Aerobars 101

As I probably mentioned in an earlier post, my physical therapist forbade me from riding my bike until I got professionally fitted. I asked her for a recommendation about where to go, as Madison/Middleton has about a million bike shops offering fits that range in price drastically. She said she didn’t have a formal PT recommendation, but that two of her colleagues had gone to Chronometro and had great experiences there, so she felt comfortable suggesting it for me. This was on the high end of price ranges that I’d seen, but I figure it’s better to spend the money for a really good bike fit than swallow the co-pay on knee surgery. (Glib, obviously – I very much don’t want to be injured again and I would be thrilled to not be in pain anymore.)

I’d seen Chronometro before, and my impression was that they catered to Serious Riders and high priced athletes. I guess I’d still say that’s true, but Colin, who fitted me, was very welcoming and friendly, and didn’t seem to judge my lack of bike jersey or my, as he called it, my “vintage” bike. In fact, he said that although I’ll want to consider upgrading when I increase to half or full Ironman distances, for what I’m doing now, it’s actually a pretty great bike. Light-weight, in good condition, and fast enough for the distances I’m doing.

I was worried that the first thing they’d say to me is that my bike is too big for me. And, to be fair, that is the first thing Colin said to me.

I took this picture really quickly to send to Josh, so I could tell him how nervous I was.

I took this picture really quickly to send to Josh, so I could tell him how nervous I was.

He quickly followed that up, though, by telling me that since we were installing aerobars, that actually wasn’t a terrible thing, as it would give “us” (read: him) more room to work with to fit me to my aerobars.

The actual fitting itself was pretty much what I had expected — lots of pedaling quickly followed by getting of the bike so he could adjust something or other. If you’re heading in to do this for the first time, I’d recommend making sure your bike is in a relatively low gear ahead of time. Mine was medium-ish, and the first thing I wanted to do was switch it lower, but I was too embarrassed to change anything and just powered through.

The main changes that were made were raising my seat quite a bit and lowering my handlebars even more, leaving me much more aerodynamically positioned, and hopefully taking the strain out of my shoulders and onto my forearms. It was surprisingly comfortable to ride in the aero position on the trainer, but Colin warned me a lot about taking this out into the world. He suggested that I take the bike out to an empty parking lot to practice riding aero, and to spend a not insignificant amount of time moving one arm to the hood or drops and back again, so that I can get used to quickly going for the brake if I need to.

He also needed to switch out my seat post for a different one so I’d be properly positioned. He went into the shop’s work room to find one that had the right angle and was about the right length, and came back with what looked like a hollow metal tube. Well, little did I know that he’d picked out the world’s most lightweight and aerodynamic seat post that someone else had cut down to a shorter length. When I checked out, he told me that the seat post retailed for $150. He did not charge me remotely this much as, (a) no, and (b) someone had already cut into it, and (c) no. But I think it’s hilarious that my vintage tri bike with the clip on aerobars now has the world’s most high tech seat post, of all things.

The next day, Josh and I went out to the DMV. I figured that the massive parking lot where I learned to drive was good enough to learn how to ride aero. My first experience dipping into the bars was great. It felt comfortable and natural. I tried turning, I tried dropping my hands down to the hoods, and I tried stopping. I felt pretty great, I have to admit.

Colin gave me the following advice:

  • Don’t ride aero downhill. He said it’s not faster, plus it’s unnecessarily dangerous. It’s better, he said, to just get into the drops and have your fingers on the brakes in case you need them.
  • Don’t ride aero in a pack. I hadn’t really thought of this, because when am I ever in a pack, but it seems like good advice.
  • When you turn, drop one hand to the hood or drop while keeping the other in aero. This gives you more control without sacrificing position.
  • “Do be careful.”

Today, I went out again, both to practice getting on the bike while my shoes are already clipped in (massive failure – stay tuned for a video of me not achieving this) and moreso to try spending some time in aero in real life.

It was incredibly windy today and the trail was covered with twigs from the rain the night before, so I have to admit I didn’t spend all that much time actually in aero. But when I did, it felt pretty good, and sitting up from it felt like I was being punched in the chest by the wind – proof that the position does help cut through the air. And I came to the conclusion, on the trails alone, that if I can’t ride my entire first race of the season (June 8) in aero, who cares? I’ll ride part of it in aero and part not, and I’ll still try to win. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Last year, I placed 3rd in my age group on a mountain bike.

Since the fitting, I’ve felt sort of afraid of my bike, which is an uncomfortable and different feeling for me. Part of this is the fear of aero (“do be careful”) and part of it is having my seat so much higher than I’m used to. I’ve known, and my hips have known (and my hips don’t lie) for a while that my seat needs to be higher, but it’s scary to not be able to instantly touch down, especially when everything on the bike feels different and when I’m still coming out of the winter where maybe clipping in and out isn’t 100% natural again. Totally coincidentally, I read an article today in Triathlon magazine by Jeff Matlow that included this quote: “And that’s the great thing about triathlon: it is the intersection of all your dreams and all your fears.” Maybe a little cheesy, sure, but man if that hasn’t been true for me. From learning to swim to switching from a mountain bike to a road bike to going aero and clipping in, it’s been scary. But it’s been awesome – so, so awesome.

And the last thing Colin said to me wasn’t, “Do be careful.” That was second to last. The last thing he said was, “Make us proud at Nationals.” And that’s what I aim to do.

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