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.
Aero wheels worth 45 watts on a 175-180 watt base??? From gribble.org cycling calculator that’s like saying aero wheels alone let a 20mph road rider do 22+. Gotta throw the BS flag on that one. No major aero wheel maker is claiming that kind of power savings (or speed increase) at that base wattage. I like Cobb and ride one of his saddles, but gotta believe something got lost in the translation of that 45 watt quote.
Personally- over many 1.5hr 20mph ave training rides over same rural course on both wheel sets (same bike/helmet/conditions) my HED Jet 6’s are consistently about 0.3-0.5mph faster than my Ksyrium SSC-SL’s (my school training wheels, very NON-aero in published tests). That’s more like a 10 watt difference. Noticeable but no 10% jump in speed.
Nerd alert- Although now a bit dated, this aero testing combining test track and wind tunnel data suggest a 10% riding speed increase at the same power by upgrading cycling equipment IS possible. But that is by changing from a standard road bike/wheels/helm to a full on time trial set-up (TT bike/aero bars, aero helm, aero (but non-disc) wheels).