If a person had a limited budget and wanted to have the best combination of “weight & aero performance” for a set of wheels, would it make sense to buy a lightweight, small-rim-depth rear wheel and an aero-depth (e.g., 45mm or 50mm Zipp 303 or 404) front wheel?
I believe that having an aero wheel at the front would provide more aero benefit than one at the rear, although handling in stiff crosswinds would be impacted. A small-rim-depth, lightweight rear wheel would benefit on climbs when speeds slow and gradients increase. I’ve not ever seen this setup, so I’m probably missing something, but I thought I’d ask.
I ride a lot (>5000mi last year), and ride with the 20-22 mph lead groups at the 60-100-mile charity rally rides, but I know very little about the mechanical aspects of the sport. I just try to do my best with what I read and hear. Currently I ride a 64cm Specialized Roubaix Expert with Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels (yes, I’m tall, 6’7” but not too heavy, 215-220lbs) but if there’s any chance of gaining a real mechanical advantage/improvement without breaking the bank, I’d be very interested.
I often advised riders to use exactly the wheel setup you describe when I was a mechanic. Danny Pate used to use a deeper wheel on the front and a shallower one on the rear to save weight. It makes perfect sense to put the most aerodynamic wheel where it will do the most good, on the front. And in the pro ranks, using the shallower rear wheel can keep a race bike at the UCI weight limit if the team’s aero wheels are chunky.
In Europe you’ll often see riders using the opposite combination. In my opinion, that’s because of two things. 1. Crosswinds, and 2. It looks cool (a.k.a. bad decision-making). The first makes sense. Crosswinds can be serious and staying safe is always a priority. The second is more prevalent than you may think.
Not all decisions in the pro peloton are made based on anything scientific or methodical. As an example, many pros run their stems slammed down on the headsets, but not because that’s what’s best for them, but because it looks cool. Peer pressure is a very real thing.
Back to your question, I think that’s a great idea. Try borrowing the aero front wheels of some of your friends for a ride. Make sure to install the appropriate brake pads and give them a go. See what you’re comfortable with on a windy day and what you can afford. Then make your decision based on that.