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Best of the best: Cyclist's favourite aero bikes

In-depth
9 Oct 2020
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All aero bikes are sharp, sleek and fast, but which is the best of the bunch? Cyclist’s expert testers offer their own opinions

Photography: Rob Milton

There was Francesco Moser’s 1984 Hour record bike, all cutting edge disc wheels and wildly sloping frame. There was Alf Engers’ 1978 time-trial bike, with its one-piece bar-stem, reversed levers and filed down cranks.

In fact, as far back as 1891 riders were aware of the role of aerodynamics in performance, with participants of the 560km classic Bordeaux-Paris allowed to draft behind tandems.

Yet when the dust settles, it will always be argued that the Cervélo Soloist set out the blueprint for what’s commonly understood to be the aero road bike.

Released in 2002, the Soloist broke new ground with tall, skinny tubes based on NACA profiles, semi-internal cable routing, aero seatpost and… it had been in a wind-tunnel.

It’s this thought that helped steer our criteria for Cyclist’s inaugural ‘Best of the best’ bikes… well, steer the argument, because we quickly came to realise how those lines have been blurred.

Take the latest BMC Teammachine. It has been designed using computational fluid dynamics (CFD), so too the Scott Addict and Cannondale SuperSix. But are these ‘aero bikes’ in the truest sense? Do they embody what the Soloist did 18 years ago?

We came to the conclusion that no, they do not; an aero bike needs to be a bike that puts aerodynamics front and centre of the design brief; a bike where sacrifices in comfort, stiffness and weight are made on the altar of drag and lift, not where aerodynamics has been shoehorned into a more balanced equation.

Aero bikes still have to be road bikes, of course (otherwise we may well have gone for the outlandish Cervélo P5X, the bike Batman would surely choose for a triathlon), and like all the categories we’ll eventually cover in these features – from climber’s bikes to custom builds – our picks have to be currently available. No Miguel Indurain Pinarello Espada for us.

Otherwise, it was an argumentative free-for-all over a bunch of Zoom-distanced coffees in which we sifted through the 1,000-plus bikes that have passed through Cyclist’s hands, from outright test bikes to those ridden on launches, at sportives or sometimes, in the case of a Brompton or two, around the actual office.

On that last note, it’s important to state our criteria for choosing our favourite bikes were entirely personal. We didn’t compare wind-tunnel data or provide scientific evidence – we simply chose the bikes that gave us the widest smiles when pedalling off in search of PBs.

So without any further ado, here are Cyclist’s four favourite aero bikes before we name our one winner…

For a wider assessment of the aero road bike market, see our full buyer's guide here

3T Strada

As chosen by tech editor Sam Challis

Few bikes have been as controversial in recent times as 3T’s Strada. Designed by ex-Cervélo founder Gerard Vroomen to be used with wider tyres and a single chainring, the Strada immediately divided opinion.

In fact it is still the cause of debate now, despite having been around since 2017 and having had several progressive features copied by competitors.

There are myriad reasons behind this being my top pick, but the primary rationale is that the 3T Strada’s design resonates with me just as much as its ride quality does.

It feels fast and handles well, but moreover it rides like it has been developed by a team that knows what road riders want from an aero bike in the real world, not just in the wind-tunnel.

As such, I find it a shame that the Strada’s incredibly fast yet wonderfully balanced nature is often overshadowed by conversations around 3T’s ‘controversial’ gear choices – more on that later.

Now, at a time when ‘system integration’ dominates bike design, tyre choice is often a murky afterthought. Bikes are marketed as having clearance for 32mm tyres, yet often they are aerodynamically optimised around 23mm or 25mm tyres, and the fact that running wider tyres can undermine the aero benefits is never communicated.

In contrast, the Strada was designed to pair specifically with 30mm tyres, a size Vroomen believes has much more practical benefit on the road in terms of comfort, grip and speed.

As a result, I think the bike feels no less racy than other aero designs but is remarkably more comfortable and assured over a variety of surfaces.

Yet all that said, neither I nor 3T can escape discussing the feature that got all those keyboard warriors furiously tapping out opinions on internet forums the moment the bike was released: 1x gearing.

To some the move to 1x was genius, a utopian throw-forward to a level of drivetrain simplicity hitherto unexplored by road bikes. For others it was heresy, with critics declaring that the 1x design was riddled with compromises.

3T’s relationship with the ill-fated Aqua Blue Sport pro team added fuel to the flames, with some of the team’s riders openly condemning the bike, but I’m firmly fighting the Strada’s corner.

When 11-speed was the only option I found the Strada’s gear range adequate and the bigger steps between gears not particularly jarring; now that 12-speed and 10-tooth sprockets are mainstream options and 13-speed is on the horizon (thanks Campagnolo) I can see no downsides to 1x, only up.

That’s because a traditional double-chainring groupset’s range can be replicated with cassettes that have one-tooth jumps between the six smallest sprockets, making for a wide range with smooth progression.

Effective gearing aside, a 1x setup is mechanically simpler, lighter and more aerodynamic too – Vroomen says dropping the front derailleur and inner ring saves around 300g in weight and 7 watts of drag at 32kmh. Again, all real-world benefits. 

Going back to the concept of ‘system integration’, the companies behind many aero bikes have moved to produce every component bar the groupset. These components are often proprietary, so not always as easy to live with, or to fine-tune, as conventional finishing kit.

The Strada’s cockpit is similar, made in-house by 3T, yet it’s entirely conventional – a bar, a stem, no fancy caps or shrouds or finicky cable routing – so it’s easy to adjust and swap components.

It’s a relatively overlooked aspect of the Strada, but it makes so much sense for an aero bike. After all, a poor body position caused by an ill-fitting bike impinges aerodynamics far more than a seamless interface between bar and stem.

Cable integration is similarly unfussy. Hiding cables between the bars and frame is one of the biggest headaches bike designers choose to create for themselves, and in my opinion it has questionable benefit.

Giving a bike’s head tube the frontal area of a Coke can just so it can house a couple of cables doesn’t seem aerodynamically logical to me.

Evidently neither does it to 3T and Vroomen, who traded the small drag penalty of 20cm of exposed cable in return for a svelte, sculpted head tube and fork crown.

For me the Strada is a bike that has found simple solutions to complex problems, and consequently I’ve found it to be as easy to live with as it is fun and fast to ride.

Despite producing a bike that fits in with the very best of the aero genre, 3T has taken a design approach that has very much stood out. That, in my opinion, is what makes this bike so fundamentally brilliant.

Wanting more on the 3T Strada? Check out our full review here

Fancy owning a 3T Strada? Here is how

Cervélo S5

As chosen by editor-at-large Stu Bowers

Why does the Cervélo S5 stand out for me as my favourite aero bike ever? Simple. I’ve categorically never ridden as fast as I did on this bike and, until it mysteriously got deleted, I had the Strava KoM to prove it.

It happens the world over, I’m sure; every local riding group has its own Strava ‘patch’ within which there will be a hierarchy of segments. Riders know very well which are the more prestigious ones to ‘own’; those with the biggest bragging rights.

And so it was back in 2013 I found myself testing the recently launched second generation of the S5, and returning home after what had seemed like a decent first ride I was surprised to see I had come within striking distance of one such prestigious segment.

I couldn’t resist. I necked a coffee, swiftly changed my kit for something a little slicker (I admit, I put on a skinsuit) and headed straight back out.

It’s the one and only time I’ve ever gone riding with the express intent of bagging a segment, and it’s also probably the one time I’ve managed to average over 50kmh on flat-to-rolling roads for the best part of 8km. I just couldn’t believe how fast this bike was.

In my review I called the S5 an ‘absolute beast’, unapologetically singing its praises, at least where speed was concerned. Yet it wasn’t perfect. It certainly wasn’t very comfortable, those tall, skinny tubes making for a harsh ride, and an unexpected side gust could suddenly have me two metres off line.

Then there was the handling, which was fine but a touch languid for my tastes, as many others agreed at the time. But it was impossible not to love the sense of being so fruitfully rewarded for my efforts, and hence impossible not to love the S5, in the same way that some friends have annoying habits that you forgive them for because they are just such fun to be with.

I’ve ridden and tested many other aero road bikes, many of which made it into discussions for this feature: the Trek Madone and the Specialized Venge to name but two. Yet while they all have their merits, nothing has eclipsed the exhilaration of the S5.

It’s not like that should come as a huge surprise – Cervélo started the aero-road movement at a time when most other brands were scrapping over grams of weight not grams of aero drag.

Then the S5, launched in 2011, threw away the rulebook for how a ‘road bike’ should look, changing the way brands thought about frame design forever.

By 2013 some of Cervélo’s competitors had definitely caught up, so the second generation of the S5 was a key developmental step, Cervélo once more flexing its wind-cheating muscles to put itself back on top. 

When it comes to aesthetics, the S5 has always been more purposeful than pretty, and that was never more the case than with the third generation, which arrived in 2018.

This brought the S5 bang up to date with a number of new trends – disc brakes, wide tyres, fully internal cabling – and Cervélo has managed to make it faster still with some nifty new features, most obviously a move to an external steerer tube and a crazy-looking stem.

The fact that this latest model is only a claimed 5.5W faster – hardly staggering given that generation two of the S5 saved 28W over the first – is indicative of how far aero bikes have come and how hard it now is for engineers to squeeze out further gains.

However, while significantly more speed can’t always be found, Cervélo’s engineers have found gains elsewhere for the latest S5, which now has more comfort and has been bestowed with slightly sharper handling than its forebears, making it a much more complete bike.

Speed, though, is still its forte, and that’s something reflected most in its form. I applaud the function-led design, its big tubes and bold curves, but I still can’t love how the S5 looks.

Sorry old girl, you might be fast but that V-stem is v-ugly. I won’t hold it against you though. If you’re going to lead, not follow, as Cervélo and the S5 always has, you’re always going to be pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable.

Check out our in-depth review on the Cervelo S5 here

Want in on the Cervelo S5? Get one here

Trek Madone

As chosen by digital editor Peter Stuart

Since the advent of the aero road bike, tradition has dictated that speed and comfort are acrimoniously opposed. Either you had an unyielding bike shaped like a blade that rattled along the tarmac, or you had a comfortable cruiser with thin tubes that flexed and bounced with every ripple in the road. Take your pick. Then in 2015 Trek revealed its new Madone, and it blew my mind.

Unveiled to journalists at a press launch in Wisconsin, the Madone Series 9 was like a jetlag-induced hallucination. The previous Madone 7 Series, released in 2013, had been a fairly conventional race bike with a few nods to aerodynamics, including kamm-tail tube shapes and concealed front and rear brakes.

It was fine, but it was hard to pick out from of a line-up of similarly pitched race bikes of its day. The Series 9 was a different beast altogether. It looked like the love child of Trek’s Speed Concept time-trial bike and its Domane Classics racer.

It came with a dramatically curved top tube, vastly oversized aerodynamic down tube and fully internal cable routing that had never been attempted before on a road bike.

Perhaps the most unusual engineering quirk was the pair of tiny ‘Vector Wing’ flaps on the head tube. These opened and closed as you turned the handlebar and were designed to allow the front rim brake to move freely while still being partly concealed within the massive bulk of the Madone’s head tube.

The real surprise of the launch, however, was that the 9 Series had incorporated the IsoSpeed decoupler from Trek’s Domane, a system originally designed to help smooth out the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

This effectively meant the seat tube was separate from the top tube and could rock back and forth to soften the blows of rough roads, only on this bike it was even more complex as the free-moving internal carbon seat tube was encased by a more aerodynamic outer one.

It was crazy, but it worked. Any cynicism around the seemingly over-engineered nature of the bike was well and truly blown away on the first test ride. Trek ambassador and former pro Jens Voigt called it ‘f***ing fast’, and I struggled to think of better words to describe it.

Trek claimed it was the most aerodynamic road bike on the market, admittedly before it had a chance to try out the Specialized Venge ViAS, which launched the same week. What’s more, even with the flaps and convoluted seat tubes, the whole thing weighed just 7.01kg.

For those of us lucky enough to try it in Wisconsin, it was the combination of aerodynamics, rigidity and comfort that really stood out. During further testing back in the UK, most of my Strava personal best times were scored on this bike, and they remain standing to this day.

Its speed was undeniable, but it combined that speed with a rear-end comfort that genuinely defied belief – I found myself stopping to check for a flat tyre time and again.

Of course, the bike had its downsides. The brakes were, to put it simply, barely functional. To improve aerodynamics, Trek innovated its own centre-pull Bontrager braking system that won full marks for looks and innovation, but when throwing a set of cork pads in them and squeezing them onto carbon rims, the result was white knuckles and unsettling descents.

Similarly, the one-piece bar-stem was a little too flexible and sapped some power, perhaps in an effort to allow the front-end to mirror the compliance of the rear.

Since then, many of those quirks have been ironed out. The Madone has been updated and refined again to produce the bike seen here, the Madone SLR 9 Disc, which is strictly disc brake-only and has done away with the one-piece bar-stem combo.

The decoupler is still in place, although now it is an L-shaped leaf spring housed in the top tube and its compliance can be adjusted to suit the terrain.

The SLR 9 is almost certainly a superior bike to its 2015 predecessor, yet I can’t help feeling that the original 9 Series was the more exciting of the two. At the time it was a brave and innovative leap into the unknown and was like nothing we’d seen before.

With the Madone, Trek was arguably the first major manufacturer to take comfort seriously in an aerodynamic bike, and to see it as part of the holistic package of speed and performance.

That’s why it gets my vote, and I’d argue it began the movement that is ultimately now leading to the convergence of aero, lightweight and endurance bikes. Back in 2015 we described the Madone as a game changer. I believe it still is.

In-depth review of the Trek Madone to be found right here

Buy a Trek Madone? Well, do that here

Bianchi Oltre XR4

As chosen by deputy editor James Spender

It was January 2013, I was still wet behind the ears and we had just come back to the office from our Christmas holidays. ‘Stu!’ I exclaimed to then-deputy editor Stu Bowers.

‘You’re not going to like this, the Bianchi must have gotten a double puncture.’ In the workshop rack, both of the Bianchi Oltre XR’s 23mm tyres (remember them?) were forlornly flat.

It was my first experience of tubular tyres and, as I learned, they have latex inner tubes that are rather permeable to air. They weren’t punctured, just deflated, and once they had been pumped up to regulation 140psi – that’s what we did back then – I was soon taking a spin on my first thoroughbred aero bike.

I still remember the incredible rumble and whampf whampf sound the deep-section wheels and cavernous tubes made. So too the consistent and almighty kicks up the behind the less-than-smooth roads elicited.

To say it was a visceral experience aboard the Oltre is an understatement; having a root canal on a rollercoaster is probably more like it.

But it was an incredible thrill, and as the years rolled on I looked forward to every further iteration of this beast of a Bianchi flagship.

Right now we’re at the Oltre XR4, and like every bike here it has gone disc brakes. I can’t imagine how disgusted the average Bianchi fan is at the sight of discs, a distinctly non-traditional direction for the oldest bike brand in existence, founded in 1885.

Yet to that I’d say three things: first, Bianchi still makes a rim brake Oltre XR4, something many brands have dispensed with; two, Bianchi isn’t as traditional as you might think – it first messed around with disc brakes back in 1996 on Evgeni Berzin’s time-trial bike.

Three, discs are the best things in performance terms to have come along in the past decade, and the Oltre XR4 Disc is just flat-out better than the rim brake model.

However, I will concede that disc brakes do add a fair amount of weight, so if that’s your primary concern, look away now. The all-singing rim brake version comes in at 6.8kg (56cm top tube), with a comparable disc model around a kilo more.

In truth most of that is in the components, with the framesets themselves not dissimilar in weight. But with those discs on board you get an even more beautiful-looking bike with all cables hidden and a super-clean front end.

That’s a big thing for me, I can’t lie – I am overtly enamoured with any Bianchi for its looks and the way it makes me feel. It’s silly, but there you go. It is an emotional bike brand.

However, it’s the way the Oltre XR4 rides, and here I’ll let you into a little secret – I came in for a fair amount of flak for criticising the rim brake version as being almost too smooth, and it is.

Bianchi also adds the moniker CV to the newsest Oltres, and that stands for Countervail, a viscoelastic resin-based carbon that helps dampen vibrations, and I think it really works.

What that means for the bike is that it lacks that out-and-out white knuckle feel of its great-great-grandfather, the XR, which is to me a bit of a shame.

Then again, I can’t argue with the numbers. The XR4 has delivered various PBs, especially downhill where it truly shines, a perfect example of balance, poise and grip – again due to the road-smoothing, corner-hugging frame.

Just as Sam says about the 3T Strada (but Stu doesn’t with the Cervélo S5), I love how ‘complete’ a bike the Oltre XR4 feels.

It’s a race bike first and foremost, a stiff sprinter, a rapid descender, as at home in a crit as a sportive, but with an all-over aero skin. It is born of a ‘speed first’ mentality and has been refined over countless versions.

Does it handle as well as Bianchi’s lightweight all-rounder, the Specialissima? Nope. Is it as comfortable as its cobble-munching Infinito? Nope.

Is it more fun to ride, more exciting to look at, than both those bikes and indeed any aero bike I have ever ridden? Absolutely yes, and I’ve ridden the other bikes nominated here too.

It ticks all my boxes, even if I might lament the loss of that original Oltre’s brashness. But it more than makes up for it in other areas. And it’s a Bianchi. Belissimo.           

The full nine-yard review on the Bianchi Oltre XR4 can be found here

Become a Bianchi Oltre XR4 owner here

And the winner is...

Of our four favourites, the leader of the pack is… the Trek Madone. We were never going to agree easily, so in a fit of Euro-style proportional representation, we asked each of our testers to nominate a first and a second choice, and based on those results we arrived at… a tie. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

With a first place and two second places apiece, the Trek Madone and 3T Strada turned out to be Cyclist’s favourite wind-cheaters. However, since like The Highlander there can only be one, we went back to the Zoom debate centre.

At first we thought weight might settle it, and after running the numbers the lightest bike here (in comparable size and top-spec form) was in fact the 3T Strada at 7.50kg.

This plays to Gerard Vroomen’s idea that losing a front mech and chainring saves significant grams, and is borne out by the contrasting weights of the Madone at 7.67kg, the Cervélo S5 at 7.77kg and the Bianchi Oltre XR4 at 7.82kg (a moot point – the Oltre with rim brakes is 6.80kg, and it’s worth noting the other bikes are only offered with disc brakes).

In-depth review of the Trek Madone to be found right here

Buy a Trek Madone? Well, do that here

However, several of our number argued that, in the grand scheme of things, 170g lighter does not a winner make. That’s because bike design is so good these days we have become accustomed to having our cake and eating it, and even the fastest bikes should ride well too. Comfort and handling could not be ignored, so here with the final pronouncement is Stu Bowers.

‘It has to be the Trek Madone. The Strada is fast, and pushed the boundaries with the gearing – it was probably ahead of its time – while the S5 and Oltre are also exceptionally quick.

‘But none of those can do what the Madone can. It rides as comfortably as Trek’s Domane Classics bike, sprints like a beast and handles as well as any race bike. I reckon it’s the best-looking aero bike going too.’