We can all agree that if you're racing your bike, anything that can make you go faster matters. Exactly how much it matters varies a good deal, and some upgrades get you a whole lot more speed for your money than others — this much we know. But I'm not talking about racers here, but rather the vast majority of cyclists who ride bikes because they want to have fun, get fit (or get fitter), and explore new places. So, just to reiterate, this article is not aimed at those of you who are racing. OK?
So, you're not a racer. You're a lady or gent who rides a bicycle, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, occasionally thoughtfully, often mindlessly. You're shopping for a bike and you're wondering whether you need the latest, greatest, watt-savingest aero thing. Let me make it really simple for you: you don't.
If aero were truly free speed then it wouldn't matter in the slightest, but it never is. An aero bike invariably either weighs more or costs more than a comparably-equipped non-aero bike, or it comes with other compromises — whether that's ride quality or everyday practicality.
Ask yourself this: what do you actually want from your bike? Is its sole purpose to convey you from A to B as quickly as possible or do you care about the experience along the way? If it's the latter, what does that actually mean?
Personally, I want a bike that feels rewarding when I stand up and throw it from side to side, hauling myself up the steepest of hills. I want an unyielding bottom bracket and rear triangle married to a lively and exciting ride. I want taut, precise handling and I want to feel directly connected to the road, but insulated from its worst defects. I want tactile, satisfying shifting and reassuringly powerful brakes. I want to roll along on silken hubs that merit frequent polishing and loving injections of grease. And I want to get off my bike and be unable to walk away from it without casting a last glance backwards to admire its perfect lines.
Aero just doesn't figure in any of this because its benefits are essentially intangible. It doesn't matter if a stopwatch says my bike is faster, because knocking a few minutes off a three-hour ride doesn't make it a better ride, it just makes it a slightly shorter one.
Whilst this isn't really meant to be a weight vs. aero argument, it is worth pointing out that any idiot can feel the difference between a heavy bike and a light one — the latter will always be more fun to ride, all else being equal. With aero gains on the other hand, you'll likely only notice that you're going faster if you're doing timed testing, hanging out in a wind tunnel, or making huge changes, for example switching from an upright position to a full aero-bar tuck. (Seriously, next time you're coasting down a hill alongside another rider, try sitting bolt upright on your saddle — the difference it makes is remarkable.)
Does this mean I think manufacturers are wasting their time chasing aero gains? Not really — they do so in pursuit of ultimate performance, which matters a great deal to the professionals they sponsor and to the small subset of amateurs who will lap up anything that saves a watt here or there. If that means everyday bikes get a trickle-down benefit in the long run I'm hardly going to complain, as long as it doesn't make my riding experience objectively worse.
I want, I want, I want
Cyclists are pathologically obsessed with having the best of everything and we, the cycling media, are your enablers. I would absolutely encourage you to spend all of your disposable income on bicycles, but I'd recommend being highly self-critical about your motivations.
If you think an aero bike or some new aero component is going to make your riding experience a better one then knock yourself out, but I'd hazard a guess that that's not the case for an awful lot of you. We all want to go faster because it's fun, but sometimes there’s more to fun than just going that little bit faster.