Q: I’m new to triathlon and am just getting started with aero bars. So far, I’m having a hard time using them. I don’t feel safe in aero position outside, even more when there is wind. Are they really necessary, and if so what can I do to adapt?
As with most things in triathlon, it’s a matter of conditioning. In the case of aerobars, most beginners feel uncomfortable at first because they don’t like their hands being so far from the brakes. As you move outside and practice getting down into them, stick to flat and open sections of the road to start and in races, non-technical sections of the course. Avoid them in sections with sharp turns, but also in certain sections of a descent. If you’re riding in groups, give yourself extra room behind other riders.
As for lack of stability, it’s important to understand that when you have a road bike, it’s not enough to add aero bars. To truly be stable in aero, your entire position needs to be rethought. Generally, the saddle should be positioned further (and in some cases higher) to increase the clearance between the legs and your torso.
The aero position requires different muscle memory. Many feel pain in the neck. This discomfort does not mean that your position is wrong, but that you’ll need to take time to adapt to it — it’s a progressive practice. For your first few rides of the season, spend good blocks of time up out of aero to give your back and shoulders a break.
In general, that common fear of losing control of the bike in aero is primarily caused by the wind. Again, it will take practice in safe conditions like open, flat stretches of road to get used to commanding your bike in the wind while in aero. Be sure to choose the right wheels to reduce this lateral force caused by the wind. For early rides in the season, new riders or those not who feel they don’t have great control of their TT bike should ride with normal training wheels and ease into using deep dish wheels throughout the season.
As for your last question — yes, aero bars are necessary to achieve optimal performance on the bike in triathlon. They amount to more than 5% aero gains. With a little practice in the right conditions, you’ll soon start to feel more comfortable in aero and on your way to a bike leg PB this season.