Going fast on a bike depends on two things: developing more average power and lowering resistance. As triathletes age, developing additional power becomes more difficult to achieve - that’s where getting more speed out of lowering resistance comes into play.
Cyclists can get more free speed out of their current bike simply by setting themselves up properly with aero-bars. But the key is to learn how to lower your resistance and become more aerodynamic through proper bike set-up. Out of all the athletes whose bike set-ups I’ve inspected, 95 per cent are incorrectly positioned, and they say that they usually find it difficult to stay in the aerodynamic position for any length of time. They struggle, hurt, and waste energy working against the bike in an inefficient position.
Wind resistance is by far the highest force you will work against, and poor position on the bike accounts for about 85 per cent of this resistance. The other 15 per cent comes from the type of wheels you use and all the other wind-cutting devices and weight saving “doodads” you purchase.
Did you know that your velocity is inversely related to the cube of the air resistance? In other words, as you go faster it becomes exponentially more difficult to work through the wall of air that you are displacing. Being in the right position on the bicycle can reduce your drag incredibly, and when you add up the savings over a long race, it could mean the difference between a good race and an exhaustive one.
Setting your bike up to work well in the aero-position is the key to minimizing your forward air resistance. Getting this position to feel comfortable is also of paramount importance. Consider these steps for setting up your bike properly:
There are three adjustments to the seat: height, forward/back, and pitch.
Height: When sitting in the saddle comfortably, extend both legs straight down with your hips level in the side-to-side position. You will be able to slip the heel of one foot onto the pedal when the pedal is in the bottom position. You should have about 3/4 of an inch clearance from the pedal to the bottom of the sole of your bare foot, or be able to just touch the pedal with the bottom of your heel if you are wearing running shoes.
Forward/Back: For most triathletes, you want the front edge of the horn of your seat to be perfectly vertical of the center of the crank. International triathlon rules do not permit the front of your seat to be any more than five centimeters ahead of the crank. Most triathletes have found that this exaggerated forward position aggravates their knees. They find that the horn positioned at the crank is sufficiently forward to provide for a comfortable aero-position. You may need to find a bent seat post to modify your road bike, as the tube angle on these bikes is usually 72 or 74 degrees. If you have a tri-bike or are going to buy one, it should have a tube angle of 74-77 degrees. This will allow you to position the seat far enough forward to be in the right position.
Pitch: Start with a level seat, and after you ride for a time ask yourself two questions: 1. Do you feel like you need to be further forward or back? In other words, are you pulling or pushing yourself forward or back on the seat? If so, make the necessary adjustment to the forward/back position of the seat to eliminate this feeling. 2. Do you feel like you are slipping off the seat either forward or backward? This is a different question than the first, as this requires an adjustment of the pitch. If you are sliding off the seat either forward or backward, then adjust the horn up or down to correct this situation. You may also need to adjust the pitch of the seat for crotch comfort, as we are all built differently.
Adjust the handlebars only after you have adjusted the seat position, because the seat position determines the proper positioning of the legs to maximize your pedal force. Setting up the handlebars correctly allows you to rest over your legs and puts your upper body into the best aerodynamic position.
There are five adjustments that can be made to the handlebars: height, forward/back, length, pitch, and elbow width.
Height: Most athletes find that their elbows need to be at or slightly below the height of their seat. I like to work within a four-inch range from level to below the seat height. The higher the seat the more comfortable you'll be, but you will compromise forward aerodynamics. The lower you are the more aerodynamic you'll be, but you may find it difficult to stay in this position for any length of time. Most long-course athletes tend to raise their handlebars, and sprint distance athletes lower their bars. Start about one inch below your seat height and adjust based on your tolerance of the forward position.
Forward/Back: This is the critical adjustment for aero-position comfort and usually involves having the right-sized bike and the right length of stem. I have counselled many athletes to get a new bike if we are unable to position their elbows in the right spot and we can’t find a stem length to accommodate this position. To be positioned ideally, you want a 90 to 100 degree angle at your shoulder and at your elbow. The back edge of your elbow should rest at the back edge of your elbow pad to ensure that you can “rest” on your skeleton when in the aero-position. The ability to rest on your skeleton allows you to relax your upper body muscles and put your efforts into pedaling.
Length: While resting in the aero-position, with your elbows placed properly so that the back edge of your elbow is at the back edge of your elbow pad, rest your arms forward and naturally close your fist as if you are grabbing an imaginary handle with your hand. This length is the proper length for your handlebars. It will ensure that your elbow is positioned properly when you are steering with your hands.
Pitch: The most aerodynamic pitch is maintained with your forearms perfectly level. Some athletes feel as though they are falling forward in this position and prefer a position tilted upward. The upward tilted position works best with a wide elbow setting, as it deflects the wind from gathering in your chest area. If you want to maximize your aerodynamics, go with a level setting coupled with a narrow elbow position.
Elbow Width: Maximum aerodynamics calls for a very narrow elbow position. This, however, constricts your chest and makes steering unstable. The best position for comfort is an elbow position that is slightly wider, allowing for all the transfer of your upper body weight onto the handlebars through your skeleton. You need to find your best position, based on the speed or comfort you desire. If you position your elbows wide for comfort, then tilt your hands up slightly to maximize the air defection away from your chest
These are the keys to being comfortably aerodynamic and getting the most out of your bike. For a customized triathlon bike set-up, simply send me an e-mail at and we’ll book an appointment.