Note: This article orginally appeared in Triathlete Magazine.
Dear Tech Support,
I have had a road bike for a few years, but am new to triathlon. At the end of last season I added aerobars to make my bike more triathlon specific. They have not been very comfortable though and my friends say I look “awkward” when riding in them. I was fit to the bike when I bought it, so what am I missing?
Caitlin V., via e-mail
Many riders add clip-on aerobars to their road bike to make the bike work better for triathlon. However, clipping aerobars onto your road bike, without making other changes in positioning and components, is like putting a cook top in your living room and then expecting it to function like your kitchen – additional changes are needed for it to work well. Along with adding aerobars, some other fundamental changes to your riding position and equipment on your road bike can help you achieve your potential.
Positioning: Aerobars alone do not make a bike triathlon specific – riding position does. What I mean by this is that no matter how many triathlon oriented components you put on your road bike, it is not going to be set-up well for triathlon until your bike is fit specifically for your needs when riding in the aerobars. Your bike fitter may have done a good job with your road position when you bought your bike, but I’m sure she built your position to work best without aerobars. Getting refit specifically for an aerobar based triathlon position by a fitter who is skilled and well-educated in cycling biomechanics for triathlon is where you should start. With proper set-up and a basic understanding of aerobar riding technique, the vast majority of riders should find riding in the aerobars one of their most comfortable hand positions.
Components: Once you have been fit specifically for triathlon cycling, your current road bike can often be converted to your new aerobar position with a few component changes. Common positioning adjustments include the seat coming forward (to maintain an open hip angle in the new lower handlebar position and help encourage an easier muscle transition to the run) and the handlebars being set-up lower and with a shorter reach (to make sure your body is as skeletally supported as possible in a more aero and forward riding position). Components that will often need to be changed on your road bike to allow for such positioning changes include the seatpost, aerobars and stem.
- Seatposts: Depending on your riding position and the seat tube angle of your road frame, most riders will need a seatpost that allows the seat angle on their road bike to come forward 2-6 degrees. If you need to steepen your road frame just a couple degrees a Thomson set-back seatpost used in reverse of its original intent can work quite well. If you need a major change in seat angle, Profile Design’s Fast Forward seatpost, available in an alloy or carbon version, allows over five degrees of forward angle (thus allowing a road frame with a 73 degree seat tube angle to be capable of at least a 78 degree seat angle). Note that the hardware on the Fast Forward is not compatible with some saddles (many Selle Italia models built in the past five years, for example), so be sure to check compatibility.
- Aerobars: Aerobars all fit different and you should understand how any aerobar you are considering relates to your riding position and frame geometry before purchasing them (Tech Support, April 2007 covers fit differences between some popular clip-on bars). Highly adjustable clip-on aerobars, like the Profile CarbonStryke, are often some of the best for adapting a road bike to a triathlon position.
- Stem: When selecting a stem, do not sacrifice positioning and safety for aesthetics and weight. Aerobars can put a lot more leverage on the stem clamp than a standard road bar without aerobars, so make sure you use a secure and strong stem. If one is available in an appropriate length and angle, 4-bolt stems (like Ritchey’s offerings) are light, strong and secure.
- Optional Items: Additional triathlon specific component changes on your road bike can further enhance speed and performance by allowing you to stay in your aerobars longer and in greater comfort. Bar-end shift levers allow you to shift without leaving your aerobars and can be used with flat pursuit bars to reduce weight and aerodynamic drag. A triathlon specific saddle can help address the increase in forward saddle pressure that is common with shifting rider weight forward and lower.
Once changes have been made to the bike, you are ready to start riding in the new position. Remember that anytime you make positioning changes it is important to allow your muscles a chance to adapt to the demands of a new position, so start slowly and build into the changes.
Once you have converted your road bike, you will be well on your way to maximizing your potential on the bike for triathlon. However, there are two reasons I would encourage you to still start saving your dollars for a triathlon specific bike down the road.
1) Road bike riding, without aerobars, can make you a better cyclist. Many of the most accomplished cyclists in triathlon log the majority of their training miles on a bike that is not their tri bike; we highly encourage triathletes to have a road bike, without aerobars, available as the potential training and technique benefits are substantial.
2) Road bikes are designed to handle best with the rider’s weight distribution biased slightly to the rear of the bike. A dedicated aero position, on the other hand, can have over 60% of the rider’s mass biased towards the front of the bike. Triathlon specific bikes are designed to take this more forward weight distribution into account and handle as best as possible when the rider is in the aerobars.
When the time is right for that new triathlon bike, the information from the triathlon specific fitting you did when converting your road bike can be used to help you find the bikes that match the needs of your body best. A list of dealers who approach fit from a “Rider First” perspective and product selection from a “Fit First” perspective can be found at www.masterbikefitters.com.
Ride hard and train smart.
Ian Buchanan is co-owner of Fit Werx. Fit Werx has locations in Waitsfield, VT and Peabody, MA and offers cycling and triathlon products, specialty bicycle fitting and analysis services, consultation, and technology research. Fit Werx can be reached in VT at (802)496-7570, in MA at (978)532-7348 or through the Web at www.fitwerx.com.