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Desert Storm: Abu Dhabi aero bikes ride test

Stu Bowers
17 Nov 2017

The wind-whipped desert of Abu Dhabi is the perfect place to test three of the world’s most aerodynamic road bikes

It only rains a few days a year in Abu Dhabi. In fact, the average annual rainfall here is so low that the process of ‘cloud-seeding’ is sometimes used to encourage further precipitation.

So it seems more than a little unlucky that the day we’ve come to test bikes on the Al Wathba desert cycle track, armed with a trio of top-end aero machines and having carefully planned every last detail of our trip for months, large droplets of water are splashing onto our sand-blasted arms.

At least when the rain arrives we’re near what is the only shelter on this 96km circuit – the Adnoc café – so we decide to head under cover for some refreshment while waiting out the desert storm.

A cycling oasis

The Al Wathba cycle track is a rather strange and wonderful development.

It was devised by multi-billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family (and the owner of Manchester City FC), to service the growing interest in road cycling in the region.

With cycling on the main roads in the UAE a dangerous undertaking, they decided the solution was to create a dedicated road for cyclists in the desert about 70km outside the city.

It’s set out in a series of loops of 30km, 22km, 20km, 16km and 8km, and if you do each loop in turn it makes up 96km of pristine, car-free road.

Andy Sherwood, editor of Cyclist Middle East and one of my riding companions for today, tells me the full 96km route is known by the locals as the ‘full monty’.

‘Our club, Raha Cycling, sometimes does a “double full monty”, and then we do the 8km loop once more just to make it up to 200km. That’s tough in the heat,’ he says.

Andy, an ex-pat living in Abu Dhabi, fills me in with some of the details of the Middle Eastern cycling boom:

‘It’s driven in particular by how the sheikhs have embraced it on a personal and professional level,’ he says.

‘We now have the Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour [the latter having been given WorldTour status this year].

‘Considering the UAE has no history of cycling, the country has really taken to it.

‘The sheikhs have built cycle tracks like this one, and one in Dubai that is more than 150km long. A big part of this drive is to get people active to combat obesity, and these tracks provide a safe environment for people to ride.’

The track is open 24 hours a day and floodlit for riding at night, which Andy says is a popular option in a region where the summer daytime temperatures can easily reach the high forties.

It’s an amazing facility, unlike anything I’ve encountered in Europe, but that’s not the main reason we’re out here. With its endless roads, and flat, windswept terrain, the Al Wathba track is the perfect place to test aero road bikes.

The rain shower is over quickly – in fact, all evidence of it has dried up by the time we finish our coffees – so we’re soon back out, refuelled, and ready to do battle with the wind once more.

Best of three

Also with me today is Kate, a regular contributor and accomplished female racer who right now is trying to decide if her tiny 53kg frame is an advantage in the wind versus us larger guys, or whether in fact she’s just in danger of being blown away.

Kate is riding a Trek Madone, with it cable-free front end, bespoke aero calliper brakes and strange flaps on the head tube.

Andy, meanwhile, is armed with a Cervélo S5, a bike that continues the traditions of the Soloist, the original aero road bike. That leaves me on the Specialized Venge ViAS Disc, which completes our trio of world-beating aero bikes.

Interestingly, Andy’s Cervélo is fitted with Sram’s Force 1 (1x11) gearing, a rare sight on road bikes, but as he points out, it’s common in the UAE as it is so flat that there’s little need for two chainrings.

His S5 is also sporting a visually striking and insanely expensive set of 80mm Lightweight carbon wheels (the Autobahn VR8 front wheel is £2,600, the rear Fernweg 80 a further £2,200).

This, it turns out, is not an uncommon spec around these parts.

‘The Emiratis tend to just go straight for the most expensive bikes,’ Andy says. ‘You’ll see plenty of ostentatious kit if you hang around here a while. And plenty of Cervélos.’

Not that the other bikes are shabby by comparison. We’re sitting on a combined total of over £25,000 worth of equipment here, so we should fit right in with the locals, although on this Monday morning we have the place almost to ourselves – one of the few exceptions being someone heading out on a £10,000+ bike wearing football shorts and trainers.

It seems there’s still work to be done on cycling fashion etiquette here.

Gone with the wind

While the terrain is mainly flat, Al Wathba is by no means an easy ride.

The winds whipping across this desert expanse make for an energy-sapping experience, and as we head out among the dunes, it’s not long before we’re riding in single file, heads down and feeling the sting of the sand against our shins.

‘Come here on the wrong day and you can be riding into a 30kmh headwind for the first 15km,’ Andy says.

Today the wind is a more forgiving 16-18kmh, still plenty to contend with but arguably the perfect conditions to put our slick aero machines through their paces.

Andy is already trying to work out how he can get a new bike purchase past his wife, having been astounded by how much easier it is to beat the wind on the Cervélo S5 compared to his own standard Boardman road bike.

‘I hate to sound clichéd, but it does feel like I am slicing through the air,’ he says. ‘My body just doesn’t feel as battered in the wind as it usually does here. And I can’t believe I’m not struggling more in the crosswinds on these super-deep wheels.’

I’m as surprised as he is. When I first saw his bike I feared we might be rescuing him from the sand dunes, with the wheels and frame combining to present a considerable surface area to side gusts.

Instead, the Autobahn’s blunted aero profile and lack of spokes – just eight on the front (four per side supporting the gargantuan rim) – means Andy’s not having to put up much of a fight to keep the Cervélo S5 in a straight line.

While we’re talking wheels, my 64mm deep Roval Rapide CLX wheels have proven themselves better than expected in the conditions too.

They accelerate and hold speed well, but again it’s the lack of buffeting from side gusts that is the standout feature for me.

When riding in a tucked position, I don’t feel like my steering is being badly affected by the wind.

I find myself in a tight aero tuck a lot on the Venge ViAS. After a while my neck and shoulders ache, not because the bike is uncomfortable but from the fact that I spend so much time down in the drops, such is the way this bike encourages an aggressive riding style.

It’s a pleasure to feel just how responsive the Venge is to my inputs and to reap the reward of extra speed.

Speed demons

I’ve been keeping an eye on the data generated by the Quarq power cranks that are specced as standard on this model of Venge, and I’m mighily impressed with what I’m seeing.

In these conditions I would have expected a considerable chunk more wattage being expended to maintain the 30-35kmh average we are riding at into the wind.

Rounding a corner on the far side of the circuit, Kate, who’s been keeping a low profile so far, suddenly makes a cheeky attack.

In a textbook move from the rear of our three-person echelon, her Trek Madone sways aggressively from side to side as she sprints hard past us to forge a gap.

With just a brief check back over her shoulder to make sure she’s done some damage, she reassumes a tucked position on the drops to make herself as small as possible to the oncoming wind. She’s making us suffer.

Andy and I take turns to pull and try to get back up to her rear wheel. It’s not easy, and when we do finally latch back on, Kate can’t disguise a wry smile as she looks back at us.

‘This is the most zippy and fun road bike I’ve ever ridden,’ she announces, clearly impressed with the part the Trek played in her escape.

‘It feels really stiff and responsive. It really makes me want to get low in the drops and try to make it go even faster.’

It’s unusual to see Kate so animated about a bike (she usually takes a racer’s dispassionate approach to her kit) so it must have made a very good impression.

I’ve no reason to doubt her. The Madone is Trek’s most advanced aero road bike to date, packed with features such as the shrouded front brake (with its intriguing side flaps to allow the bars to turn), one-piece aero bar and stem, and fully internalised cabling.

But as much as it’s built to be as slippery as possible, Trek has also considered rider comfort.

The seat tube includes a similar IsoSpeed decoupler to the cobble-bashing Domane, allowing for extra flex and bringing a noticeably smoother ride feel.

The Trek is alone in this regard, as neither the Specialized nor the Cervélo makes any real concession to comfort.

For them it’s all about speed, pure and simple. This could be an issue if we were on the rutted lanes of Britain, but on the gloriously smooth tarmac of the Al Wathba track, comfort is not a consideration we need to worry about.

Approaching the end of another loop, I decide it’s my turn to go it alone. I want to see how much I can get out of the Venge, so I sprint away from the others for a full-gas lap of the 8km circuit.

It’s not easy to quantify, but my heart rate and power data suggests my bike and kit are affording me a considerable aero advantage.

I’m convinced the relentless wind would be grinding me down much more were I on a standard road bike, but aboard the Venge ViAS Disc I’m maintaining speeds I’m more used to holding on windless days back in the UK.

As we regroup towards the end of the lap, our bikes look like they’ve been in a sandstorm.

‘I’m guessing the bike shop here sells a lot of chain cleaners,’ I say to Andy. A knowing nod tells me he’s used to scrubbing grit from his drivetrain.

So did any one bike shine a little brighter than the others when it came to cheating the wind? It’s a tough call.

Kate loves the Madone and suggests it may win on the grounds of additional comfort, although she’s concerned about the complexities of the internal cabling:

‘I’m not sure with my lack of mechanical savvy I’d trust myself to own this bike,’ she says.

Andy has no such worries about the Cervélo: ‘The 1x11 shifting was really smooth,’ he says. ‘I liked its simplicity, and it’s perfect for riding around here.’

I throw out the notion that the Specialized is the only one with disc brakes, and therefore is more versatile than the others.

Stopping hasn’t been an issue here on the flat desert roads, but it could be a game-changer if we were testing these bikes on a damp descent in the Alps.

No one disagrees, although Kate suggests that the Specialized isn’t a particularly attractive bike, with its disc brakes and peculiar gull-
wing handlebar.

I respond that aesthetics is a subjective matter (I rather like the way the Venge looks) and besides, it isn’t meant to be pretty – it’s meant to be fast.

But is it faster than the others? We can’t agree on that. I suspect the difference between them in terms of free speed is too small to determine without a week in a wind-tunnel, but we can all agree on one thing.

Whichever of these bikes you choose, it will almost certainly be faster than anything else out on the road.

On page 2: Abu Dhabi aero bikes ride test – The bikes and kit

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