Aerobars have a reputation for being uncomfortable, twitchy and sometimes even downright dangerous. And when they're improperly used, that's true. But with the right adjustments they can make for smooth, fast and safe cycling, which is exactly what you need if you've set your sights on a time trial or are diving into a triathlon. "The biggest mistake people make is setting up their aerobars without adjusting their bike fit," says Dan Smith, of LifeSport Coaching in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. "That alone can make you unsteady and uncomfortable." Here's what he recommends.
1. Shift forward and up
Aerobars effectively move the handlebar forward, so you need to adjust your body position to accommodate that change. Shift your saddle forward, then (because you've just effectively lowered it) raise it to compensate. Some riders also prefer to tilt the nose down a degree so they'll be able to roll their hips forward. "Once you raise and shift your saddle, you'll have more weight on the aerobars, which will also make you more stable," says Smith. It can be a tricky process, so consider springing for a professional fit if you can't get comfortable.
2. Give yourself breathing room
You want to reduce your frontal surface area as much as possible, because that's the greatest source of wind resistance. But don't scrunch in so narrowly that you close your chest cavity and restrict your breathing. Set the pads far enough apart that you can keep your shoulders in their natural down-and-back position. A good rule of thumb: line up your elbows with the width of your hips. If your shoulders are broad, position the bars to keep your hands close together, which minimises the amount of air that flows through to your stomach.
3. Stack yourself
Place your forearms on the pads just ahead of your elbows so your arms rest on the wide, muscular section of your forearms. In this position, your ears should be directly over your elbows. If you have a short torso, you might find the aerobars are a bit too far forward to achieve this. If so, consider a shorter stem.
4. Mind the terrain
A common mistake is staying on aerobars past the point of efficiency, especially on inclines, says Smith. "Once your speed dips below about 20kph going uphill, you're losing the benefit of the bars," he says. At that point, sit up to generate more power.
5. Practise away from the pack
Ride using your aerobars on wide, flat roads with few driveways or access roads. Get comfortable, riding five to 10 minutes at a time in the aero position, building the duration gradually as you become more confident. Once you master it, riding with aerobars is stable and safe, but it still has no place in pack riding; you're simply too far from the brakes and unable to react quickly to obstacles or pack manoeuvres.