Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over ten years. He currently holds expert licenses from USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a free lance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites.
Selecting the Right Aerobars for Triathlon
When shopping for triathlon bike aerobars, considerations range from adjustability, comfort, aerodynamics, weight, and of course, price.
Aerobars vary widely in design, comfort, adjustability, weight, and price. It is important to choose the right aerobars for the type of event and training you will be doing. With so many designs and price points, selecting the best bars for your needs can be confusing.
Time trial and short course aerobars
First and foremost, there is a difference between time trial bars designed for short course speed and ones engineered for long course triathlon. Time trial bars are constructed for use in bike races generally under 40k in distance and without long term comfort in mind. They are generally lighter in weight and more aerodynamic, yet there may be little or no adjustment to the extension, pads, or pad width. Some time trial bars are completely fixed with no adjustment at all. Sizing may be in small, medium, and large increments, and pads are generally thinner and lower-profile. These types of bars may be suitable for short course multi-sport events, but may not be a good option for spending hours on top of unless they fit you very well.
Long course aerobars
Aerobars designed for long course triathlons are considerably more adjustable and incorporate more comfortable pads. If your tri shop builds their bikes from frame sets, make sure you are getting bars that are suitable for long course comfort and adjustability, if that is your goal.
Once you have selected the right type of aerobars for your event, the differences are again going to be in adjustability, comfort, aerodynamics, weight, and of course, price. You have to find the right balance of these components to suit your needs. The most expensive aerobars are not necessarily the most comfortable or adjustable. Infinitely adjustable bars permit “just right” placement of the shifters and pads. The extensions will telescope and rotate, allowing you to put the shifters exactly where they feel best. This also mitigates the need to change out stems for cockpit reach adjustment. Depending on the brand, the pads may be able to rotate slightly, adjust to different widths, and be shimmed to different heights. Check the difference in pad thickness from brand to brand. A wider and thicker pad distributes upper body weight more effectively and leaves room for a bit of movement.
The type of bar extension may vary from a straight bar, to an “s” bend, to a “j” bend. The presumption is that a straight extension is more aerodynamic, but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, some athletes show less aerodynamic drag in the wind tunnel using a “j” bend, and “j” bends may be more ergonomic and comfortable. You should choose your extension type based foremost on comfort.
In terms of weight, carbon fiber bars will be slightly lighter than aluminum, and also have the added benefit of dampening road vibration. However, carbon bars are more expensive. Clip-on bars can be added to any road, base, or pursuit bars, allowing a greater combination of components. The downside is that there is a slight increase in weight using a clip-on, and there are more parts to create aerodynamic drag.
The most expensive aerobars are full carbon monocoque designs. These combine all the components of the front end, including the brakes, into a single piece of carbon fiber. Clamps and bolt heads are eliminated from the slipstream and cables are internally routed. These bars are the most clean, but the aerodynamic advantage is minimal and these bars can cost upwards of $1000. Adjustment is generally good, but you pay a large premium to cut a small amount of drag (perhaps seconds in race time).
Pursuit and base bars
Pursuit or base bars vary widely in design as well. If you use a tri bike and train or race on hilly courses in which you sit or stand up, the amount of extension may be important to you. Some base bars have a very small grip surface, just enough to brake effectively, whereas others may be as long as six inches or more. A longer extension means more hand positions, and may be better for out-of-the-saddle efforts. Some athletes don’t feel comfortable with short base bars, as they feel their hands will slide forward off the bar when sweaty.
Bottom line: Get fitted to your bars
A good place to start in the selection process is price point. If you are purchasing a new bike, make sure it comes with aerobars that will be comfortable for the distance you are training for. It is better to pay a slight up-charge for a bar swap initially versus the cost and labor charge for replacement down the road. Once you have them on your bike, make sure they are adjusted properly. A professional fitting will ensure this; however, you need to interact with and give feedback to the fitter. Athletes will often make adjustments with the presumption that it will make them more aerodynamic (ex. bars close together). Even if drag were to be slightly reduced, an uncomfortable position will outweigh any slight advantage.
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