They’re dorky, antisocial, and dangerous. So should we outlaw them?
It’s a delightful afternoon on the local shared path. Runners are running, bicyclists are bicycling, shirtless bros are gliding preternaturally by on remote-controlled electric longboards. Then, as if with a sonic boom, a rider swoops in and explodes this idyll. With Lycra-clad trunk splayed out over the aerobars and twin water bottles protruding from beneath the saddle like a pair of butt rockets, this profoundly intrusive rider cuts off a child on a balance bike, sends a pod of power walkers scattering, and, like, totally harshes the mellow of the bro on the longboard before disappearing into the crowd like a pickpocket in a triathlon singlet.
When it comes to going fast on a bike, there’s a time and a place. Those with an unerring ability to miscalculate both always seem to have one thing in common: Aerobars. Oh sure, aerobars have their place in competitive cycling events, but using them to full effect in crowded public recreational spaces at peak times is like showing up at the symphony in one of those beer helmets—and then pushing your way through the audience to get to your seat because you got there late. They can also be dangerous. Yes, a cyclist killing a pedestrian on any type of bicycle is an aberration, but the last person who managed to do so in New York City was riding in Central Park on a bike equipped with aerobars.
So is it time to ban them?
Well, if you’re a competitive cyclist who participates in events that require aerobars, then of course your answer will be, “Over my dead, skinsuited body!” After all, for every doofus hammering into the park at full speed while there’s a charity walk going on, there’s doubtless a responsible rider who’s simply tooling around on the TT bike in order to tweak her position for a future sanctioned event. And what’s wrong with that? Certainly it’s not fair that the responsible cyclist should have to pay for the sins of the hopelessly deluded, and it feels like a fundamental failure of democracy if a few energy gel-slurping pathletes were to become the reason we can’t have nice, aerodynamic things.
At the same time, why do we need aerobars anywhere? Yes, sure, we need them to go as fast as possible in certain sporting events, but why? Not to be the eleventy billionth person to reference that old “Spinal Tap” bit, but instead of having aerobars be the fastest bars you can use, why not make aerobars illegal and make drop bars be the fastest instead? There’s already plenty of precedent for this: the UCI banned “funny bikes” with dumb tiny front wheels at the dawn of the 21st century, and most cyclists are familiar with the concept of the “Cannibal time trial,” a race against the clock in which the riders compete on non-aero equipment just like Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx and his contemporaries. Plus, if it’s the wind-cheating sensibility you’re after, today’s carbon aero road bikes have all the fairings and teardrop shapes you can possibly want, even without the aerodynamic bars.
Anyway, if you’re interested in pushing a human-powered machine as fast as it will possibly go, why not bypass the aerobars altogether, seal yourself inside of one of those giant fully-faired suppositories, and make an assault on the land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats?
Oh sure, I know what you’re thinking: If you take some toolbag’s aerobars away that doesn’t mean they’re going to ride like less of a toolbag. Sure, but at least they’ll be a slightly safer toolbag; they’ll be a little more upright and their hands will be better positioned for leverage and control. Plus, people complain about cyclists enough as it is, and there’s something about the body language of aerobars that is profoundly antisocial. For years, I’ve studied human responses to cyclists by observing the way they react to me when I stop at red lights. (Yes, I sometimes stop at red lights.) On a fully upright bicycle they hardly notice me, but on a road bike that puts me in a somewhat aggressive position they look nervous, because it creates the impression I’m not going to stop. Aerobars take this even further, and riders who use them look like they’re either charging at you with a pair of spears or else preparing to plunge them into their own abdomens in an act of ritual suicide.
But hey, I realize we can’t take people’s aerobars away without giving them something back, which is why I fully support a nationwide aerobar buyback event. When riders turn in their aerobars, they will receive free aerodynamic counseling, including a full bike fitting and plenty of wind tunnel time. Given how many people I see using aerobars along with chunky sneakers, reflectors, loose-fitting clothing, and countless other sources of friction, I’m totally confident that virtually every rider who surrenders their aerobars will see a significant net gain in their drag coefficient. (Or is that a net loss in their drag coefficient? Whatever, you know what I mean, whatever the good one is.)
Really, I only have one reservation about calling for an aerobar ban, and it’s this: It would probably be really, really easy to make it happen. Sure, we still haven’t banned bump stocks, but we’re not talking about something that’s truly lethal here. Rather, we’re talking about something having to do with bicycles. Given this, you can be sure millions of Americans will rally behind outlawing aerobars, which, now that I think about it, is actually pretty scary.
Forget I said anything.