Choosing what's right for you.
The first thing we need to identify is how much water you are going to need for the distance. These are things everybody has to decide for themselves, based on the distance itself, the number of aid stations, (and your willingness to rely on them) whether you are carrying "nutrition" in a bottle or as solids and how much of an aerodynamic penalty you are ok with.
As far as "distance" is concerned, here is my "go-to" in races I've done.
Sprint - no bottles
Olympic - 1 bottle
1/2 and Full - at least 1 bottle nutrition, 1 bottle water, have had up to 3 bottles on my bike at one time.
That has worked for me in the past. It's by no means the "right" thing, it's just my thing... but you should find YOUR thing.
*It's also a good time to go ahead and nip that "this pro does this" thing in the bud. It usually came up about Kona time and somebody would pull up a picture of whoever pro riding with round bottles (and often a non-aero helmet)
THEY ARE IN A DIFFERENT KIND OF RACE THAN AGE GROUPERS. A lot (not all) of pro's expect to sit in during an IM race. A good example was during the Lieto/Alexander times. Lieto was aero'd out, because he needed to put time in on the bike and try to hold off the charge on the run. Alexander could sit in on the bike in the main group, then expect his run to carry him to victory. When the rest of the competitors figured out what he was doing, you saw a change in that strategy. So while looking at the pro's can be a good thing, it's good to remember they have a different kind of race than AG'ers do. *
|An older setup from Craig|
Next we need to look at what the positives and negatives are to different setups.
The standard round bottle cage on the down/seat tube is the best place to start because it's the one we are all familiar with. This kind of setup has numerous advantages, the biggest likely that you are used to it. All the fanciest super aero hydration solutions on the planet won't do you a bit of good if YOU DON'T DRINK. Why do people usually not drink... well, fear of dropping the bottle/crashing/not being comfortable with it is a big one. Most people train with round bottles, so you get plenty of practice with them. It's familiar, almost a muscle memory. It's also makes refilling on the course a non-issue. Just throw your old (use old bottles at the start of race day) one and grab a new one at the aid station. Since the bottle is sitting up, you dodge most of the spillage issues as well. The downside to this setup is that you are *probably* giving away some watts. Most newer, sleek tri bike designs are better off without a round bottle.
Aero Bottles for Down/Seat Tubes (Virtue, Bontrager, Andurel, Elite, P4 bottle, etc)
These bottles were at their "height" with the Specialized Virtue (made to fit the Transition) and the Cervelo P4's "integrated" bottle. The idea is to have a bottle of water without the penalty of the round bottle. The upside is obviously the *usually* more aerodynamic frame bottle. The downsides are that you are not able to refill any of these bottles (at least without major modification) on the go. Since the cage is designed for the specific bottle (and the bottle is expensive besides that) you are also locked out of throwing an empty one and picking up a full one on course. During shorter events where 20oz or so is enough, these are great solutions. They are also a good spot to keep your flat kit (if you have one) if you have the extra space available. Personally, I have had success with keeping my nutrition mix in this style bottle, and getting my water elsewhere. Works good if you like liquid "feed" but obviously not if you're a solids kind of guy/gal. It's also worth noting that you need to get good at getting the bottle back into it's cradle after a drink, since if you don't get it seated right and then hit a bump, you've likely lost your bottle.
|A Specialized Virtue bottle on the seat tube. Also an empty behind the saddle cage.|
Behind the Saddle (both Lieto style and the devices)
My experience has been with the Lieto style setups. Cervelo (and my own personal testing in the tunnel) found that keeping the bottles very close to you was a good thing, sometimes even a positive. The closest is rammed up under the saddle like Chris Lieto did, accomplished by zip tying a bottle cage underneath. The positive to this setup is again, you get to use and discard a round bottle at aid stations. The downside is that it is a position that requires some practice to get good at removing, and especially replacing the bottle in it, and depending on what kind of cage you use you can end up ejecting over rough terrain.
The systems (xlab, etc) usually allow for the mounting of two bottle cages + a little room for Co2 and whatnot. The big plus is you are opening up two more round bottle spaces (or 1 bottle + tube/tire/flat stuff) which is probably the biggest amount of added water you can get from anything listed. With this kind of setup you could come very close to being 100% self sufficient on everything up to a 140.6, and maybe there depending on how your setup looked. The main reason for that would be if you wanted to avoid aid stations altogether. With a very careful setup you could probably get one of these systems fairly close to your butt as well. Again, the downsides are mainly aerodynamic, along with the fact that you need to practice grabbing and replacing the bottles. It could also be a problem if you don't practice your mount/dismounts, as kicking over a rear system would require a bit more "oomph."
|Lieto added tape to his cage to reduce the change of bottle ejection.|
|Actually not a bad looking holder. Now that seatpost...|
Bags (Speedfil and integrated Shiv mainly)
Pretty much a reservoir of water either on the frame (in the Speedfils case) or inside of it (Shiv, Cheetah, etc) with a drinking straw for ease of use. Now that we're talking about straw devices, the primary benefit to all of them is IT'S EASY to drink out of. It's hard to forget to drink when a straw is right in front of you. The Speedfil has been panned quite a bit as an aero anchor, but integrated solutions like the Shiv actually improve aerodynamics... so it can go from bad to good in that respect. I suspect that managing the straw when you aren't using it is a big deal. All are at least semi-refillable so there is that (although how much you and your bike end up wearing may be dependent on your skill)
|Opened up Shiv showing the bladder location|
|For the love of god... that straw...|
BTA round bottle (zip ties and a cage)
This is the old standby in my book. Cheap, fast and reliable is a hard combination to beat. Aerodynamically speaking you almost always at least break even (for some it's actually better) with a round bottle between the arms. It's also extremely cheap and since you are using a round bottle you can chuck and grab on course. Since it's right in front of you it's hard to forget and you can actually see it to make sure you get it back in the cage. The downside is that you put a little more weight right at the front, and you still have to practice getting it in and out of the cage to get good at it. It's also usually right above your brake/wheel if you end up with a leaky bottle, so you could end up wearing a bit of water/sport drink at times. For the most part, if you've got a true aero cockpit on your bike, you should almost certainly be running this setup.
|My old BTA setup.|
BTA systems (Torhans, Nathans, Speedfil, PD, etc)
These systems have come a long way in the last few years. There are a lot of different varieties of this sort of setup, but for the most part I'm classifying them together if they are between the aerobars and use a straw. The bonus to this kind of setup is, again, you have a straw right in front of you, so there is no excuse NOT to drink. You also don't have to break aero and/or practice removing a BTA bottle from the cage while in aero. Also pretty much all of the systems are refillable on the go. The downside is you DO need to be good at grabbing bottles at aid stations, which is something people for some reason don't want to practice. Some of the systems are also very "splashy" when you are on tough terrain... the Torhans in particular has had a lot of feedback on it not keeping water IN the bottle. Aerodynamically speaking... it depends. Some tests show things like the Torhans being very good, even on new aero frames, and some tests list this kind of setup so-so. My guess is the Nathans and such are fairly close to a BTA setup, probably a bit worse depending on straw management.
|Torhans 30 with a little too much uncovered straw showing.|
|Potts Nathan setup|
Which one is right for you? Well, that's something you need to *honestly* evaluate for yourself. Having a super aero setup is good and fine and possibly right, but remember the key is to have water. It's better to be a little less aero and actually drink your fluids/fuel than it is to be crushing right up until you bonk and then limp home (see my race report from Cedar Point for a good example)
Besides that, there are a LOT of different setups out there, and this is certainly no comprehensive list, just something to give some ideas. Try some stuff out for yourself, see what works, and go with it!
Thanks for reading! I very much appreciate it!
- Christopher Morelock