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Your fastest bike splits will likely come from races where you settle into the aero position with confidence and hold it in comfort. There are some mindful steps to take in preparation for that sort of ride, and it’s never too late to start the process of making your bike an extension of your body. Read on for five tri-specific pillars to help develop your aero handling skills and make you faster for longer when riding in the aerobars:
1. Bike Fit
If you’re thinking about buying a tri bike or adding aerobars to your road bike, get fit first. Go to a bike fitter who is educated in triathlon fitting, has experience fitting triathletes, and has a dynamic fit bike. You’ll leave that fit with Pad Y and Pad X measurements yielding the exact makes, models, and potential front-end configurations and all of your essential fit coordinates (seat height, set back, pad width, bar tilt, etc.). Your fit will be finished before you even own the bike. Prescriptive fitting is the best way to buy a new tri bike, but if you already own a tri bike, get it fit from an educated, experienced fitter who can maximize comfort and power, that’ll lead you to love and trust your machine.
2. Safety First!
If you’re going 11mph or faster, being on the aerobars is a benefit. One more time for emphasis: If you’re going at least 11mph, you’ll be faster in your aerobars. When – in training or racing – there is even a potential for concern ahead of you, leave those aerobars and move your hands to the base bar (AKA. bullhorns or pursuit bar) for safety. That position is safer because you have a wider, more stable grip for steering, and you have the brake levers at your fingertips. That basic aero handling skill—the move from aero-to-base bar and base bar-to-aero—is one that needs to become automatic, easy, smooth, and unwavering, and it needs to be practiced often.
3. Build Strength
The number-one stabilizer of aero handling skills is your core muscles. When you take a hand off the bars to grab a water bottle, tweak your computer, pull some calories from your pocket, or move into and out of the aero position – you must first engage your core to anchor your upper body to your lower body. Then move one hand at a time, slowly at first, steady always, and anticipate the slight counterbalance needed to keep the bike rolling in a straight line. You must move one hand at a time so that you are always connected to the bike. To strengthen those stabilizers and make the movement smoother, quicker, and stronger, include Russian Twists, Side Planks, and some variation on a Kettle Bell Pull Throughs. All of these need minimal equipment and only take up 15 minutes a week.
4. Build Skill
If you’re new to the aerobars or just unstable in your movements, find an empty parking lot where you have plenty of space to practice. Create a straight-line using sidewalk chalk or even the tips of those white lines that delineate parking spaces, and then ride straight-line repetitions. Increase the challenge with each pass through. Start simply by riding on the base bar and lifting just one hand so it hovers an inch over the grip. On the next lap bring the other hand up slightly to hover. Keep the core engaged, look well ahead and pedal smoothly as you do this. Once mastered, hold that straight line while you reach down and just touch your water bottle, then the other hand, then remove the bottle, take a sip, replace – again, all while holding that straight line. Then move from base bar to aerobar and back and forth several times on each lap. See if you can stabilize yourself enough to hold that line during the change in position. Look ahead, pedal smoothly, and keep your core strong.
Just as a competent rider will shift the bike early and often as changes come in topography, wind, and fatigue, a competent rider will anticipate the hand position needed for the road ahead. When a steep, long descent presents itself – move to the base bar early before your maximum speed is achieved. As that hill flattens move back into aero while still carrying some free speed from the descent. When a sharp turn is ahead, move out of aerobars and onto the base bar.
These fundamentals of aero handling skills are critical for safety in every training ride and speed on race day. Many of us spend hours on a trainer and that device works against this practice of good bike handling. That said, all triathletes should be spending as much time as possible in the aerobars as possible. If you can’t comfortably ride in the aero bars for long periods of time, that’s a big problem, and you need to address that physical imbalance either with a bike fit, increased flexibility, or increased strength. Don’t expect to ride the base bars for most of your rides and then magically be able to hold an aero position on race day. It won’t happen!
If your cycling skill needs quick and comprehensive improvement consider hiring a coach for a one-hour private lesson on bike skills. However you decide to make these improvements know that the skill you obtain will never leave you, and will have you riding safer and faster.
Ian Murray is a USAT Level 3 certified coach, a Level II ITU Triathlon Coach, a Level II USA Cycling Coach, a masters swim coach, and a F.I.S.T-certified bike fitter. He is also the head coach of L.A. Tri Cub’s performance program.