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I've seen a lot of riders in the city, usually fixe riders or courriers, riding bikes with an expensive aero wheel on front and a regular, cheap-looking, un-aerodynamic alloy wheel on back.

Why would anyone do this? The main reason I can think are that:

  • Ones budget is preventing one from getting another aero wheel.
  • It's just a style thing
  • There is actually some advantage to this setup

This question has a lot of relevant information and seems to point to the fact that bike handling will be much worse with this kind of setup, so I would probably eliminate the possibility of it offering some kind of advantage.

So is this just a style thing or what?

enter image description here

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    The disadvantage of this set-up is that the high rim of the front wheel makes it very sensitive to wind, especially in (gusty) side-wind conditions. – Carel May 14 '16 at 16:16
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    There is the point that the aero wheel is even more useless on the rear, since the rider and the bike frame have totally destroyed the laminar flow of air across the rear wheel. – Daniel R Hicks May 14 '16 at 17:08
  • It can be seen as a sail when the wind comes in at an angle from the rear. That's why they use it on time-trials! – Carel May 14 '16 at 20:32
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    @DanielRHicks this seems plausible but probably inaccurate. High end wheels companies like Enve make aero wheel sets with asymmetric, deeper rear wheel hoops compared to the front wheel. If the rear didn't matter, I doubt they would design like that. See SES 6.7. – ebrohman May 16 '16 at 17:33
  • @ebrohman - The airflow you get riding a track is much different from that you get while riding city streets. – Daniel R Hicks May 16 '16 at 19:24
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As stated in the other answer, the driving force behind these setups used to budget. The rear wheel is fixed gear, which limits the budget selection to old track wheels, converted freewheel wheels and self-built. Two first are high spoke count because that was all that existed back in the day, and easily available components for self-building are of the high spoke count variety. In front, any road wheel will do.

It has also been claimed that messengers favoured Aerospokes, Tri-spokes and like because those are faster to lock: instead of carefully threading you could just throw a chain through one. This does of course not apply to the bike in the picture.

Other reason to have a setup like this is that it looks radically different and similar to what some messengers use.

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I think this is being over-thought. Aerowheels on messenger rigs have nothing to do with performance, quicker locking ability etc. etc. It’s just the new generation mimicking the older generation, trying to be cool.

When I was a messenger, many of us were pursuing racing careers. The messenger gigs were essentially poor man’s training, and a steady source of income- since sponsors didn’t give you enough to live even on ramen. When fixies started to become cool, the next generation of messengers were mostly posers. I say that with love- spend enough time on the bike, and the most blatant, fashion-conscious poser will become an actual rider, and to their credit, that’s exactly what they did, and many of them ended up very cool people in love with the bike. But sometimes some lame things from the early part of that process can survive, and even end up being the norm.

So it was with the racer affectations such as aerowheels. A lot of those guys looked up to the older messengers, they’d see them around town on their race rigs when they weren’t working, and monkey-see-monkey-do.

I remember once I was trying out a full-carbon (no padding) saddle from a sponsor. This was bananas back in the day, because even though carbon wasn’t exactly new for frames, it was cutting-edge for this kind of application. Anyway, I ran into some young’ns down at the shop, and like two weeks later, there was a full-carbon saddle craze among the hipsters who were on the job. That saddle was horrible even with chamois- I basically tried it and sold it. I can’t imagine what it must have been like with jeans and being weighed down with fifty pounds (24 kilos) for the mail run. But they rocked ‘em, god bless those crazy kids.

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Is there a bike co-op in your city? When I ran around on a ratbike like that, it was because I just got whatever people had laying around and stuck it together as cheaply as possible, usually with no thought about anything other than what was directly in front of me at the time. I needed a wheel that would roll, and once I put it on, I didn't think about it again at all.

I bet that overall, there is a surplus of "expensive looking" but actually used and mismatched front wheels kicking around. Rear wheels break more often because they have more stresses. I bet they picked that wheel up for a lot cheaper than you imagine.

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From an aerodynamic perspective the biggest aero gains come from the front wheel set-up as it is the leading edge breaking the clean air. The rear wheel runs in the "dirty" air so aerodynamics gains will be smaller.

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  • Has this setup ever been used in an actual race? – ojs May 15 '16 at 10:43
  • @ojs - sure at local TTs with aero bars. Sponsors would give pros both wheels, so you wouldn't see this set-up in pro races. Don't get me wrong, there are still some advantages to an aero rear, just not as much as an aero front. – Rider_X May 15 '16 at 14:15
  • We have different cultures, then. Around here, local TT equipment is either a normal road bike with possibly clip on aero bar or all out aero setup, not much in between. – ojs May 15 '16 at 14:50
  • Significant advantages to aero wheels occur during side winds. At high yaw angles the aero gains between front and rear wheel will be very similar. – AzulShiva Feb 10 '17 at 20:43

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