The human brain loves to classify things. It loves to simplify everything into easily definable, black and white categories. Black and white is easy. Right and wrong, good and evil, in or out—are all crutches for our brains to make digesting complex ideas much simpler. The problem is, life is rarely an issue of black and white. Our world operates on a much murkier level.
Cycling is no exception. The choices we make for what bike, wheels, shoes, or clothing are all decisions that should be driven by context—who, what, when, and where you are—but we, as consumers, constantly try to make these into objective decisions. Manufacturers know this and cater to it. They would be stupid not to—their business model depends on convincing people that their product is best. The data that manufacturers present is not necessarily incorrect—in fact it is almost always scientifically dependable, but it is rarely put into any kind of context.
That is our responsibility. A good bike shop will always help you take what industry marketing tells you is scientific fact and put it in the appropriate context. It takes more fingers than I have to count the brands that claim to have the fastest frame or wheelset on the market—and pretty much everyone of them have some kind of data—wind tunnel testing or otherwise—to support their claims. Your easy black and white situation just turned to a certain shade of gray.
Let’s take a quick look at aero wheels. There is a myriad of data out there about which wheel is fastest, and we won’t have to consider the even murkier area of bike fit (which, by the way, should absolutely be considered on a case by case basis, specific to each and every customer—be leery of anyone who tells you they are selling the fastest bike available without considering you as an individual first).
So to start our case study, I want you to go to any major wheel manufacturers’ website and look for their wind tunnel data graph. They all have them. You will find something like this:
|From Zipp's website.|
|From HED's website.|
|From ENVE Composites' website.|
So each of these manufacturers take this data and make the same pitch to you: “Our wheels are faster than anyone else’s.” And in very specific situations, none of them are wrong. Each of those graphs support that claim. The thing about it is, they aren’t really comparing apples to apples. Each company controls their own testing—and I’m not trying to say they don’t give honest results, but the conditions are different in every case.
Two of these graphs show the drag measured in grams, with no mention of how fast the wheels were tested at, or whether they were on a bike or by themselves. The other is very specific about how the wheels were tested, but then converts the drag into watts. Two graphs test to 20 degrees yaw, while the other stops at 15 degrees. The Hed data does not even include any competitors’ wheelsets. See where I’m going with this?
I’m not trying to say that these wheels are not tested correctly or even that this data is incorrect or unreliable. I’m not even qualified to make those claims. I’m certainly no expert in aerodynamics or lab testing. I’m just trying to say that there is more to the story than these graphs might suggest.
A wheel that performs well in one frameset, may not in another—and it may have been tested or developed without a frame around it at all. A wheel that tests well at one angle of yaw, may not fare as well as others in more of a crosswind. And so it goes. The list of variables here is lengthy.
So how do you go about choosing wheels? Well you need to do some soul searching I suppose. Ask yourself those really difficult questions. What kind of rider am I? What am I looking for my wheels to be good at? What kind of bike do I ride? Am I big or little? Then seek out the data that illuminates these questions.
For example, a triathlete who is 5’2” and weighs 97 lbs should look for a wheel that performs well in crosswinds because of the lack of stability of aero bars and his or her small stature. A small climbing road cyclist, on the other hand, will want a light and responsive aero wheel that does well on hills. You get where I’m going here.
The great news for everybody in this story, is that you have a wealth of expertise in these types of questions at your fingertips—and I’m not talking about Google. Find a local independent bike shop that you trust and support them. These exact situations are what give these shops their value. We deal with these exact questions on a daily basis and have a wealth of experience in getting people matched with the correct equipment. That is something you just can’t get from a website.
Computers, science, the internet—they are good at black and white. They will give you all the objective information you need about the latest and greatest. But people—specifically people that you trust—are better when trying to decipher your own certain shade of gray.