Tricks of the trade for getting aero - and staying aero

An article this week following on from an email from an athlete I’ve been working with on his tri bike fit. He wrote to me:

“I’ve got a bit of an issue I was wondering if you could help me with.

Basically went out today for a 40km ride, and did not enjoy at all. My neck and shoulders were killing me -  really painful!! Both on aero bars and on the handles, after a while I’m aching badly, not to mention serious undercarriage pain. I’m a bit gutted to tell the truth, and am thinking of selling TT bike, as I could not imagine doing 90km then a run. “


This is an issue faced by lots of athletes when they buy their first tri bike – it’s certainly something I remember going through when I bought my first tri bike.

Some things to consider :

You’ve done the right thing by buying a TT/Tri specific bike, if you want to ride fast and run well off the bike. However, it’s natural that you’re going to take some time to adapt to the new position. Don’t lose faith while you’re going through the transition!

Your aero position on the tri bike will be very different to your aero position on the road bike with clip-ons. Firstly, you’ll be further forwards relative to the bottom bracket, and you’ll be lower at the front end. Not everyone realises this at first, but you’ll have to sit on the saddle differently. This means that you need to rotate your pelvis forwards on your tri bike, and rather than sitting on your ‘sit bones’ on the back of the saddle, you’ll be resting on your perineum. You’ll also probably find that because this is the case, you’ll be more comfortable if you sit further along towards the nose of the saddle.

This might mean that some experimentation with saddles is necessary. A saddle that’s very comfy on a road bike might be a nightmare on a tri bike, and visa versa. I found that a saddle with a very padded nose does the trick for me – I ride a San Marco Aspide Tri, which has just about the most padded nose out there. However, I went through half a dozen saddles to find it – the important thing is that you find one that works for you.

Dan Empfield (the father of modern tri bike geometry) talks a lot about minimising ‘contact point tenderness’ – by this he means that any point where you contact with the bike needs to be comfy. These points are a) your perineum, and b) your elbows/forarms where they rest on the pads. Assuming that you’ve found a decent saddle, the next best investment you can make is £10 on a pot of cyclist’s chamois cream. I use the Assos stuff, but other brands are available. The difference that chamois cream makes is MASSIVE – like 3 hours more riding. It will reduce the friction you feel ‘down there.’ I like the stuff so much that when I’m racing long distance (HIM or IM) then I have a pot in T1, and I burn 30 seconds putting it on. It is worth its weight in gold.

Although armrest pads might not seem like something to consider, different (or extra) pads can make a big difference – if you’re constantly shifting your forearms around to try to get comfortable, then you’re putting extra pressure on your undercarriage. I put a second pair of pads on my aero bars, and it works pretty well. (I found that even putting a pair of lycra arm warmers on has an effect on my undercarriage comfort – the sliding around of the slippery lycra armwarmers means more pressure on my undercarriage. So if I can possibly deal without them, then I do my best!)

The next thing to think about is that you have a whole new level of ‘fitness’ to improve – and by that I mean that you need to get your neck, upper back and shoulder muscles – your ‘aero-muscles’ if you like -  ‘fit’ to hold your head up for five to seven hours in the aero position. Bumps in the road, rough tarmac, potholes – they all contribute to serious fatigue, then stiffness, then soreness and tightness. None of these are conducive to riding fast, and they’ll certainly impact heavily on your run split.

This aero-muscle fitness won’t happen overnight, and you shouldn’t underestimate how long it will take to build up. The majority of athletes that you see sitting up for the whole last hour of the bike at an IM are probably sitting up because they did a lot of their long training rides on a road bike. Make no mistake, the fitness of your ‘aero-muscles’ is just as important to your bike split as the fitness of your legs. I’ve always been a big preacher of long training rides on your tri bike for this very reason – to get you ‘aero-muscle’ fit. In fact, a five hour ‘easy effort’ ride outside on poor road surfaces in the aero position is a great session from a training perspective. (Like much effective training, it’s worth pointing out that it might not feel great at the time…)

It’s worth thinking about where you’re looking when you’re in your aero position – and accepting that you won’t be able to look as far up the road as you can on your road bike, even set up with clip-ons. The forward rotation of your body means you’re going to be looking down at the 20 feet of tarmac in front of your front wheel more than up the road. You need to find your own way to manage this in terms of safety, and obviously from a coaching point of view, it would be quite irresponsible to recommend ‘not looking up the road’ as you’re riding. What I will say, though, is that from personal experience, I’ve found that the less time you spend looking ‘a long way’ up the road, the less strain you’re going to put on your aero-muscles. Be smart but be safe – after all, you’re going to post a pretty lousy bike split if you ride into the back of a parked car and get taken to hospital!

Initially, on your tri bike, treat a session like an ‘interval session for your aero-muscles’ – by that, I mean, break your hour down into, say 6x5 minutes in the aero position with 5 minutes recovery sitting up. Gradually, over a period of weeks, reduce that recovery time until you can do longer chunks, until eventually, you’ll be riding comfortably for 112 miles. It might take a season, but you’ll get there.

Look for the obvious ways to give your aero-muscles a rest – rollers or hills give a natural opportunity to sit up (or even stand up) and let those muscles recover a little.

Remember – it’s the weakest link in the chain that determines its overall strength. If you turn up on race day with undertrained aero-muscles, it’s going to be a long day.

I rode past about fifty athletes at Ironman UK 2009 in the last hour, almost all of them sitting up on five thousand pound TT bikes, and ran past a hundred more who had very possibly compromised their run performance by their choice of aero position. Strengthen your weakest link, and be strong right till the end.