The last decade of new cycling tech has promised a bevy of ways to cheat the wind and ride faster, but usually at a hefty price. Aero bikes, components, and wheels are undeniably faster, but what if you can't afford a new frame, handlebar, or disc wheel? Thankfully, there are several ways to decrease drag without emptying your savings account.
"Getting substantially more aero isn't a matter of budget, it's a matter of attention to detail," says Dave Ripley, a former designer for the aero wizards at Zipp and performance consulant at 51 Speedshop in Indianapolis, Indiana. "Someone can hugely maximize their aero profile without ever dipping far into their wallet by making smart choices in gear, apparel, and bike setup." Now do just that with these five aero upgrades for your road bike.
Eliminate the extraneous: Free
When building your bike or replacing cables, minimize any exposed housing, says Chris Yu, Specialized Bicycle's aero and racing research and development lead. You can also use electrical tape to hold down any exposed cables, giving the wind less surface to hit and create drag (they'll still shift and brake just fine). Likewise, remove any frame pumps, saddlebags, or extra gear strapped to the bike that could potentially create drag.
"Reverse the way you think about wind resistance," Ripley says. "Don't think about the wind blowing on you, think about the wind minding its own business and you punching a hole through it."
Shaving your legs makes a significant reduction in drag — your arms, too. During recent wind-tunnel testing at Specialized's California headquarters, one of the other test subjects did two runs: the first with hairy legs and the second newly shorn. After tabulating the results, Specialized engineers determined that the rider would save more than 50 seconds over the course of 40 kilometers with shaved legs, and a few seconds more if he shaved his arms as well.
Helmet and Apparel: $100-500
All of the experts we interviewed agreed that aero helmets and properly fitted kits pay huge dividends with virtually no drawbacks. "Because the rider is responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the total aero drag, anything that improves the rider's aero efficiency is important to concentrate on," Yu says. For a kit, make sure it's cut for your body shape with no excess fabric to flap. And aero road helmets can provide as big of an aero gain as much more expensive race wheels or a bike frame.
For its $200 Air Attack helmet, Giro says the lid saves 17 seconds over 40km. Specialized's Evade aero helmet (seen above) retails for $250, and its wind-tunnel tests have found it to be 46 seconds faster over 40km versus a comparable, non-aero helmet. Likewise, the manufacturer claims its Evade skinsuit ($500) is 96 seconds faster than a standard kit. Any slim-fitting bike apparel, however, will yield an improvement. Specialized has also tested loose bike kits versus form-fitting shorts and jerseys, and they found a tighter kit provides a roughly 90-second advantage during that 40km benchmark.
Bike Fit: $150-300
One of the single biggest aero upgrades isn't a product, but a professional bike fitting, says Ripley. "Comfort, power, and aerodynamics are all dictated by your position on the bike, and a fitting can help you maximize all three." A bike fitting will optimize the small details across your bike, from your handlebar height and width, to shoe cleat placement and saddle setback. Ripley claims that several of his clients have increased their 40km times by several minutes after getting fit.
Most riders look to an aero wheelset for their first big upgrade, but it's actually one of the last options you should look at. A Zipp 808 front wheel paired with a Super 9 rear disc wheel will save the average rider 113 seconds over 40km, says Daniel Slusser, Zipp spokesman. It's impressive, but it will cost you more than $3,000. For the more budget-minded buyer, Zipp's 60 wheelset has the same rim depth as the $2,700 404 wheelset — which saves 80 seconds over 40km — but is heavier and, at $1,500, almost half the price.
You can also consider buying just the front wheel. "The rear wheel still plays a significant role in the aerodynamics of a bike, plus rider, but it is second to the front wheel," says David Morse, Zipp's advanced development engineer. "The front wheel also has a much larger influence on handling characteristics as well. The airflow approaching the rear wheel is usually pretty turbulent after interacting with everything else upwind, which negates some of the benefit an aerodynamic wheel would otherwise have over a more traditional wheel."