Starting Triathlon – Aerobars

You don’t have to be following triathlon for long to realise that aerobars (tri-bars) are a hot topic. In this fifth article in our Starting Triathlon series, we’ll really get to grips with them, answering questions such as: what are they? Are they for me? Are they really faster? What should I buy?

What are they?

Aerobars, also known as tri-bars, are bolt-on handlebar extensions that allow you to adopt a more aerodynamic (aero) position compared to riding on drop handlebars. Triathletes love them because an aero position equates to faster times – oh, and they’re cheap too.

Are they truly faster?

When we ride, we cut through the air and as our speed increases, so too does the amount of air resistance. This means that as our speed increases, we have to put in more effort (power) to overcome the effects of aerodynamic drag to increase or maintain our speed.

Every rider-bike combo is different but, all things being equal, roughly 25% of aerodynamic drag is from the bike and the remaining 75% from the rider. It makes sense then that anything we can do to cut through air resistance is going to be positive in terms of effort and speed.

25% Bike

75% Rider

By allowing you to ride in an aero position, tri-bars allow you to overcome aerodynamic drag meaning that you can travel faster for the same amount of effort.

Velonews commissioned a study where a trained rider rode a 40-km time-trial (Olympic distance bike leg) testing several items of aero equipment. They found that tri-bars saved 122-seconds over this distance. Obviously, conditions, rider shape and setup, equipment choices, and so forth can all affect time gains. But the key thing is that over 40-km you can expect to save between two and three minutes on your bike leg. If you are competing at Sprint distance that is about a one to one and a half minute saving.

There are two major considerations that will affect time gains:

  1. Course terrain – some courses offer less opportunity than others to ride on tri-bars, especially:

    • Windy roads – cornering and navigating twisty sections of a course are more difficult on tri-bars than on a drop handlebar. Unless you have excellent bike control, you will not be able to keep an aero position.

    • Climbs – as your speed reduces, the aero advantage offered by tri-bars reduces. What’s more, climbing is less comfortable, you may struggle to breathe hard, and it’s difficult to change gear as the climb steepens.

    • Descents – although tri-bars technically offer a huge advantage on descents, they have one major drawback – you can’t reach the brakes!

  2. Weather - in windy conditions a tri-bar will allow you to cut through the wind more effectively saving you time. Of course, if it’s very windy, you might not be able to ride on your tri-bars so there will be no time saving. Also, wet roads require more bike handling technique, and you may struggle to control your bike whilst on the tri-bars.

Tip: For most riders, tri-bars offer the single biggest time gain – four times that of a disc wheel, and one of those will cost you in excess of a thousand pounds. There is one exception, and that is clothing. Loose fitted, baggy clothing when compared to a tight fitted tri-suit will add more to your time than a tri-bar will save you. So, make sure your clothing is snug.

Are they for me?

On the face of it, you might think that tri-bars are an obvious choice. But hold on – they have their downsides. So, before rushing off to buy a pair, let’s see if they really are for you:

  • Are you confident on the bike? If you lack confidence, tri-bars are not a wise choice. It’s more difficult to steer and control your bike with tri-bars than without.

  • What’s your target event? Tri-bars are not allowed in all types of events. As a newer triathlete, you should be fine – the events you will enter allow the use of tri-bars. If you progress to taking part in draft-legal age group events, you will not be able to use tri-bars. There’s no need to worry though, because your race organiser will provide guidance before your event.

  • Love to ride with hands next to the stem? Although you can remove and refit tri-bars, in reality once fitted, you are unlikely to remove them. And they do take up the space either side of where the stem and the handlebar join meaning there’s no place for your hands.

  • Is it your first event? If it is, whatever time you achieve will be a PB (personal best), so do you really need to spend time and money trying to gain precious seconds?

  • Who are you competing against? If your only goal is completion or to better your own times, does it matter if you have tri-bars? On the other hand, if you want to beat friends or other competitors, maybe you should make that investment.

What should I buy?

If you have already decided to buy some tri-bars and jumped onto an online retailer’s website, you will have realised that there are a multitude of designs, options, and brands to choose from. So, where do you start? Well, there are a number of things to consider:

  1. Brand - there are several manufacturers with products on the market, ranging from Token’s entry-level offerings to Zipp’s high-end range. One of the most popular brands for those buying their first tri-bars is Profile Design. You can buy their products in many bike shops and from most online retailers. [A quick note: we don’t recommend or endorse any company’s products for financial gain].

  2. Material – tri-bars are normally manufactured from aluminium or carbon. The latter is generally lighter, stiffer, longer lasting (assuming no damage), and definitely more expensive. Although nice to have, for most novice triathletes we recommend aluminium – it’s pretty cheap and not that much heavier than carbon.

  3. Price – an entry level bar can be had for £40 (less sometimes with clearance items) and at the other end of the spectrum you can pay more than £200. Balancing weight, ease of use, and price you can buy a decent quality bar for between £60 and £80.

  4. Fit – handlebars come in different diameters (clamp size) and you must ensure that your tri-bars fit.  Most road bikes have a handlebar with a 31.8-mm clamp size. If you have an old or exotic bike, the clamp size may be different. Luckily, most tri-bars ship with adapters to allow fitting to a variety of handlebar sizes but check before you buy.

  5. Style – the extensions or arms of tri-bars come in a variety of styles. Some are straight, and others have bends such as s-bends or ski bends. Many people find that a bent bar offers more comfort for their wrists than straight bars. There are slight differences in aero performance between styles, but ultimately it comes down to personal preference.

  6. Length – some tri-bars are available in mini or compact formats. These are ones where the arms are shorter than on standard aerobars. Typically, elite triathletes use these to comply with ITU rules. If you are not an elite, stick with normal length tri-bars because you will achieve a faster position.

  7. Adjustability – all tri-bars come with some form of adjustment. The more adjustable, the more precise your potential fit. If you buy very entry-level bars, adjustment might be quite limited, but if you stick to our suggested price range, you should find that they have plenty enough adjustment for your needs.

Tip: your new tri-bars will come with fitting instructions. If you lack mechanical confidence and know-how, pay a mechanic to fit them. Bars that are too loose are dangerous, and those that are overtightened may damage your handlebar, or the securing bolts may round, making future removal very tricky.

In Summary

If you are confident on the bike, tri-bars can offer a considerable time gain and are a great choice for athletes wanting quick fixes to improve their bike times. That said, course terrain, weather, and type of event can impact the potential gains on offer. If you do choose to buy some, £60 to £80 will buy you a reasonable set that will serve you well in your future triathlon exploits. Finally, remember to practice, practice, and then practice some more. Enjoy your training and see you soon.

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The Starting Triathlon Series

Photo Credit: Pablo Ulloa