Josh Amberger is one of the most unique personalities in all of professional triathlon. The Australian star has an impressive resume of race wins and top performances at some of the sport’s most prestigious events but, more importantly, he has an unparalleled passion for multi-sport competition and the triathlon community. Josh is also an expert mechanic and, unlike most pro triathletes, builds and maintains all of his own equipment himself. He’s the perfect person to offer up some advice on how to build a race bike suited for an individual athlete’s needs, and we’re thrilled to feature his article below.
I’ve never been happy just owning and riding a bike. I’m a tinkerer and inquisitive by nature, but also seriously tuned towards performance in triathlon. As I got more and more into bike sports, I found myself wanting to know everything about bikes: how they go together, how things work, and how to maintain them. Now as a professional athlete, a smooth-running bike is key to my performance. A lot of people share my passion for riding bikes. But maybe there’s a small group of folks curious to take that passion to the next level and learn more about the art of building and maintaining your quiver.
My need to play around with bikes started as I got more and more into racing. There was a sudden need for me to start putting on new tires, chains, and cassettes as the old ones wore out, to change manky bar tape and replace brake or shifter cables when they stretched or sometimes even snapped. When I got my first set of race wheels, the rim width and surface compound was different to my training wheels, and I needed to work out how to adjust brakes and change brake pads. I also needed to learn how to do a good job at these tasks, because you learn hard and fast if you didn’t torque something correctly and it rattled loose, or you threaded a chain the wrong way through a derailleur (of which I’m sure we’re all guilty!).
I started to spend more and more time in my home workshop (which, at the time, was my parents’ living room), and I actually really started to enjoy spending time on my bikes. I built up a cache of necessary tools and parts over time, and I became less reliant on bike shops. Of course, the local bike shop plays an integral role in the bike industry, but I started to need their services less frequently. Once I became a sponsored athlete and had a yearly allowance of framesets from Felt and groupsets from SRAM, it only entrenched my reliance on my own workshop skills. I could no longer wait on a bike shop to turn a build around as quickly as I needed them done. So I began to learn the craft of building a bike from the ground up. [Click here to see a gallery of one of Josh's best race bikes.]
Fortunately, most of my gear is sponsored. Felt provides the frames, SRAM provides the groupsets, and Zipp supplies wheels and components. I also have Schwalbe for tires, Speedplay for pedals, Gebiomized for the saddles, and I round out each bike with a Quarq power meter. So I can’t in all honesty write a blog about choosing the best components for a build, as my choices are pretty well laid out. But I can give you an idea of what I put on my bike and why, in the hopes it can assist you with your own bike build dreams.
The first thing to consider when building up a bike these days is probably whether you’re going to go with a disc brake-equipped frameset or not. For some, it becomes a bit choosy to move from rim brake to disc brake. You may have to get all-new shifter/brake sets, you’ll need new wheels, and you’ll likely need some basic know-how on disc brake maintenance. But I’m sure there aren’t many people who have gone to disc brake and then gone back to rim brake for their full-time ride. Personally, I’d never go back to rim brakes, so if you’ve been weighing up the transition to disc, I’d definitely buy the disc brake option sooner rather than later. In 2020, I’ve been riding the new AR FRD aero road bike for training, and the IA FRD triathlon bike for racing. Both bikes are at the top of their class, and the added disc brake platform has been a massive boon for the rider experience on these bikes.
For an affordable pair of high-performance disc brake wheels that can do it all, I’d consider something like the Zipp 303s. The stiffness in these wheels is incredible, and they can take a real beating. I think it’s important to consider new tech in wheels as well, like tubeless technology. Tubeless is another one of those things whereby once you try it, you won’t want to go back. A great tubeless training tire to pair to these is the Schwalbe One. I use 25mm mostly, and have found about 70psi to be the best pressure for handling and comfort.
The groupset is the next big ticket item to consider. I’m sure most people are considering electronic groupsets these days, and I personally use SRAM Red eTap AXS. With this groupset, SRAM produced a system with an extremely dynamic range of gears for all types of terrain and abilities. On my road bike, I use the 50/37 crankset with a built-in Quarq power meter, paired with a 10-33 cassette. With this system, I’ve got the equivalent of a 55/11 high gear in the 50/10, and my 37/33 low gear is unmatched by traditional groupsets. It has 12 speeds, which gives me everything I need in between the two extremes. There are lower ratio cranksets that SRAM offers beyond the 50/37 if needed, and you could go even higher to a 52-tooth chainring on the 1x system, which is what I use for my TT racing.
I’m still finding a sweet spot for my handlebars, which is probably not an experience unfamiliar to other riders. For many years, I was riding the Zipp Vuka Aero cockpit on my IA, but went back to the OEM Felt Devox basebar this year, but with my much loved Zipp Vuka Evo 110 extensions. I am always tinkering with arm and hand position, trying to find that perfect balance between comfort and aerodynamics. On my road bike, I’m settled on 40cm bars, and prefer a shallow drop, something like a Zipp SL70 Ergo paired with a 90mm stem.
I could go on about small parts and hacks I’ve made to my setup over the years, but I’d be here forever. When it comes to the learning process, I’ve made some doozies in the workshop in my time, but for me it’s been the best way to learn, and honestly kind of part of the fun. On the other hand, I’ve had mechanics make my bike worse-off before major races, and airlines/TSA have damaged or lost all kinds of things on my bike or in my bike bag. Bad luck happens, really, but when it does, I like to be in a position to know when something is wrong, I can make a good attempt to diagnose and fix the problem quickly and confidently. There’s literally a YouTube video for everything, as well. For instance, when I shifted to disc brakes, I had to watch the tutorials dozens of times to gain the memory for the task, and I probably couldn’t have got the skill without this. But it never really has been easier to learn about bikes, and I’d encourage anyone who’s keen to get their hands dirty to give it a go. It’s not that difficult, and it’s great to look back on your work when it’s all done. Happy riding!
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