Aero handlebars – how much difference do they make?

09 June 2023

By George Wise

The pros swear by aero handlebars and angled drops, but just how marginal are the gains that they deliver will the average rider benefit? Our own marketing manager, George Wise, joined Dave Arthur of Just Ride Bikes in the wind tunnel to find out.

A relatively short period of time has seen the use of aerodynamics within cycling go from a fringe marginal gains theory, to being fully embraced by nearly every pro rider and manufacturer in the industry.

Bikes and racing have been around since the early 1800s, which could be why it sometimes takes cycling longer than other sports to embrace change and new technologies. Evolving the clothing and bikes used within the sport means inherently changing its aesthetics, which many perceive as changing its very fabric.

ENVE, however, grasped the benefits of aerodynamics early on and since then has developed some exceptionally fast wheels through its work with Simon Smart at the Mercedes F1 wind tunnel.

Since the brand acknowledges that the largest creator of drag on the bike system is the rider themselves, it has concentrated on making the rider more aerodynamic. That’s how ENVE came to debut the SES Aero Road Bar at Eurobike way back in 2013 – in hindsight, years ahead of its time.

The SES Aero Handlebar is the bar of choice for Tadej Pocagar, a fact that has helped to develop the ENVE/UAE relationship. The bar features tops with an aero optimised shape and is available in some very narrow widths, 35cm being the narrowest, to help to maximise the rider’s aero positioning.

What makes this bar unique is that it has a 5cm flare, so that the tiny 35cm width of the hoods becomes a much more manageable 40cm at the drops. This means you can adopt a super narrow, fast ride position when resting on the hoods and still embrace a wider and more stable position on the drops when descending or riding in windy conditions.

Pocagar therefore has an incredibly fast handlebar which he can feel comfortable on when descending mountains during the biggest races in the calendar, such as the Tour de France.

To see how much faster the ENVE SES Aero Handlebar is than a conventional round, compact bar, we teamed up with Dave Arthur of Just Ride Bikes at the Silverstone Sports Engineering Hub (SSEH) wind tunnel.

We compared the ENVE Compact Integrated Road Handlebar and the ENVE SES Aero Road Integrated Handlebar, both of which measured 42cm at the drops. After all, logically a rider will select their bar primarily based on the width of the drops, which will determine its overall comfort and descending stability.

The Compact bar measures 40cm on the hoods, whilst the SES Aero is much narrower at 37cm. Throughout the day, we tested at the real-world speeds of 30km/h and 40km/h, with two different yaw angle variances of 0˚ and 10˚. The previously mentioned speeds are air speeds, so the 40kph is relevant to a rider travelling at 30kph into a 10kph headwind.

First up, we tested the difference between the two handlebars riding on the drops. Both bars of course measured 42cm wide, so the rider was placed in the same position on each bar. The test therefore highlighted the difference made by an aero shape versus a round shape.

Interestingly, at 30km/h there was relatively little difference, just 1-3w depending on the yaw angle. However, at 40km/h, the difference grew to between 8-10 watts. Thus, we found the shape of the SES Aero bar alone makes it faster than the traditional, round Compact bar.

Next, we tested both handlebars riding on the hoods. We expected that narrow would mean fast, but we were surprised by just how much quicker the SES Aero handlebar was. At 30km/h, it was between 6-11w faster than the wider Compact, whilst at 40km/h the difference grew to between 15-21w.

For many riders, this is a significant saving as a percentage of their FTP, suggesting that they would be able to go faster or preserve their energy to ride for longer with the Aero Road bar.

As a side note, during the testing we kept the hood position consistent between the two handlebars, to ensure a consistent ride position. However, the SES Aero bar should actually have the hoods tilted slightly inwards, a change which we can assume would drive further watt savings.

Arguably, our wind testing proved that the ENVE SES Aero Integrated Road Handlebar is, for most riders, like baby bear’s porridge in Goldilocks – just right.

That’s because its aero shape makes it quicker than a round handlebar, but unlike conventionally shaped handlebars with the hoods tipped in – de rigueur of the likes of Taco van de Hoorn – its flared design gives you choices. Adopt a very fast position on the hoods, or a wider, more stable position on the drops, as dictated by the conditions and the terrain.