The Cycle Life

We Tested the World's Fastest Bike. What We Found Will Shock You.

Specialized can make use of its own wind tunnel (or "Win Tunnel") all year long, giving the company an advantage in building faster bikes. Photo: Specialized

We Tested the World's Fastest Bike. What We Found Will Shock You.

Specialized's new Venge ViAS will actually make you faster. A lot faster. You gotta love aerodynamics.

If you ride Specialized’s new suite of aerodynamic products, you will be five minutes faster on a 40-kilometer time trial than if you’d ridden the company’s comparable, non-aero bikes and gear.

So said Specialized engineers at the launch of their new aero bike, the Venge ViAS (Venge Integrated Aero System), at their Morgan Hill, California, facility last month. On hearing the claims, every one of the journalists in attendance did their best to stifle their disbelief. The numbers seemed, quite honestly, astonishing.

Depending on the terrain, a Pro Tour rider might complete a 40k time trial in around three-quarters of an hour, so five minutes represents an almost 12-percent improvement. Even for a finish time of an hour, which is more realistic for a sport class rider like me, cutting five minutes would be an almost 10 percent upswing. Fit riders train all season to rack up far smaller gains than that, so if it’s really as easy as swapping out bikes and kits, why aren’t more people doing it?

  Photo: Specialized

Performance claims like these are frustrating because there’s no realistic way to appraise them. Sure, an aero bike might feel quicker than a standard one in a back-to-back test—it might even clock faster—but that could be because of a range of factors, including component differences, disparate riding positions, wind or air pressure changes, or simply because you’re stronger on one lap or the other. Even when there is research to back up the findings, it’s tough to trust the data because every company has supporting numbers that contradict every other company’s, and we all know how easy it is to manipulate statistics to fit an agenda. So most of these claims are of little practical use to the consumer. Does anyone really think he can perceive “16-percent faster?”

During the launch for the ViAS, Specialized not only asserted that new bike and complementary components are faster than their standard stuff, but they set out to help answer the question: Why should we believe you?

At the center of the answer is Specialized’s new ViAS, the second generation of its aero Venge. The bike is a complete rethinking of the original, and its unusual looks are sure to polarize. It has a lowered seat stay junction akin to Specialized’s TT bike, the Shiv, wild and extremely varied shaping throughout the frame, and an integrated, drop stem mated to wing-like riser bars that makes the front of the bike look a bit like a turkey neck. Specialized developed its own integrated braking system, putting the rear brakes in an unorthodox spot halfway between the seat and bottom bracket, a position that the company says adds zero drag. They also built new wider, deeper wheels for the bike—the tubeless-ready carbon CLX64.

The aero benefits of the ViAS—and all of the new aero gear—were honed in the “Win Tunnel,” opened at the company’s Morgan Hill headquarters in May 2013. Whereas the majority of bike manufacturers spend only a few days a year wind-tunnel testing, largely because it costs tens of thousands of dollars at third-party facilities, Specialized can run its turbines as much as it pleases. That means that the company can test every niggling scenario it cares to test, allowing for more data and faster improvement iterations.

Based on Win Tunnel testing, Specialized quantified the following time gains from their new aero kit in a 40-kilometer time trial: 120 seconds savings from riding the Venge ViAS with Roval CLX64 wheels instead of a Tarmac SL4 with shallow-section aluminum rims; 35 seconds with S-Works Turbo 700x24c tires rather than Continental Grand Prix 4000s; 96 seconds from the Evade Skinsuit as opposed to a standard jersey and bibs; 46 seconds from the Evade helmet in place of the S-Works Prevail; and 35 seconds from the Sub 6 shoes versus the 2015 S-Works Road. That’s a total of 5 minutes and 32 seconds savings—the company rounded down for their “5 Minute” marketing campaign.

  Photo: Specialized

To validate those claims, Specialized offered real-time aero testing to 12 journalists. Testing took place in two groups of six over three days each. The first day was spent in the Win Tunnel to collect two sets of drag data from each rider at 0 and 10 degrees, first on the Vias and equipped with all the new aero gear and the second aboard the non-aero setup.

With that data acquired, we headed into the field the next day, where each journalist rode back-to-back 11.9-mile time trials on a rolling course using exactly the same aero and non-aero setups as the previous day. The ViAS, which I rode on the second lap, definitely felt quicker, and at three points on the course, including a downhill, a flat, and a climb, I noticed that my speed was a couple of miles per hour quicker than it was on the Tarmac. At the end, my lap on the ViAS was several minutes faster, but that’s only the start of the story.

As noted, lots of factors can affect speed and time, so Specialized had its partner, McLaren Applied Technologies, on hand to parse the data. In its work with F1, McLaren has developed software that allows it to consider thousands of factors that contribute to a car going fast—for example, rolling resistance, aerodynamic drag, real-time wind speed, surface temperature, and air pressure, to name a few—and predict how fast a car will go in order to maximize design and speed.  The models for F1 are far more advanced and complicated than what’s necessary for cycling, but the principles are the same.

In Morgan Hill, the McLaren team drove the course at the same time as we rode it, using sensors to collect wind direction and speed, air density and temperature, and GPS data including elevation. At day’s end, McLaren took all the data, including our drag numbers from the wind tunnel tests the previous day, and plugged them into the software. They stripped away the power data from one of the laps and used identical power for both simulations. Through the computer modeling, the company effectively removed all variables other than the differences in drag, allowing for an apples-to-apples comparison.

On the ViAS with the full aero kit, I was 1 minute and 53 seconds faster than on the Tarmac with standard kit over the 11.9-mile (19.2km) course. The other 11 riders in the test were also faster on the aero setup, though the times ranged, from 1:08 all the way up to 2:47. An average of the data from all 12 riders showed a collective 2-minute improvement with the ViAS and aero gear. Given my lap time of 34:28, that’s a 5.5-percent improvement, or, extrapolated out to 40 kilometers, a 3:57 time gain.

That’s shy of Specialized’s claims, but a number of factors could have contributed. For one, the Sub 6 shoes, which use a sleeve over the laces to get their aero gain, weren’t ready for production, so I rode in the S-Works Road model instead, thus negating what Specialized estimates to be 35 seconds of savings. My Tarmac was equipped with Roval CLX40 wheels, which have decidedly more aero advantage than shallow, alloy rims. And finally, the test doesn’t account or changes in body position yet (though Specialized is working on sensors to account for it). So though I did my best to hold a consistent position in my hoods for both laps, any shifting or movement to hoods or tops could have skewed the data.

But getting wrapped up in the minutiae misses the point. For years, we’ve wondered how much aerodynamics really help, and Specialized has quantified that answer: They help a lot. On average, the 12 riders in the test saw a 6 percent gain in performance just by switching out gear.

The McLaren software also makes it possible to adjust any parameter to see how a change affects performance. My 56cm ViAS weighed 16.9 pounds, which is heavy relative to climbing bikes. So I asked the engineers how much gain one would make by cutting a few pounds. A quick calculation revealed that cutting the weight by 1.9 pounds (bringing the bike to the UCI limit) improved the 11.9-mile time by 3.2 seconds—that’s paltry relative to the 120 seconds gained through aerodynamics.

Another simulation revealed that it would take a 14-percent increase in power to clock the same time on the standard road setup as I did on the aero one. To put that in perspective, if your average power on the road bike on this course was 300 watts, riding the ViAS and aero gear bumps that up to an effective 342 watts. That’s an enormous gain.

The beauty of the tests is that Specialized tested against its own product (with the exception of the tires), thereby negating accusations of bias. Also, the gear was high-end in both tests, so the argument doesn’t involve spending more to gain speed. Simply put, choosing aerodynamic gear over standard equipment will net impressive gains.

Geeky stats aside, the ViAS proved to be one of the most comfy and enjoyable aero bikes I’ve ridden. It handles quite similarly to the Tarmac, with equally direct steering and snappy power transfer. The integrated brakes, which are often horribly ineffective, were surprisingly deft—perhaps not quite as good as Dura Ace rim brakes, as Specialized claims, but close. And unlike many aero bikes, which can feel brutally stiff because of the geometric tube shapes, the ViAS was easy on the body on an all-day ride. On day three, we logged 60 miles with 6,200 feet of climbing, hardly the terrain you’d expect for an aero bike, and at no point did I ever wish I could trade the ViAS for a Tarmac.

Of course, calling the ViAS “free speed” is misleading as the bike is anything but free. For 2016, the ViAS will be available in only two models: the S-Works version that we tested, complete with Quarq power meter, for $12,500, and the Pro model for $8,000. Below those two halo models, the first generation Venge will carry through for another season so that those on a budget can still buy into aero gains.

But if you’re in the market for an aero road bike and you can afford it, the ViAS has proven itself well worth five minutes of time and consideration.   

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