By Coach Ted Ramos
Ever since aero bars were clipped onto the handle bars of a road bike in the 80s, the aero position on the bike has greatly evolved over the last 30 years.
The main idea behind being aero is to get your head and shoulders as low as possible, and move your hands and elbows in as close as possible. The main benefit of this narrow and compact position is that the athlete reduces their frontal drag and the bike moves faster with less effort.
Despite the extra speed, there are many drawbacks. The compact position restricts movement and restricts breathing. Therefore, many athletes are not able to produce the same wattage in an aero position that they can when sitting in a more upright position. Another drawback is that the aero position is not comfortable for long duration riding. Most people who spend their time doing Ironman races will be on the bike for 5-8 hours and then they need to be able to stand up and run after that.
Taking a look at the traditional aero set up above, the elbows and hands rest well below the saddle. This takes great flexibility to get into this position. This position also greatly closes off the hip angle and you can see how the knees come into the chest at the top of the pedal stroke. This aggressive position also gets the head so low that it takes neck strength to get the head up and look down the road.
Most age group triathletes lack the flexibility and core strength to get into an aggressive position such as this.
An improvement to this position within the last 10 years is the praying mantis position initially adopted by cyclists like Levi Leipheimer and the infamous Floyd Landis.
Although Floyd sits higher in this position, he closes off the gap between his head and his hands. This reduces frontal drag while opening up his hip angle to produce more power.
The main drawbacks of this position is that it is not practical to set it up this way from a bike mechanics perspective, and it’s not necessarily comfortable either. Despite being fast, this position never really caught on.
Watching the time trail stages at Pro Tour races this season, I see a new evolution in time trial position.
Many pros are now adopting a higher hand and elbow position. As you can see in the photo above, the elbow pads are about as high as the saddle. This aero profile is very similar to the praying mantis style, yet the set up is more conventional by simply adding more spacers between the base bar and the aero bars. With the open hip angle, riders should be able to produce more power. By not having the head and shoulders as low, it should result in greater comfort for long durations and lead to better transition runs.
I hope to see this set up trickle down to age group triathletes in the near future because I think it will greatly benefit the everyday athlete who does not have world class flexibility and core strength.