Most triathletes were runners first, and some started as competitive swimmers, before expanding to multisport races.
Of the three talents tested in triathlons, bicycling seems to be the one taken for granted.
"Everybody's brought up riding a bike," said triathlon promoter Bill Fiske of Marlboro. Also, today's lightweight models make it easy even for novice riders to gather impressive speed.
But as any experienced bike racer can tell you, there's more to it than pushing the pedals. Triathletes who come from cycling backgrounds may have an important edge.
Rich Mazzola of Ashland, a Category 3 racer in the Minuteman Road Club sponsored by Frank's Spoke 'n Wheel in Framingham, is in the minority of multisport competitors. He started with cycling, added running to his repertoire next, then swimming last year. Still, more than half the races he enters are cycling only.
Triathlons require "a different kind of cycling," said Mazzola, 30, a mechanical engineer at Helix Technology Inc. in Mansfield. The cornering, sprinting and climbing skills honed for criteriums and road races aren't necessarily required in triathlons, where the bike courses are relatively flat and "more like a time trial," he said. "You get on your wheels and set your own pace."
Cycle racing is a strategic team sport, "with ample opportunity to sit in and conserve energy" by drafting until a hill or a sprint to the finish calls for a sudden surge, Mazzola explained. In a triathlon, drafting is not allowed, and riders are likely to go all out the whole distance.
But advanced cycling skills, especially hill climbing, can help a triathlete gain valuable time. Last year, in his first full season as a triathlete, Mazzola was pleased to finish fourth in one of Fiske's races in Gardner. "I felt good because some good swimmers got a two-minute lead, and I almost caught up in the bike portion, and then I held my own in the running," Mazzola said.
John David, 57, of Worcester, another cyclist turned triathlete, said his biking background helps in longer races, "but when it's shorter, there's probably more advantages for a good runner."
David, an engineer at Worcester Controls in Marlboro, was a founding member of the TRYP.I.G.s. The triathletes' group started about four years ago at the Greendale YMCA with about 15 or 20 members; now a subset of the running club Central Mass Striders, it has grown to hundreds of members. The name, which stands for Try "Pain is Good," is a testament to the peculiar attitude required to push oneself in three sports at once.
The attraction, triathletes say, is the challenge. In Mazzola's words, "I want to see if I can do it, first, and then the fact that I'm competitive, it fuels the desire to do more and see how far I can go with it."
It takes a "Type A, obsessive compulsive" personality to be a triathlete, according to Landry's team member Lynn Oski of Grafton, a neurophysiologist at The Medical Center of Central Massachusetts and doctoral student in psychology at Clark University. "People are intense. You have to be, to be disciplined in three sports."
Like many runners, Oski, 29, turned to cycling to save her knees from pounding. She said some competitors rely on muscle strength on the bike, whereas she considers herself "more of a technique rider. I can spin rather than pushing down on the hardest sprockets."
Oski has placed first in her age group in every triathlon in Fiske's series this year, and she was fourth in a qualifying race last weekend in Pennsylvania for the Ironman in Hawaii. Her next challenge is a half ironman (swim 1.2 miles, bike 56, run 13) next Sunday in Lancaster.
Minuteman Road Club member Mike Dionne of Waltham is training for the half, too. "It's a juggle," said Dionne, 27, a sales engineer for Altera of Westford. He keeps in mind the triathlete's mantra: "Quality workouts, not just quantity."
Dionne did some running in high school, saw the Ironman on TV in college and knew he wanted to do it.
He's improved his cycling by training with the bike club and earned a couple of third-place finishes. "I still have that dream of going to Hawaii," he said.
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