Wither aero?

We've written in years past about notable Tour TTs, but that's primarily been with more of a tech lens on. This year is notable from a sponsorship perspective. Much was made about the adventure to get MVDP some Princeton Carbon wheels to use in the quest to keep the yellow jersey. And there is the usual hubbub around new prototype and unreleased wheels. But the bigger note to me is that Shimano doesn't really seem to care if teams don't use their wheels in TTs. Why?

When you think about it, it's pretty amazing that every team's sponsor even has a TT bike. I would strongly suspect that some of them are open molds. The market for TT bikes is tiny. That tiny market also intersects with the fact that TT bikes are wildly development hungry beasts, because they're there to do one thing well - cheat the wind - above all else. You can make a million different cases for a road bike, its beautiful lines or its weight or stiffness or whatever else you want to say, but TT bikes that aren't aero AF are worthless. 

It's easy for those of us who pay a lot of attention to these things to figure that the entire market is as aware of these things as we are. But though Princeton, thanks to their sometimes association with Ineos and now MVDP, and also their getting sued by SRAM for design infringement, has much better brand awareness than November does, they are FAR from a household name. In positioning-speak, if your story is entirely about being the fastest wheels and you want to sell any significant number of them, you'd better hope that the story of that leadership resonates well down the line into people whose response to that will be along the lines of "well I guess that means they must be pretty good" because the market of people who really care about that stuff is tiny. And a whole lot of those people use wheels that are given to them by their teams, or have purchase matrices strongly skewed by a sponsorship situation. 

Add to this that there is no "best." After all the running around to get Princeton wheels, MVDP used a 90mm deep AeroCoach front wheel. There was probably some analysis of weather (wind) conditions overlaid on the route that showed that the prevalent or most critical yaw condition would be favorable to the AeroCoach wheel. It's hard to argue with any of it when the guy holds onto yellow by a fraction, which is a story that even my cold black heart warms to, but the tech story as a purchase influencer is probably nil.

Which brings me back to Shimano. They're notoriously intolerant of teams replacing any part of their drive train at all, yet they seemingly freely allow any team that wants to to replace their wheels in these tip of the spear cases. Which boils down to a few likely things to me. First, Shimano is a business that's in the business of making money. Resource hungry fringe things (funny to call the Tour a fringe thing, but here we are) are a poor ROI. The average person who's in the market to spend a chunk on good wheels isn't nearly so deep in the weeds on it that this stuff matters. And I think we're in an era of significant decline of the Tour's influence on purchasing. Unbound Gravel seems likely more resonant with where this year's consumer spend is than the Tour is. Bleeding edge road racing doesn't move the dial like it used to. 

So it's some interesting tech, and it may influence future design trends in a marginal way, to perhaps some marginal benefit, but of itself it seems poor business. And that's probably why Shimano gives it the big shrug. 


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  • Dave on

    All of this is why we decided to stop aero testing wheels. When we first did it, we initiated the then-revolutionary concept of going head to head with another wheel, strict protocol, same tire same day same everything, and that had a lot of value in helping people evaluate this stuff. We had to deal with a few people asking for our base data to create composite graphs polluted with tests from different tunnels, using different tires, Flo doing things with their results that made them look unbeatable in these composite graphs, etc. That of course got us accused of having something to hide, which was laughable and easily dismissed but still annoying. We stuck with that over time and I think it had value to some degree, significantly validated by that protocol/standard being adopted by a lot of other brands.

    Hambini does a lot of things, some of which have merit, some of which are easily dismissed, and most of which become problematic in the “messenger vs message” way. His presentation doesn’t do his credibility any favors. But his thesis that the standard(ish) protocols don’t best represent real world applicability have merit. The “I Alone Can Fix This” part of it kind of makes it fall apart. But at root you get a picture that you take certain design principles and then relative depth gives a picture of what’s going on, and you get an order of magnitude around which wheels are saving you how much. Most people seem to come into it with too big an estimate for “how much” (I write a lot of emails saying that new wheels, from us or otherwise, won’t make you as much faster as you think they might), but it’s become fairly easy to make good recommendations and ball parks. If you’re trying to perform very very well and have fun with bikes, this is enough. If you’re trying to wring every last drop out of the rag, the price of admission becomes exponents higher and it’s applicable only to your entire setup, so it’s broadly no more useful than simpler info.

    Did I beat that to death enough?

  • Jim on

    There’s a certain British internet personality that likes to “roast” big brand companies for their “rubbish” overpriced products (let’s just call him “H”). H has the chops to back things up aerodynamic, so he’s at least worth a listen. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on his position regarding “transient drag” and his wheel-testing protocol versus the wheel industry using steady-state (I’m guessing this is what was used for the AL33 test). If he’s right… rim dimples, saw tooth shapes, toroidal sections… all marking hype designed to make us spend more money for little or no gains when riding our bikes outside in the real world. I think your business model thrives on this… why should I spend $3.5K for a boutique set of wheels when I can spend a fraction of that getting the same performance at November Bicycles.

  • ccj on

    I dun uds why people are crazy about the poor logistics management.

    And does it matter nowadays when it has zero exposed space from coast to coast on a… disc rear wheel? The wind still blow along in a disturbed manner. The winner won it on an old TT bike and simple deep front wheel and old rear disc wheel. Does it proof anything about the bike?

    The question remains: how different between wheels with the same depth in real world? Does a $1k Corima rear disc wheel really inferior to other $3k wheels?

    When there is no way to proof in real world, any conclusion is limited to lab only. Race in Windtunnel Zwift, maybe…

  • Catherine Seiferth on

    Good call on all! “Aero” on a non-faired bike has always been about the rider position and the rest of it (IMHO and in every study I’ve seen) is just down to aesthetic preferences and milliwatt silliness. That said, I’m sure the fan delivered wheels did provide some sort of positive vibes and MVDP did keep the yellow, so I guess it was worth Princeton’s sponsorship efforts. I’m still going to chock up his holding onto the jersey for another (and another) day more to the ephemeral boost to his subconscious than any sort of drag reduction.


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