QUESTION: Are aero bike wheels worth it? I ride a Trek road bike that just has wheels it came with and was thinking about upgrading my bike. – Sawyer F
ANSWER: If you’re hoping to go faster with an equipment upgrade, improving your aerodynamics is one of the best ways. So if you want to make an existing bike faster, installing aero wheels can make a big difference and save you a lot of watts.
John Cobb, the guy who first started putting bikes into wind tunnels to study cycling aerodynamics back in the 1980s, says that if he had $1,000 to spend on a mid level (Ultegra or equivalent components) road bike, he’d use that money to buy faster wheels.
“Wheels are where you save watts.” For about $1,000, Cobb explains, you could get a nice pair of used carbon wheels, a Zipp for the front and a 606 for the back is what he suggests. And the savings of watts might surprise you. “When you’re putting out between 175 and 180 watts, those wheels could save you about 45 watts. And towards the end of a ride, you’ll find discover another big difference. The calories you saved by riding those wheels early in the ride are available energy for the end.”
Better wheels are always a good (albeit expensive) upgrade for a bike, whether they’re lighter more aerodynamic or both. Aero wheels look good, they sound cool when you’re riding them and they even make you feel faster.
One disadvantage to aero wheels is that they can be a little scary in a crosswind — particularly your front wheel. A sudden gust can give you big, frightening surprise or even cause a crash if you’re not ready. Deeper rim aero wheels in particular are harder to control, so you’ll sometimes see riders who use a deeper rim wheel in the back and a rim that isn’t as deep in the front.
If you’re looking to get the better aerodynamics for less money than a set of wheels, a skinsuit or an aero jersery will actually save you more watts. And an aero road helmet can also save you a significant number of watts for as low as a couple hundred bucks, so keep the aerodynamically designed models in mind when you’re shopping, since you need a helmet regardless.
And you know what’s totally free? Improving your aerodynamic position by riding in the drops with a flat back. You’ll need a good bike fit and some core strength and practice to get comfortable in the drops, but the aerodynamic payoff is big.