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Mat Stephens hears the snickers, the complaints, the comments. He knows that some racers in the gravel cycling world balk at the clip-on aero bars mounted to the front of his racing bike.
Mat Stephens doesn’t care, because he likes to win.
“Am I going to be that much fresher because I was chilling in [the aero bars] all day? I’m saving a few watts in them all day,” Stephens says. “The [Dirty Kanza] is about the cumulative 200 miles. Everything adds up at the end.”
Stephens currently sits atop gravel cycling’s dusty throne. His 2018 palmares includes victories at some of the biggest dirt races on the schedule: Barry-Roubaix, Land Run 100, and the 2018 Gravel Grinder national championships. Those victories pale in significance compared to his 2017 win at the Dirty Kanza. And during that race, Stephens says his clip-on aero bars helped him across the line first.
The bars allowed him to conserve energy across the windy, barren Kansas plains, he says. When it was time to attack, he simply had more energy in his legs. In the final 15km of the brutal 206-mile race, Stephens rode in a group of three alongside Menso de Jong and Jake Wells. Stephens surged and dropped Wells, and then was able to distance de Jong a while later. After each move, he tucked into his aero bars and motored along the road with his arms stretched out in an aerodynamic position.
“For the attacks, I’m out of the saddle doing as many watts as I can. As soon as I sit down I’m back in the aero bars,” Stephens says. “I’m 145 pounds. There are guys I’m racing who are 170 pounds. My power is nowhere near theirs but it doesn’t matter. It just matters who is first across the finish line.”
The use of aero bars is a somewhat controversial topic within the gravel cycling world. They are forbidden in traditional USA Cycling-sanctioned mass-start road cycling races due to safety reasons. Many gravel events, however, fall outside the umbrella of the national governing body. Some gravel races, such as Michigan’s Barry-Roubaix, outlaw their use, while others simply ask riders to stay out of the aero bars during the opening miles of the race. Other gravel races have no rules governing aero bar use.
Stephens is a somewhat recent convert to aero bars. During the 2016 Texas Chainring Massacre gravel event, he found himself battling with riders from the Panaracer/Stan’s No Tubes team. Those riders, Stephens says, used aero bars. Stephens launched a solo attack, and spent more than 80 miles riding by himself. He found himself looking back at the Panaracer riders in their aero bars, wishing that he, too, had the aerodynamic setup.
“I’m trying to hold myself in the drops and on the hoods, just doing everything I can to stay aero,” Stephens says. “I was catching way more wind than I needed to.”
The next year, Stephens showed up to the Chainring Massacre as a member of the Panaracer team. He clipped his aero bars onto his bicycle and won the race.
Riding in the aerodynamic position on loose gravel requires skill and experience, Stephens says. The dynamics in a pack usually call for quick braking and surges, and there’s always the threat of a crash. Still, for those who are bold enough to take their hands off of the brakes and tuck them into the bars, Stephens says advantages abound.
And for those riders who give him the side eye? Stephens doesn’t worry about them.
“I think I pissed a lot of people off at the beginning of [Dirty Kanza] because I ride in the center of the pack and I have no fear for that,” he says. “It’s a huge advantage.”