Are Bike Companies Pulling the Wool Over Our Eyes?



Can aerodynamics make bikes that much faster? If we are to believe recent reviews of the upgraded Specialized Venge, the California company's flagship road bike, tweaks to a bike's aerodynamics can make your two-wheel ride faster. Much faster.

But is this hypothesis grounded in real data? Or is the press drooling over a mathematic sleight of hand that bike marketers love to use?

Is the Specialized Venge That Fast?

To prove how much aerodynamics positively affects a bike's velocity, Specialized invited journalists to the facilities of McLaren auto works (yes, that McLaren), a partner of Specialized since the bike company first conceived the Venge in 2013. The group rode the new aerodynamically awesome Venge over a road course. Next, the group rode the company's not-aerodynamically-awesome Tarmac for comparison.

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McLaren testing employees took power and atmospheric data directly from the bikes on both rides and crunched it through their aerodynamic analysis software to offer an unprecedented side-by-side look at the bikes' performances by accounting for differences in wind conditions.

The resulting conclusion is that for the same rider, the Venge is five minutes faster than the Tarmac over a 40-mile ride. Even the least indoctrinated cyclist realizes a gap like that might as well be the Atlantic Ocean. That's the kind of engineering achievement that ought to make your next bike purchase an easy proposition. You want the Venge, no questions asked.

Well, maybe there's one question: How did they make it that much faster? The short answer is they didn't, actually.

The Mathematic Sleight of Hand

Before explaining, it's fair to give Specialized and McLaren their dues. Just the effort put into arranging the data represents an engineering achievement. Taking measurements and comparing data from bikes with riders of varying sizes riding in different conditions takes more computing power than some NASA programs. Ten years ago, you could only find that capability in theoretical labs and defense contracting agencies. That's why Specialized partnered with McLaren. While the S-Works team has a lot of experience with computer-designed bikes and aerodynamics in its "wind tunnel," there are some things that require F1-level computing. When McLaren tells you that Venge is five minutes faster than the Tarmac, you can believe it.

Just don't put too much money on it. Lost in all the computations and road testing is a more common sense analysis: The Venge is a 21st-century, cutting edge road bike designed with aerodynamics in mind. The Tarmac is a longtime staple in the Specialized inventory that debuted before bike manufacturers even had the design tools available to make a bike like the Venge.

Thus, finding out the Venge is considerably faster is about as surprising as a test finding the Tarmac climbs Alpe d'Huez 15 minutes faster than a steel frame beach cruiser.

Had Specialized run the Venge against one of its contemporaries, such as the Trek Madone or the Scott Foil, the time gap wouldn't have been so impressive.

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In this compendium of aero road bike comparisons from Aeroweenie.com, you'll find two remarkable trends in many of these tests. First, no two brands will agree on which bike is the fastest, despite the wide use of pin-point-accurate wind tunnel instrumentation to retrieve their data. Second, you'll notice that no two brands test the me way. This second trend causes the first.

It's not that bike companies are trying to skew the numbers to lie to you. It's just that each one has a different philosophy on how to build the fastest bike, so they build and test bikes to that standard. It's essentially running different races with different rules. In the final analysis, none of these bikes are going to run more than a minute ahead of each other in the wind tunnel.

There's plenty of reason to cheer the Venge. It represents an achievement in bike design and manufacturing. But it shares that quality with models from just about every other major brand. Despite McLaren's computing magic, pitting the Venge against the Tarmac is an apples-to-oranges comparison. In an all-apples affair, Specialized doesn't break away from the rest of the barrel, if at all.

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About the Author

Jim Gourley

Jim Gourley is a four-time Ironman finisher and part of a four-man division that finished the Race Across America. He earned a degree in astronautical engineering from the United States Air Force Academy and has written on science and technology in triathlon for four years. He is author of the book Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.

Jim Gourley is a four-time Ironman finisher and part of a four-man division that finished the Race Across America. He earned a degree in astronautical engineering from the United States Air Force Academy and has written on science and technology in triathlon for four years. He is author of the book Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.

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