Alberto Contador lost Paris-Nice to Sergio Henao by a minuscule two seconds, which begs the question: Could Contador have made up those seconds with different equipment?
For better or worse, cycling has become the sport of science and calculations. Manufacturers pour manpower and money into studying aerodynamic advantages and weight savings. We’re told over and over that special bikes, wheels, or clothing can save seconds over their non-aero kin, and Contador only needed two.
This question, of course, ignores tactics and X-factors like crashes and weather conditions. But let’s engage in some hypothetical speculation anyway.
Let’s say Contador wanted to make up those two seconds by reducing drag. His stage 8 bike was a Trek Emonda with what appeared to be Bontrager Aeolus 3 tubular wheels. What would have happened if he raced on Trek’s aero frame, the Madone Race Shop Limited, along with some deeper Bontrager Aeolus 5 wheels?
We don’t have data on these exact setups. But according to Flo Cycling, a company that specializes in aerodynamic wheels, “if you are traveling 30 miles per hour, you will save 40 seconds over 40k if you reduce drag by 100 grams.” Contador was off the front for about 50km in stage 8, but 7.7km of that distance was climbing Col d’Eze, and a few kilometers were also climbing Côte de Peille, so roughly 40km of downhill and flat terrain. (Read Flo’s thorough explanation of drag reduction.)
The trick is reducing Contador’s equipment by 100 grams of drag.
In our Madone vs Venge shootout, we sent two of the fastest bikes in the world for wind-tunnel testing. The Madone Race Shop Limited produced 836 grams of drag. The Venge posted 787 grams of drag, for a difference of 49 grams of drag. That’s between two aero bikes. The gap between aero and non-aero frames is certainly larger.
Assuming the Kamm-tail shapes, integrated brakes, and other drag-reducing measures on the Madone add up to 100 grams of drag less than Contador’s Emonda — which has few concessions for aero performance and more design features for light weight — Contador could have easily made up two seconds.
That’s all conjecture, of course. But Specialized went so far as to tell the world it could save you five minutes over 40 kilometers. The Venge Vias alone saves a rider 120 seconds, according to Specialized. The Roval CLX 64 wheels will save the rider 35 seconds, according to the company’s data. Since Contador is on Bontrager wheels, this suggests a simple wheel swap to the Bontrager Aeolus 5 wheels would have put Contador on the top of the podium.
Weight weenies, I can hear your gears grinding: Bigger wheels means more weight, and that could have slowed down Contador if he bumped up from a low-profile climbing wheelset. But according to Trek’s website, The weight difference between the Aeolus 3 tubular wheels and the Aeolus 5 tubular wheels is a whopping 78 grams. That’s about as heavy as a gel packet. Contador could have the best of both worlds if he just emptied his jersey pockets. As far as frame weight is concerned, we tested a Madone that weighed 15.19 pounds without pedals, which is a scant .2 pounds above the UCI’s minimum weight requirement.
Let’s not be silly, though. Contador still could have lost to Henao with a wheel upgrade or a different bike. Bicycle racing is far too fluid and unpredictable to subscribe completely to a mathematical equation. But with such a slim margin between the top step and the second step of that podium, Contador’s near-miss illustrates the tension between tradition (low-profile climber’s wheels) and technology (deep-profile, aerodynamic wheels). How much does your gear count? About two second’s worth?