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Home » Cycling » The Noob’s Guide to the Modern Road Bike:  The Difference between Aero and Standard Frames

The Noob’s Guide to the Modern Road Bike:  The Difference between Aero and Standard Frames

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friend commented the other day on one of my posts to ask if I’d seen Peter Sagan’s new World Champion Specialized S-Works Venge.  Last year’s was special but this year’s… well, it’s amazing.  Maybe a touch on the blingy side, but hey…  An S-Works Venge ViAS with gold plated wheels and a ridiculously awesome rainbow paint job with gold outlined lettering is pure awesome, if a little gaudy:

The article my friend linked to, and the place from whence that photo came, is here.

I hadn’t seen it yet, but I certainly have now, and I dig it.  Would I ride it, if I could afford it (and I definitely cannot)?  I wouldn’t.  I couldn’t pull it off without feeling like a poseur.

Now, for those not in the know, the ViAS is a relatively heavy bike.  “Aero” has a cost, and it is weight.  In fact, and interestingly, the Venge shown above weighs a full pound more than my first generation Venge (after a few key upgrades) – and my Venge is equipped with 105 components, not the top-of-the-line Dura-ace Di2 that they bolted to Sagan’s bike:

At least for now, without getting into a bunch of confusion about bike weight (I was originally going to try but it got really messy, very long, and left a lot of unnecessary murkiness), the simple reality is that aerodynamically superior bikes add weight when compared with the less aero climbing bikes.  Usually upwards of two pounds or more.

Now, I gave that background for a reason.  The interesting part of the linked article, at least to me, showed up in the comments after the article.  Here’s the string that caught my eye:

Fabio:

8.4kg. If Sagan does race this, then he’ll be giving up >1.5kg to the serious contenders on the climbs.  

Hella van der van:

His rim brake version is 8.1kg, not exactly a lightweight. This is Peter Sagan though, put him on a 20 year old steel bike and he’s still going to tear their legs off.

Ragtag:

yeah but that’s beside the point. Why would any bicycle company provide their pros an 8.1 kg bike in this day and age is beyond me. Yeah but its specialized so the general media will just gloss over it. Too many advert dollars at stake.

First, before we even get going, we’ll just ignore the fact that Sagan rides a different bike for the mountain stages that he does for the sprint stages.  Shhhhh… don’t tell Ragtag.

That notwithstanding, the last point is, well, really not smart.  From the complaint about the 8.1 kg (17.85 pound) Venge ViAS (the most aerodynamic road bike on the planet) to the silly conspiracy “punch line” at the end (one could hardly call it a hypothesis let alone a theory), it’s just… all wrong.

The following will explain what the noob cyclist needs to know about the differences between Aero frames and standard frames – and where Ragtag’s wheels fell off.

It is a well-established reality that A) Aero is a little heavier because the frame requires more material to get the tubes into shapes that will slice through the air, yet be sturdy and B) Aero trumps weight everywhere except heading up a mountain.

Now, unlike someone pointing out the fact that the ViAS is a few pounds heavier, then attributing that to a corporate conspiracy allowed to thrive by a complicit (bought) media, actual real science shows that an aero bike is faster than a lightweight bike – no matter what a doofus might think.  Sadly, this time the proof is a lot like rocket science.

I won’t be getting into the equations and science behind bicycles and aerodynamics as there are plenty of articles out there produced by people who actually know the math that I don’t have to bother.

My simple experience is, all things being leveled and made equal (meaning wheels), I have both an aero frame and a standard frame and I can absolutely feel a difference in the ride.  I would go so far as to say anyone who put the miles in that I have on both bikes (more than 10,000 miles each) would easily notice the difference in drag switching from one to the other – and I mean easily.  As in, it’s a no-brainer… especially when riding in a group (I’ll get into that in a minute).

It’s not an insurmountable difference in feel, though.  In fact some of my fastest rides occurred on the standard frame (Like a 2:44:25 100 km [62.13 miles] on open roads).  In most cases, the difference can be made up for with a little “want to ” – you simply feel slightly more drag is all.  Where the difference can’t be made up for is on a downhill, preferably one where you achieve “escape velocity” – fast enough that you can’t pedal to make the bike go any faster.  For instance, on the exact same “escape velocity” hill, the difference between my two bikes shown above is 9 mph – 46 to 55 mph but that cancels out on the way up the hill.  Please keep in mind here, the greater the velocity, the wind resistance compounds exponentially so at 50 miles an hour you’re talking about some serious wind resistance on a pedal bike when you’re the motor.  It’s fast enough that I have to be careful coming out of my tuck, when I raise my head enough to start catching air.  As a disclaimer, I don’t recommend anyone exceed 40 mph on purpose without knowing exactly what you’re doing.  A crash at extreme speeds can mean death.

Surprisingly, one of the best places to really feel the benefit of an aero bike is in a group where you’re spending a lot of time riding in a draft.  If you think about it, this actually makes some sense.  When you’re cruising down the road tucked in behind ten people, your body is getting a pretty good draft.  The bike won’t get the same grace though because their size will mean the air down lower is a lot choppier.  Without getting into the science of it, there is a noticeable difference between the standard and aero bikes when it comes to drag in a group.  Wait, that didn’t sound right.

Don’t take my word for it though…  Disagree, dispute, whatever you want, but the science is out there and it all backs up my experience – and it’s not some corporate trick to make someone pay more for a bicycle.  Hell, you’ve got dopes cyclists out there paying thousands of dollars for steel framesets… the manufacturers don’t need more tricks.  They know we’ll pay anyway.  And we will.

To wrap this post up and put a nice big bow on it, remember the following:  Aero always trumps weight, though it really doesn’t matter that much – the difference can usually be made up with a little more “want to”.

You need an aero bike like you need a hit in the head.  In other words, you don’t.  They’re nice to have and fun to ride, but they’re a bit like gold-plated wheels.  You’ll be able to get along just fine with what you show up with*.  A high-end bike will never fix low-end legs.

On the other hand, you can be quite sure that anyone who tells you there is no advantage to an aero bike has never ridden an aero bike and has no idea what they’re talking about.

Finally, there’s one small problem with the aero advantage and remember this, because it is not a small triviality:  Once you have the aero bike, the aero helmet, the skin suit and the little aero booties, if you still get dropped the only thing left to blame is the motor.  Sometimes it’s nice to have an excuse.  Trust me.

*The one thing that really does matter is a good set of wheels.  I’ll ride faster on my non-aero Trek 5200 and a great set of wheels over my Venge and a crappy set of wheels any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

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11 Comments

  1. unironedman says:

    “A high-end bike will never fix low-end legs”
    T shirt #59
    I’ll have a large, please…

  2. The only thing missing in here is some scriptural justification for aero. Ha ha.

  3. The “speed for given effort level” difference between my standard looking road bike and my TT bike is HUGE even though they are almost identical in weight. It’s not even a super aero modern designed TT frame, probably less aero than the newest Venge frameset.

    Aero is king for sure but like you say if the legs aren’t there! I’ve never been beaten by somebody on an aero road bike that couldn’t beat me on a non-aero bike.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Yep, but those aero rigs sure look awesome, don’t they?

      The ViAS is ridiculous, man. You could catch a draft off a wet noodle on one. A friend of mine has one.

  4. […] via The Noob’s Guide to the Modern Road Bike:  The Difference between Aero and Standard Frames — Fi… […]

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