The swim to bike triathlon transition or T1 as it’s more commonly known is one of the most technical aspects of a triathlon race. There’s a lot to do in T1 which means a lot of things can go wrong potentially. Get it right though and you’ll get out ahead of your competition and feel like a triathlon pro at the same time.
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What is the swim to bike triathlon transition (T1)?
Simply put it’s just the process of switching from the swim leg to the bike leg of a triathlon. The clock doesn’t stop in a triathlon race while you switch between disciplines so every second counts here.
There are generally two transitions in a regular triathlon – swim to bike, and bike to run. The swim to bike transition will always be first. For that reason, it is most commonly known as transition 1 or T1 for short.
What you need to do in a swim to bike triathlon transition
Generally speaking, T1 will always be the longest in terms of duration. It also will be the one to benefit most from a little practice.
There are 7 things you need to do for the swim to bike triathlon transition (T1) –
- Exit the water
- Find your transition spot.
- Remove your wetsuit.
- Get your cycle shoes on and possibly socks too.
- Put your helmet on.
- Grab your bike and run to the transition exit and past the mount line.
- Mount your bike
#1 Exit the water
This sounds simple but it can be tricky. Going from swimming hard to immediately getting upright and trying to run is tough on the body.
The combination of lots of blood in the upper body, wobbly legs, elevated heart rate, possibly being cold, running on wet uneven surfaces, and dizziness can be challenging to say the least. This can be utterly shocking or overwhelming for a first-timer.
To counteract some of this you should increase your kick rate in the last 100m or so of the swim. At the same time reign in your competitive spirit a little and ease back on your stroke effort and relax it just a little. This will steady your heart rate and combat the wobbly leg syndrome by moving some of the working blood out of the upper body and into the legs.
Wait until your hand is hitting the bottom before attempting to stand. It will give you the least amount of walking in the water on dodgy surfaces on even dodgier legs.
Just before you do get up pull your wetsuit neck open and let some water in. It makes getting your wetsuit of MUCH easier.
Once up you can ease yourself into a run and gradually build to a comfortable pace. At this point lift your goggles onto your head.
Swimming in open water can make you dizzy if you aren’t accustomed to it. Especially on choppier waters. If you can get a few open water swims in before your race. Being dizzy coming out of the water on race day will not be a good experience!
#2 Remove the top half of your wetsuit
Once up and running you can start to remove your wetsuit. Start by pulling open the zip and collar tab. Next, pull each arm out in turn and peel your suit down to your waist. You can now remove your hat and goggles and keep them in your hand.
#3 Find and get to your transition spot
Sounds simple but it catches a lot of people out. Particularly first-timers or races with a large transition area.
Know EXACTLY the path to your transition spot from the SWIM EXIT. Do a practice run-through after setting up on race day. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.
Exiting the swim you’ll be exhausted, unbalanced, and struggling with your wetsuit. If you haven’t memorized the exact route to your bike you will quickly get lost and spend an age running around transition looking for your bike. The stuff of nightmares.
Make a count of how many rows in and columns up you are from your swim exit and memorize it. If you need to, write it on your hand with a permanent marker or similar.
#4 Remove the bottom half of your wetsuit
As soon as you get to your transition spot drop your hat and goggles and start rolling down the legs of your suit. Get as far down past your calves as you can. Next, use your fingers to hook in behind your calf between your skin and wetsuit. Then simply lift that leg and pull the suit off your foot and repeat for the other leg.
There’s another method where you stand on the legs of the suit and kick up and out to flick them off. However, it requires a bit more skill, practice, and dexterity. I’ve tried both ways and usually go for the first way of doing it. It may be a bit more crude looking but it never fails me.
#5 Getting cycle shoes on
At this point, you’ll probably need to get your cycle shoes on. First things first, make sure they have been left open as much as possible. If I’m going to wear socks in a race I’ll normally put them on at this point too. Slide your shoes on and fasten them. If you need to you can either sit down or rest against the bike rack while you do this. You’ll be surprised had hard it is to balance while putting socks and shoes on at speed after a hard swim.
Elite-level triathletes rarely (if ever) put their cycle shoes on before mounting their bike. Most have their cycle shoes attached to their pedals (held level and upright with rubber bands etc. ) and get into them once mounted. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice and confidence to master properly. If you don’t get your feet in before turning the pedals, while the shoe is still being held level, it turns into a time-wasting disaster.
Surprisingly I see loads of people trying this in every triathlon I do. Less surprisingly I see many of those people lose time because they rarely execute it correctly.
In my opinion, there are only three reasons to do it –
- Elite-level races where seconds lost in transition really count.
- Races that have exceptionally long run-outs before you can mount your bike.
- You absolutely can’t run in your cycle shoes.
For most of us putting cycle shoes on before you leave transition will be the safest, easiest, and most dependable option.
#6 Put the helmet on
Keep your helmet up high if you can, like on your handlebars or the bike seat. It will save having to bend down to retrieve it from the ground.
Wherever you leave it keep the strap unfastened. I normally leave my helmet laying upside down between my tri-bars, with the strap unfastened and either end hanging outside the helmet.
Make sure you fasten the helmet before touching your bike. That’s a general rule for most races.
The only thing that may catch you out is trying to fasten a helmet strap with hands that have got very cold in the swim. I’ve had this happen once or twice but it’s definitely a rare occurrence. If it does happen don’t panic, take your time, and think logically about the process.
#7 Grab your bike and run to the exit
Now it’s time to unrack your bike and run to the transition exit. Go as fast as you can without putting yourself into the red.
The best way to run with a bike is to grab the saddle nose and just guide it along. The front-wheel will naturally follow your path.
Know your path to the transition bike exit. Check it out after setting up your transition spot. There will usually be stewards or marshalls pointing you where to go. However, don’t depend on this being the case.
#8 Mount your bike
There’ll be a mount line somewhere past the transition exit. Only mount your bike AFTER passing it. You can then do a little hop onto the seat as you run to save some seconds or stop completely and get on at a standstill.
Do whichever you are most comfortable with. A fall at the start of the bike leg is not what anyone wants.
Swim to bike triathlon transition common mistakes
Triathlon transitions are an easy place to make mistakes if you don’t think about them and pre-plan their execution. Knowing the most common mistakes will go a long way to helping you avoid making them yourself.
- Removing hat and goggles before peeling down the top half of the wetsuit.
- Trying to get a tight wetsuit sleeve over a large GPS watch. Have some kind of strategy for this!
- Trying to remove a wetsuit that has dried out too much after a long run to transition.
- Just generally struggling to remove a wetsuit because you’ve never practiced it before.
- Not knowing your path to your transition spot from the swim exit.
- Cycle shoes that are fastened closed before you get in them.
- A helmet that’s fastened close before you get it on.
- Not knowing your path from your transition spot to the bike exit.
- Mounting your bike before the mount line.
- Having your bike in too high a gear for starting off on.
If you make none of the above mistakes you should be in good shape for a smooth, trouble-free, and quick T1.
Tips for a successful swim to bike triathlon transition
First of all, make sure you make yourself aware of the most common mistakes above.
Tip #1 – Remove your wetsuit early if you need too
A long run in your suit runs this risk your suit legs will drain too much water by the time you get to transition. That’ll make it very sticky and hard to remove.
Remove your wetsuit sooner if you have a particularly long run to transition. Once you have the top half of your suit peeled down, and you have the space to do so, step to one side and fully remove your wetsuit. With all that water still in your suit, the legs should peel off easy peasy.
Tip #2 – Avoid wearing bulky watches on the swim
Trying to pull a wetsuit sleeve over your hand alone is difficult. Trying to pull it over the latest arm gadget monstrosity is no fun at all. It may just see your arm and wetsuit sleeve locked in an eternal battle for freedom. Don’t get caught out with this and have a strategy in place before doing it in a race.
I personally just don’t wear a watch at all during the swim or bike. It’s of no real use on the swim and you’ll most likely have a computer of some kind already on your bike. The run is the only time I might pull it on.
Also, remember that timing chip you have to wear around your ankle? Well, it’ll time all your splits for you, AND you’re paying for it as part of your race entry fee. Make the most of it and ditch the watch for the swim at least.
Tip #3 – Know your transition routes
Know how to get around the transition area. After setting up your transition spot go and do a walk-through from the transition swim entry point to your individual transition spot. After that do the same from your transition spot to the bike exit point.
Getting this wrong can be disastrous, particularly in races with very large transition areas.
Tip #4 – Don’t get cold in the swim
Going into transition cold and shivering will make EVERYTHING much harder.
Firstly make sure your wetsuit fits snugly. If you feel fresh cold water constantly flushing through your suit when you swim then that means it’s too loose. A snug-fitting suit will limit this and go a long way to keeping you warm.
The next big thing to pay attention to is your head. I almost always wear two hats on the swim. A thicker silicon type on the bottom and then the race cape over that. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.
If the water is very cold you may need to invest in a neoprene skull cap for under your race hat.
Tip #5 Don’t panic and over rush things
Rushing too much will cause you to make mistakes. Stay calm, relax, and focus on doing things smoothly and with precision, as opposed to doing everything ‘as fast you can’.
Tip #6 – Keep things simple and easy
Don’t overcomplicate things for your swim to bike triathlon transition. Keep things as simple and easy for yourself as possible.
Do things you know you can do comfortably. For example, if you know you can very quickly pop your cycle shoes on before getting on your bike and run with them out of transition then do that.
So what if it’s not what the pros are doing, or your buddies are recommending. It’s you that will have to execute on the day and nobody else.
If you want to try different techniques then only do so after you you practiced and got comfortable with them. This leads me to my next and final tip.
Tip #7 Practice
Practice, practice, practice!
Practicing your swim to bike transition will undoubtedly make you faster at it. Anytime you do an open water swim in your wetsuit you should practice getting out of it right after you finish that swim.
Take your bike shoes and socks with you too and practice getting into them right after removing your wetsuit.
Practicing like this will immediately flag up any potential problems and allow you to work on them in the next session. By the time your race comes, you’ll be smooth as butter!
T1 can be a minefield of problems if you go into it blind. Thankfully though you’ve just finished reading this guide and now know all the mistakes you shouldn’t make.
Don’t worry though if you do make a little mistake here or there. The perfect transition is a difficult thing to achieve. I have 50+ triathlons to my name and rarely have a transition I’m totally happy with.
I hope this guide helps you out, especially if you’re a first-timer. Remember, nothing will boost your confidence like a little bit of practice.
Share your thoughts
As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have any thoughts, advice, questions, or opinions related to this article.