What’s faster, a light bike or an aerodynamic setup?
Aerodynamics is a funny concept. If you want to bring the engineer cycling geeks out of the woodwork, mention aerodynamics and how awesomely fast an aero bike with aero wheels is – and how much faster it is than your old bike… Folks, just sit back and watch the fireworks, that’s all I can suggest, because it’ll be fun.
For the most part the engineers will tell you that aerodynamics mean little enough that a budding cyclist should forego the cost and just “concentrate on fitness”. On the other hand, if you watched the Tour de France this year you saw pro cyclists, in the middle of a Time Trial stage, stop after the hilly part of the course, get off of their road bike and switch to their vastly more aerodynamic Time Trial bike. In fact, and I’m going by memory here so feel free to correct me, I believe it was Fabian Cancellara who opted to stay on his aero road bike rather than switch and the commentators credited that decision for his not winning the stage. So what gives? Is it a big deal or isn’t it?
The answer (at least as I see it), and what so often gets the discussion so heated, is that aerodynamics matters a lot but it costs a lot and most amateur cyclists will be able to keep up with the local competition if they simply work on their fitness and ride a fairly decent bike. The blunt truth is fitness matters way more than aero even if that oversimplifies the discussion.
Time Trial bikes are the perfect embodiment of the nature of this conundrum. Suffice it to say, they’re considerably heavier than your average road bike yet nobody would be silly enough to argue that they’re slower for the extra weight. For practical purposes though, the TT bikes are just too limiting in their usefulness as a means of achieving fitness. They’re horrible for riding in a group and terrible for climbing hills on. They’re meant for one thing: To get a single person, without a draft, down the road as fast as possible on a bicycle. Being an all-around cyclist, giving up the group atmosphere for lone cycling just isn’t worth the speed to me. That said, how far should one go when it comes to their own bike to achieve a more aerodynamic ride?
I spent Saturday morning looking at different Specialized road bikes just for fun (what else should one do before the sun rises on a weekend?!). Did you know that a Specialized Venge will knock 45 seconds off of a 40 km ride over a comparably equipped Specialized Tarmac? 45 seconds in just 24 miles. I didn’t and I own a Venge.
The reality is that unless you’re going to be climbing hills or mountains regularly, aero is way more important even though it’s often heavier – and the faster one can ride, the more it matters.
That doesn’t answer the question though.
The answer is this: Hell, I don’t know. If you’re not racing it’s all style points anyway. That’s what you wanted to read, isn’t it? I didn’t buy my Venge because it would save me 45 seconds when compared with a standard frame, I didn’t even know that was the case until four or five days ago. I bought my Venge because it looked awesome. It just happened to be an aero-bike and once I changed the wheels, weighed 16-1/2 pounds… There were other requirements of course, it had a carbon fiber frame (you go ahead and keep thinking that aluminum frame is good enough, no chance I’m going near that Kool-Aid), decent components (Shimano 105) and it fit in my budget. In the end though, buying my bike was all about style points – and it worked. My bike makes me happy and it’s fun to ride. That’s what matters for we enthusiasts.
In the end, it’s all very simple: If you’re climbing in the mountains a lot, go light. If you’re not, go aero. The truth is, it doesn’t matter how fast you are at the enthusiast level. You’ll be able to find a few people to ride your pace if you show up at local rides and check out bicycle clubs. The more you ride and the harder you’re willing to work, the faster you’ll get. In the end, for all of that bike, I’m only marginally faster than I was on my 19 pound, standard round tube carbon fiber race bike – I still can’t keep up with the racers when they put the hammer down, though I’m much closer… With 2-1/2 pounds off of the bike and the aero advantage, I can climb hills a lot faster and I do “technically” require fewer watts to keep up but there’s so much that goes into this that it’s tough to pin success down to just a light aero bike. I could go on for hours about what’s different that matters but here’s what’s important:
I don’t race. I do, however, ride a really cool, light aero-bike and I like it.