On the final day of the Tour de France 20 years ago, something extraordinary happened. The race leader was Frenchman Laurent Fignon, who had a 50-second lead going into the final stage. A 24.5K time trial from Versailles to Paris would decide the race, but surely such a lead was enough for a local victory. Fignon certainly thought so. In second place was Greg Lemond from the USA.
Fignon decided to ride this final time-trial stage on the racing bike he had used throughout the Tour, hunching down against the wind by placing his hands low on his standard drop handlebars. But Lemond turned up with a set of aero-bars fitted to his bike, ready to make some history. Hunched in a tuck position not dissimilar to that of a downhill skier, the American blasted into Paris, beating Fignon by 58 seconds and recording the fastest ever individual time trial in the Tour's history. His eight-second victory was largely attributed to the aerodynamic advantages provided by those strange-looking aero-bars.
Triathletes took note of Lemond's extraordinary average speed of 54.5kph on that final stage and were soon running, cycling and swimming to their local bike shop to buy a pair of aero-bars. The use of these
new bars became so common in triathlon that they even became known throughout the cycling world
Tri-bars are designed to make you more aerodynamic. By forcing your body into a more streamlined shape, the effects of drag are reduced. Contrary to popular belief they are not just there to rest your weary arms on, although they do also come in handy for that They are suitable for cyclists and triathletes of any standard, although they take a bit of getting used to. Just don't use them in a race until you have had plenty of practice in training.
Clip-on tri bars
These are the least expensive option, simply clamping on to any racing-bike handlebar. They can be used by triathletes of all levels and abilities. The real beauty of clip-on tri-bars is that you can easily remove them if you need to. Some triathletes remove their tri-bars for winter, when there are fewer races, and put them back on for the summer race season. A good set of tri-bars will provide plenty of adjustability, meaning you can change the position of the arm rests (up, down, side-to-side, forward and back) and the length of the bars to help maximise your comfort.
Draft-legal tri bars
Riding in the slipstream of another cyclist (drafting) is banned in most triathlons, outside of elite races. Normal clip-on tri-bars are considered dangerous when cyclists are racing in a tight bunch, hence the development of draft-legal tri-bars for elite racers. They are a shorter, rounder version of normal clip-on tri-bars. Despite being designed for elites, they're a great all-rounder. They're small enough to keep on your bike all year round without getting in the way and are potentially as aerodynamic as a standard clip-on tri-bar.
Aero base bar with clip-on tri bars
An aero base bar with a set of clip-on tri-bars is recommended for more experienced triathletes. They're as adjustable as clip-ons and they offer several other benefits. One is that they have bar-end gear shifters, so you can keep your hands on your tri-bars while you change gear. The other main benefit comes from the shape. The drag factor of an aero base bar is far lower than a standard set of racing-bike handlebars. These bars are best suited to racing.
All-in-one aero bars
All-in-one aero-bars are mainly used by experienced and competitive triathletes. Their one-piece carbon construction gives them a very low drag factor, but this often comes at the expense of adjustability and comfort. Used only for racing, these bars help you slip through the air on fast, flat bike courses. You'll see them on the bikes of most professional Ironman-distance triathletes.
Tri bars - Q&A
What can I expect to pay for a good set of tri-bars?
You can buy a set of clip-on tri-bars for about £40, but some tri-bars cost more than £700.
Do some time-trial bikes come with built-in tri-bars that can't be removed?
Time-trial bikes usually come fitted with all-in-one aero-bars. These bars can be removed and swapped for standard racing-bike handlebars with clip-on tri-bars, but several new parts are needed and it isn't a cheap job.
Are some adjustable and some a fixed size? Are they unisex?
Some tri-bars have greater adjustability than others so always choose the most adjustable pair you can find. Certain manufacturers have male- and female-specific bars, but a good set should suit both men and women.
Will they always make me faster?
Only if they make you comfortable and aerodynamic. If you position your tri-bars too high up you could increase the drag factor; if they force your body into a crunched-up position so that your knees hit your chest, you could find it hard to breathe. In either case, you may actually end up riding slower.
What kind of course are they most suitable for?
Tri-bars work best on flat courses, although they can save you time on all but the hilliest courses.