Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers

We tend to think of great achievements as unparalleled statements of personal belief. The great sporting performances, the great works of art, the great leaders, are easy to see as examples of uncompromising will. We like to think of Claude Monet as an artist without peer, yet even at the height of his powers he was aware of the work his contemporaries were doing, and often discussed them and their work in his letters.

We think of compromise as a kind of sacrifice, a net loss, something less than an individual’s pure art.

The Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers are an achievement borne of compromise. These aren’t the lightest wheels on the market. They aren’t the most aerodynamic wheels on the market. They aren’t the stiffest wheels on the market, nor are they the strongest. They aren’t even the best riding.

Sounds like they aren’t all that terrific, doesn’t it? Well that’s where the compromise helps. I’ve ridden the tubular 202 and have serious miles on the Firecrest 404s. The tubular 202s accelerated like a goosed cat and forgave over-geared climbing with the aplomb of an Irish priest. I’ve not ridden another wheel like them. On the other hand, the Firecrest 404s are a divine instrument of personal torture. Little else can inspire me to dig deeper than to look down at my Garmin and see 30 mph and know I still have a few beats in reserve. Not that it happens much, mind you, but going that fast is high-school-make-out fun. And if the only downside to riding that fast was chapped lips, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of this computer right now.

I flat-out have never ridden a wheel this light that wasn’t a liability aerodynamics-wise. Weight on the Firecrest 202s is 606 grams front, 737g rear and 1343g pair, significantly less than the advertised 1375g. Sure, there are lighter wheels out there, but wind tunnel tests say the traditional box rim throws 324g of drag when laced with the same spoke pattern as the 202s. By comparison, the hummingbird of the Zipp line throws only 131g of drag, for a 60 percent reduction in drag. Now, compare that to the 80g of drag of the Firecrest 404s.

Now consider the difference between the tubular 202s with the Firecrest Carbon Clincher 202s. The tubulars weigh what a lot of frames weigh—1115g. That’s 228g lighter than the clincher model and if the folks at Zipp were as bad at weighing the tubulars as they were the clinchers, that difference in weight is even greater, which is to say that the Bugatti Veyron doesn’t accelerate as quickly as these wheels do. The trick is, that weight loss is completely offset by the wheels’ unremarkable aerodynamics.

All the bike industry engineers I talk to are singing the same song: Weight is going to matter less and less. We’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. The real gains, as I’ve reported before, are going to be in aerodynamics. It took a while for me to become a believer, but I’ve ridden enough aero wheels and frames at this point that even if I didn’t want to believe, I’ve seen the results displayed before me on Strava. It took me months to understand why I set my fastest time down Decker Road in Malibu on a day where I really wasn’t trying hard to go fast. Finally, one day I recalled that on the day I’d bettered my previous top speed on that road by a full 2 mph (with no tailwind), I was riding the Cervelo S5. Oh. Ah. Right.

My sense is that on flat rides these wheels aren’t the liability other climbing wheels are. They are still an improvement over most of the aluminum wheels your friends are riding. But on climbs you’re going to have an easier time keeping your cadence up than if you were riding a heavier wheel. And if you’re an Eagle among frogs, an acceleration on these wheels will deliver dividends that will leave tongues lolling on stems.

It’s easy to focus on the Zipp rims and forget about the notable quality of the Zipp 88 and 188 hubs. Honestly, without the grade 10 bearings or ABEC 7 races, these wheels wouldn’t roll as fast or last as long. Because of the impending release of Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9000 11-speed group, the rear 202 came equipped with the new 188 V8 hub. It features a new axle and freehub to allow for 11-speed cassettes. Riders with existing 2012 wheels (black or gray hubs) can get them retrofit with the new freehub and axle. This new hub requires a slightly different dish to the wheel; increased dish is always a concern for wheel longevity.

In years past, Zipp wheels had a reputation for being, well, fragile. As I mentioned in my post, “What About the Bike?” when I crashed, my front wheel struck something and came to a stop with the sudden inaction of a computer freezing. It took me almost as long to understand what occurred. By that time, I was on the ground and as rearranged as a freeway guardrail. Days later I inspected the front 202. I’ve inspected it a few times and can’t find anything that looks like damage. It’s not even out of true.

The rear wheel did come out of true a bit in the first few weeks of riding—not badly, but it didn’t stay perfectly true. I continued to ride it that way for another two weeks just to see what would happen. I attribute the change to spoke creep/stretch/settling, but even under continued riding that initial loss of true did not increase.

Zipp wheels are expensive enough that they, like Assos clothing, come in for as much criticism as the Lakers on an off night. It might not be just how you want it, but there’s no denying they are good. Spending $2700 on a set of wheels just isn’t in the cards for a great many people; hell, I’ve got a baby on the way and I wouldn’t even bring this up to my wife right now. But there are other people, people who got graduate degrees that weren’t MFAs like mine. They got PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs. They were both smart and disciplined. To them, the spoils … and an extra 40 watts or so. But the alternative—open mold stuff—is the cycling equivalent of a Corvair: not as fast, not as well-made and unlikely to fair as well when safety is an issue.

On my first few fast descents on the 202s I had some questions about how they’d fair on the technical descents in Malibu. Just because I’ve never melted a Zipp wheel doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen. With less material to dissipate heat when compared to the 303s and 404s, I wondered if there was a chance that I could melt the brake track under hard, sustained braking.

Yeah, the answer to that would be no. Of course, should I get caught behind a slow-moving car on a mountain descent with no place to pull over, I’m confident I could eventually push these or any other carbon fiber wheel there.

Let me acknowledge yet again that these wheels are as easily afforded as a two-week binge on cocaine. Even if you come up with the scratch, there could be lasting consequences, right? And for those who occupy the same economic stratus that I do, let me suggest: Move along—nothing to see here. That said, there’s no reason to badmouth these wheels. They are the technological leading edge that will trickle down through production and in three to five years, you’re likely to see something nearly as fast as these for a third the price. Of course, by then Zipp’s wheels will be even faster.

Those who have the spare cash, however, can enjoy a wheel that’s faster than a box rim on the flats, climbs like Reinhold Messner, and handles like Fred Astaire dances. Sometimes, compromise ain’t a bad thing.


, ,


  1. WV Cycling

    Have you tried out any other neo-aero (wide) rims/wheels lately that could comparably match their brake track width (24.62mm) at a lower pricepoint?

    American Classic 420 Aero 3? – A bit portly, but less than half the price.
    Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000 C35? – Very pretty

    1. Author

      WV Cycling: I haven’t ridden either of those wheels. I am on the new Shimano D/A 9000 C24s and they are very nice, but the absence of any aerodynamic grooming is noticeable above 20 mph.

  2. tinytim

    You should change your professional title from ‘creative writer’ to 100% full time expert industry focus group extraordinaire guy:)But really, atleast you mention, “for those that have the spare cash” in your article. Yeah, if that was me (as if I had like 2 extra G’s lying around), I would instead full on get a fatbike custom made out of crabon fibre. I would ride all around town touting how the frame is laterally stiff yet has verticle compliance until I break the chain stays grinding a rail ala Tony Hawk style.

  3. Sdp

    After several years of tracking the development of carbon aero wheels, I finally convinced myself (and my wife) that Zipp wheels (and a couple of others) offered a genuine, reliable improvement over my campy euros. My choice, the 303 firecrest tubulars. The aero numbers are real and you feel it. The comfortable smooth ride, genuine (no wheel this fast has any right to ride this comfortably). Bullet proof (laced with a few extra spokes over the 404 and proven in Paris Roubaix and for cross). Tubular?…at 1170 grams these literally rocket forward with each pedal stroke…plus, the act of gluing and flat changes has proven to be simple and frankly very engaging. The money? I’m at peace with the decision. My Cervelo S1 is simply transformed. I’m in love with this bike all over again. After way too much research and bumming test rides from everyone I could, I’m convinced, the 303 FC tubular is simply the perfect wheel and worth every penny.

  4. Carson

    PB – Great stuff. A couple questions: Glad you couldn’t melt them on the descents, but how was the braking overall? And not to be pushy, but have the Zipp boys said anything about a tubeless version? After two flat-free summers, I’ll never go back to tubes!

    1. Author

      Carson: Thanks for the kind words. Braking performance with the 202s, I should have mentioned is just like with the 303s and 404s, which is to say as good as carbon fiber braking gets. They really are remarkable in braking response. No pulsating, no extra grabby brake response. Zipp hasn’t said a word about tubeless and I kinda doubt they are planning to go there. That said, I plan to see if I can use tape to convert a pair of wheels to tubeless, but I’ll check in with them first. The attraction of tubeless is undeniable, but thanks to the wider rim (the 202 is as wide as the 404), I run 95 to 97 psi in the front and 100 psi in the rear, I’ve had many fewer flats. Combine fewer flats (okay, so it’s still not NO flats!) with markedly improved aerodynamics and I’ll take the faster wheel any day.

  5. DJ

    I don’t know, when I hear of all this great talk about Zipps, I can’t help but think I must’ve bought the one rotten apple of the bunch. I finally drank the Zipp cool-aid and bought a set of tubular 303s. After the first ride, the rear wheel came out of true. I chalked it up to the spokes settling because they were brand new. I took them to the shop and got the wheel trued, rode them again and they came out of true, again. I thought maybe I wasn’t tightening the skewer enough in the wheel but that was checked and that wasn’t the case. The wheel would just keep coming out of true. Eventually, the first set of railroad tracks I had to cross during a race, cracked the rear rim. So much for the wheels used in Paris-Roubaix. Needless to say I let the wheels sit unused and unrepaired while I ride something that can take abuse from a 175lbs. sprinter.

    1. Author

      DJ: Without knowing whether or not you were on a Firecrest generation wheel, it’s hard to know the nature of the problems you experienced. I will say that prior to Firecrest, I was critical of Zipp wheels for how delicate the rims were and the build quality of the wheels. Because the rims were rather fragile, you couldn’t build with high tension, which tends to increase a wheel’s lifespan. Low-tension wheels are more apt to come out of true and my experience was that spoke tension wasn’t always very equal. My experience with the Firecrest generation wheels is significantly different. They might as well be from a different company. A touch higher spoke tension would be nice, but the wheels I’ve ridden have been far more robust than the previous generation.

  6. DJ

    Maybe that had something to do with it. These were the version that came out right before the new firecrest design. Maybe if I had of waited.. The only thing is that now I have a frame that has clearance issues that would prevent me from trying the newest 303s. Which makes me wonder what all the other Specialized/Zipp sponsored pro teams do. Use older versions, or just run 404s? Do you know if there is the same clearance issue with the 202 firecrest? Thanks for your insight!

    1. Author

      DJ: When Tom Boonen rode 303s at Paris-Roubaix he was riding a Roubaix frame, which is how they addressed that situation. I do know riders who are running 303s with an S-Works Tarmac without trouble, but it’s definitely not recommended. The 202 has essentially the same width as the 404. Instead of 303s, you could run a rear 404 and a front 202, an idea I addressed in this new post which may tackle any other question you might have.

  7. Smitty

    As a happy owner of both the 202 FC clincher and the 303 FC tubular I have to agree with Pedraig that there’s something special in the ride of the 202 clincher. But I can’t out my finger on it. The 303 is way lighter, is more aero and more comfortable, but the 202 feels stiffer and that may be why it just feels like my favorite wheel ever in so many situations. If you’re looking for a race wheel, go straight for the 303 tubular. If you’re looking for the best riding wheel, go for the 202 clincher with Vittoria open Corsas at 95-100 psi. If you can’t rationalize the cost (nobody can if they’re honest) then spend a Saturday morning lacing up some Open Pro rims to some Record, DuraAce or Chris King hubs and marvel at how good wheels were long before anyone thought of making them out of carbon.

    As for braking, the 202 with Zipp’s gray shoes is nearly as good as aluminum. Best I’ve ever used on carbon.

  8. Jacy

    As a happy owner of both the 202 FC clincher and the 303 FC tubular I have to agree with Pedraig that there’s something special in the ride of the 202 clincher. But I can’t out my finger on it. The 303 is way lighter, is more aero and more comfortable, but the 202 feels stiffer and that may be why it just feels like my favorite wheel ever in so many situations.

  9. jonathan

    hello, what is the wattage / drag on the 202 fc CC vs the 303 fc CC? im also wondering is there any advantage in aero if I have a 202 fr and 303 rear? or is the less deep rim at front only for handling and crosswinds? im wondering which ones I should get. thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *