Should You Be Using Clip-On Aero Bars?

Thinking about using clip-on aero bars? Here are some important things to consider

When Greg Lemond won the 1989 Tour de France, snatching victory over Laurent Fignon in the ITT on Stage 21, a strange looking contraption that was attached to his handlebars caught the attention of the cycling world at large. The Scott clip-on aero bars that Lemond was sporting on his bike certainly weren’t the sole factor in his ability to make up the 50 second deficit on Fignon that day (who was reportedly suffering with terrible saddle sores after Stage 19), but it’s very likely that they helped.

Why is this snippet of cycling history relevant to the topic of this post? Because even though some triathletes had been using aero bars as early as 2 years previously in 1987 at the Ironman in Hawaii, ever since Lemond won that time trial, riders across many different disciplines of cycling have been attaching a myriad of contraptions to their bicycles in order to manipulate their bodies to better cheat the wind. 

But just because we can, does it mean that we should?

Here are some things to consider if you’re thinking about experimenting with aero bars on your road or gravel bike.

What’s The Goal?

As with anything, there has to be a good enough reason for doing something in the first place. Start by asking yourself what it is that you’re trying to achieve by using aero bars on your road or gravel bike. Is it to maximise aerodynamic potential at the local club 10? To turn your road bike into more a Tri bike to try and improve your time in your next race? Or, it might be to provide an additional position to aid in relieving some tension over the course of an Ultra Distance ride or race like the Pan Celtic or Trans Continental.

There are multiple potential applications for aerobars, so having it clear in your mind as to why you’re wanting to use them is a good starting point. Lets go through the above scenarios and pose some more questions…

Aero Speed Gains! (Triathlon & Time Trialling)

This is usually the biggest reason that folks might consider fitting clip-on aero bars to their bike. It’s a well accepted principle that the surface area of the rider’s body aboard a bicycle contributes to the largest amount of aerodynamic drag on the overall system – roughly 80%(!) The smaller you can make yourself on the bike, the less of you there is for the wind to interact with and therefore the faster the speed will be for the same effort.

By narrowing your frontal area as a result of rotating your pelvis forwards on the saddle to lower your head position, narrowing the width of your elbows and bringing your hands higher towards your head as a result of riding in the aerobars you can create a smaller silhouette on the bike. Sounds straight forward enough right? There are however limiting factors to that basic premise that are entirely individual.

The overarching goal is to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Aerodynamics certainly plays a part in achieving that aim, but there is a ”hierarchy of gains” before aerodynamics can and should be optimised. 

Firstly, can you still apply good amounts of force through the pedals and generate power in this new position? Has this ability been compromised at all and if so, to what degree? Is the compromise in force production worth the gains through a more aero position? Are there changes that might need to be make to the saddle and/or cleat position to allow for better force production?

Secondly, can you still maximise respiratory function when rotated forwards into a more aerodynamic position? If the aero position is too restrictive, there may be compromises in ability to extend the torso, as well as expand the rib cage – both of which can have an adverse effect of respiratory efficiency. Why is the relevant? Your muscles need oxygen to function! (Check out our previous post on how a poor torso position cam create GI stress on the bike).

Thirdly, do you have good control over your movement in the aero position for the duration of your event? Is the pedal stroke still smooth without the body making any compensations in order to apply force through the bike as you fatigue? Can you maintain good pelvic stability and symmetry on the saddle? Once you can apply good amounts of force through the pedals with good mechanics, maintain efficient breathing and stability for the required duration and intensity of your event, then you can start pushing how aero you can go.

Comfort (& Storage) For Long Distance Cycling

More and more, we’re seeing long distance and ultra distance cyclists utilise aero bars to offer an alternative position from the regular drop bars. If positioned well, these can offer welcome relief in tension and postural stress over multiple days of riding. If positioned badly however, they can create even more problems!

We still need to make sure that pedalling mechanics are not compromised, good stability can be created on the saddle and through the feet, and maximal respiratory function is achieved. Even though the position may not be as extreme as using aero bars for TT or triathlon purposes, these factors are vitally important.

The main reason for using aero bars for long distance cycling is to minimise postural stress on the body as much as possible. If the addition of aero bars increases pressure on the back/neck/shoulders or abdominals, or compromises pedalling efficiency, stability or breathing, then it’s likely that this position is going to be more of a hindrance than a help and that the extra space that these take up on the handlebars would be better utilised in another way.

At the very least, they’re fantastic for storing doughnuts for long rides!

Are Your Aero Bars Adjustable Enough?

For both aerodynamic and long distance applications alike, the more adjustable your aero bars are, the more likely you are to be able to achieve a good position. There are a myriad of options out there, but the main things to look out for are;

1) Arm pad adjustability, both fore/aft and laterally 

2) Arm pad stack adjustability. Does the aero bar you’ve chosen allow the pads to be pedestalled higher above the clamping point on the handlebar, and if so, by how much?

3) Choice of extension shapes and lengths. Often we see some aero extensions being too short to allow for good hand placement and the shape of the extension not allowing for a good wrist angle when the contact on the arm pad has been established.

4) Choice of different arm pad cups. If you wanted to try a longer arm pad cup with more depth / higher sides for instance, what are the compatibility limitations here regarding bolt spacing etc?

5) Replacement pads and bolts? Are there any proprietary standards to consider here?

Some of our favourite clip-on aero bars are made by Zipp and Profile Design as they offer a wide range of adjustability and scope for different extension shapes and arm pad cups. There are plenty of others out there however, it’s just about finding the right aerobar for your specific needs and positional requirements.

Conclusion – Give Clip-on Aero Bars A Go!

In short, if you’re thinking about trying some clip-on aero bars on your road or gravel bike, whatever the reasoning behind the idea, there’s no substitute for slamming a set on and having a play around. Just make sure that you select a set that has plenty of adjustability to give you the best chance of achieving a positive outcome (Get Profile Design ones, we have no affiliation, they’re just the best for adjustment AND value!).

So long as you can prioritise the core principles of maintaining good pedalling mechanics, stability through the feet and pelvis and being able to maintain the position without restricting respiratory function before trying to pursue the most aggressive aerodynamic position possible, then there’s no reason not to give them a go.   

Words by:  Mat (yes, one ‘t’)

If you’re curious about how your bike position might be affecting your own comfort and performance, get in touch by email: 

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