water bottle? That's just silly.

Autopilot Option

One TriathaNewbie coach wanted a car that came with its own driver, making it possible to relax on the way to the race and sleep on the way home, which brings us to one final, crucial bit of advice: We're a car site, not a relationship site, but let's just say that if you make your significant other/spouse put up with your nutty hobby and ask them to drive you to your races, perhaps you should let them have some input on your next car. Maybe you could give them a nonbinding vote on the color?

Triathlete Resources

If you'd like to find out more about triathlons and what you'll need to compete, you can check with several groups:

  • Vision Quest Coaching: Founded by Robbie Ventura, Vision Quest Coaching employs over 30 coaches, has four locations and assists more than 200 athletes, ranging from weekend warriors to professional bike racers. Ventura rode professionally for 12 years, amassing 75 victories, and spent his last four professional years as a teammate to Lance Armstrong on the US Postal cycling team.
  • Billing itself as the home of triathlon advice for the average person interested in competing, tips here include Top 10 Newbie Mistakes, links to races and explanations of commonly used — but sometimes confusing — triathlon jargon. The website has been offering advice for about five years, courtesy of four coaches and other writers. It centers on shorter-distance (not Ironman) races.
  • USA Triathlon: Sanctioning body for more than 2,000 events, ranging from grass-roots to high-profile races in the United States. The group holds camps, clinics, races and other events, and works to create interest and greater participation in triathlons.
© 7/22/11