Aero bars in gravel - 'Gentleman's agreement' is not enough

Sofia Gomez Villafane on her way to winning 2022 Unbound Gravel 200
Sofia Gomez Villafane on her way to winning 2022 Unbound Gravel 200 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

The use of aero bars in gravel racing has surfaced as the latest debate in the popular and fast-growing off-road discipline ahead of Unbound Gravel. Favourites in advance of the men's race attempted to reach a collective agreement for those planning on riding in the front pack not to use aero bars. 

The issue had not been raised or discussed to the same degree among the women gravel racers. However, Amanda Nauman and Sofia Gomez Villafane agreed that safety is the main priority. They also concluded that a 'gentleman's agreement' on the issue is not enough and that promoters must step up and create clear rules on using aero bars (or not) in gravel racing.

"I have no idea why it's not an issue on the women's side or if we just don't want any more controversy on any sort of conflict," Nauman, two-time winner of Unbound Gravel 200, told Cyclingnews. "There's been some eye-rolling, but not a collective conversation like it has been for the men."

Nauman says she did not use aero bars in the Unbound 200 event but did use them in the 350-mile XL solo pursuit last year.

"I used them for the XL but didn't for the 200 because there's more pack riding, and I'm in that boat of safety. For the longer distances, though, I felt it would be fine because I was mostly by myself," Nauman said.

"I think that seems to be the argument for most people, is the safety aspect, but it's interesting how it's not yet a conversation on the women's side.

"Hopefully, they aren't used in a pack setting, and that seems to be the concern, that people who use them should only use them when they are alone, but I've seen pictures of women in aero bars while in a group - that's not OK."

Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, and Kiel Reijnen discussed not using aero bars and tried to reach a consensus on the issue ahead of Unbound. Nauman said that while she understands their concern, it's a decision that the organisers of gravel races must address.

"It's on the promoters," Nauman said. "No self-policing is going to work, and I've learned that from doing gravel for so many years. Unbound is prestigious, and there is so much on the line, and if there's a performance advantage, someone will take it.

"It must come from someone who has authority in that specific event. One reason event promoters have shied away from that conversation is that the other 90% of the people, who are regular riders, end up by themselves and like riding in the aero bars and don't want to take that away from them."

Sofia Gomez Villafane was the first female finisher at Unbound Gravel 200 in June, covering the distance in 10 hours and 24 minutes. She and the fastest male finisher, Ivar Slik, used aero bars during the event. 

Gomez Villafane said that she didn't believe that using aero bars was an issue among the women racing in the field. She said that she agrees that safety is the primary concern when using aero bars. However, she believes that she used aero bars safely during her race, particularly after using them extensively during training.

"In the first hour or hour and a half when I was rolling with the elite men, there's such a big group that I didn't use the TT bars. The draft that you get is already a big advantage. Once you get dropped off, you're riding in groups of four or less, or you're by yourself, and in those small groups, it's easier to use the TT bars, and it's a lot safer because there aren't that many people around you. When you're in a big group with 10 to 20 people in front of you, you have no idea what's coming," Gomez Villafane said.

"I did a full six weeks of training with my TT bars to practice, and I had a lot of practice and skill work. I figured out what speed I was comfortable going, and my reaction time from being in my TT bars to getting both arms up and can I get onto my hoods safely. I did my homework to make sure the way that I was riding was safe.

"For the guys, when they have 10 or 15 in a group and a few are in TT bars, that's a little bit harder."

Lauren De Crescenzo (Cinch Rise) spent a large portion of the day in second place in the women's field behind Sofia Gomez Villafane an Argentinian living in Heber City, UT.

Lauren De Crescenzo (Cinch Rise) in the aero bars on her second-place ride in the women's field at 2022 Unbound Gravel 200 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

Gomez Villafane said she would reconsider using aero bars during gravel races if organisers added clear rules at their events.

"It can't be a gentleman's agreement or an agreement between just the pro men, and it has to be a rule. If you [the organisers] don't want us running TT bars, make it a rule," Gomez Villafane said.

Gomez Villafane said that the new Gravel World Series organised by the UCI has a clear set of regulations. 

"Where I struggle with gravel racing is that they want to make it so open and so much on the spirit, but maybe we need some rules to make it a fair race. In a way, the UCI has come in, and with their series, they actually have a good rule book, and rider's safety is first in the rules," she said.

Gomez Villafane believes that using aero bars is a relatively low priority regarding the regulations needed to improve the fairness and safety of gravel racing outside the new series.

"Instead of talking about aero bars, I'd rather talk about getting our own women's start, or drafting rules, or our own race. In Unbound, it might take 12 hours, but it would be a different race," Gomez Villafane said.

"At some point, there will have to be a change whereby the pro race[s] have specific rules, and amateur racing has different rules. Many organisers don't want to put out regulations, but rules create equality and fairness to the race.

"The field is so deep, and the talent is so high that even minute differences have a big effect on the races. So, if we don't want something to happen the way it is, we need to put it in the rules and follow them. I think there should be some basic gravel rules at all events that are clear on fairness that make sense, while other regulations perhaps promoters can decide.

"My main comment is that, for women, having aero clip-on bars is such a minute problem compared to the fact that we don't really get to race each other. I think there are way bigger issues on the list."

With no clear rules on using aero bars at races and with some pros and many amateur and recreational riders using them during races like Unbound Gravel, Nauman said it's important to be safe and smart when riding in a group or across the technical sections.

"Be smart. In technical areas or groups where you have to slow down quickly, you need to be on the hoods more often than not. You need to be able to slow down quickly," Nauman said.

"With so many people doing these events, if your reaction time is slower because you're in a position where you can't get to your brakes fast enough, you could compromise many people behind you. 

"Being safe and smart and having quick access to your brakes is probably the most important thing. Just mostly using aero bars when you are solo is probably the safest."

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Kirsten Frattini
Deputy Editor

Kirsten Frattini is the Deputy Editor of Cyclingnews, overseeing the global racing content plan.

Kirsten has a background in Kinesiology and Health Science. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's biggest races, reporting on the WorldTour, Spring Classics, Tours de France, World Championships and Olympic Games.

She began her sports journalism career with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. In 2018, Kirsten became Women's Editor – overseeing the content strategy, race coverage and growth of women's professional cycling – before becoming Deputy Editor in 2023.