We fight the wind, and we love it, curse it and praise it as it swirls from head to tail. It is our principal nemesis and primary ally, dooming our breakaways and providing a boost when we need it most.
We fight with resilience through this broken relationship, kowtowing to that one hidden dynamic that the uninitiated can never understand: Drafting turns cycling into chess, reversing the fortunes of the strong and crafting scenarios in which the best may not, in fact, be victorious. It is this unpredictability, brought on by an element invisible to the eye, which separates bike racing from other sports of pure endurance.
It is of little surprise, then, that an entire segment of the cycling industry has cropped up — from wheels to helmets, and much more — in singular dedication to cheating our half-loved foe of even the smallest fraction of its power.
Tom Boonen never used to ride aero carbon wheels at Paris-Roubaix. For his first three wins in 2005, 2008, and 2009, he was on traditional classics wheels — 32 spokes with low-profile aluminum tubular rims. This year, that changed.
“This winter, we put Tom on a bunch of wheels on the track,” explained Specialized pro team liaison Chris D’Aluisio. “We put him on some box section wheels and made him go 50kph, and he wasn’t happy. Then we put him on the deep section wheels and the difference at 50kph was just huge; we made him a believer. He’ll never ride box section wheels again.”
“He’s a convert,” agreed fellow Specialized aerodynamicist Mark Cote. Boonen made the decision to run aero Zipp 303 wheels this year, for the first time ever, and he is but one of many such recent converts in the pro peloton.
Aero gear is everywhere, because so is the wind. Sounds a bit obvious, right? And yet, it has only been in the last decade that the cycling industry and professional teams have come to the collective realization that aerodynamics has an impact on results outside of time trials.
Since the early 2000’s, the sport has seen a boom in aerodynamic wheels, helmets, road frames, and even clothing, all designed for regular road racing. The delay in some of these advancements is partially a result of recent improvements in materials and engineering. But much of the reluctance to acknowledge aerodynamic advantages comes down to simple tradition. Those barriers are now finally being torn down.