Desert Storm

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

Cyclist - - Contents - Words STU BOW­ERS Pho­tog­ra­phy PATRIK LUNDIN

Cy­clist heads to the best place out­side of a wind-tun­nel for test­ing aero bikes: the smooth, flat and gusty roads of Abu Dhabi

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.

With cy­cling in the UAE a dan­ger­ous un­der­tak­ing, they cre­ated a ded­i­cated road for cy­clists in the desert

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 its 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 world­beat­ing 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 en­er­gys­ap­ping 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

I spend a lot of time in the drops, such is the way the Venge VIAS en­cour­ages an ag­gres­sive rid­ing style

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

The Madone fea­tures a shrouded front brake, one-piece aero bar and stem, and fully in­ter­nalised ca­bling

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 cob­ble­bash­ing 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 gull­wing 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. Stu Bow­ers is deputy edi­tor of Cy­clist, and is still pick­ing the sand from be­tween his teeth

I’m con­vinced the re­lent­less wind would be grind­ing me down much more were I on a stan­dard road bike

The views on the Al Wathba cy­cle track don’t change much, but the smooth tar­mac, flat ter­rain and buf­fet­ing winds make it the per­fect place to test aero road bikes

Cervélo is ar­guably the daddy of the aero road bike scene, hav­ing launched the Soloist back in 2002

The Trek Madone (in front) is the most com­fort­able of the three bikes, while disc brakes make the Venge VIAS (at the rear) an at­trac­tive op­tion on more chal­leng­ing roads

OK, the road isn’t

com­pletely flat, but these bikes can tear up much sharper in­clines than they face in the UAE

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