Of all the parts of a bicycle, it is the wheel that can do the most to impart a different experience. Put on a pair of heavy wheels and you’ll feel invincible on descents, but also like someone robbed you of your sprint. Put on a light set of wheels and your bike will handle quicker and accelerate like you added a supercharger. Put on an aero set and you get free speed. Lace up a set of 36-hole Ambrosio tubular rims, tie and solder the spokes and you can ride across Damascus at 40 psi. And now we’ve got a tubeless technology for those wanting the ride of tubulars in a form that is no less difficult to address should you flat.
It’s quite a menu. And therein lies the challenge. No one ever thinks about frames and says, “I want the handling of an old Moser, the weight of a Cannondale, the stiffness of a Specialized and the aero performance of a Cervelo.” Well, almost no one. The thing is, frames don’t have swappable components that have encouraged us to think this way. However, I’ve often thought that I wanted a wheel with the aerodynamic performance of a set of Zipp 404s, tubeless technology, a power meter and built well enough to survive California fire roads.
Well, a new partnership between PowerTap and Wheelbuilder is taking us a good deal closer to that. Of all the wheels I’ve ridden in the last five years, the best build I’ve encountered was performed by staff at Wheelbuilder. They were easily better than anything from Zipp, and writing that pains me. While Zipp wheel builds are usually good, they have yet to be flawless, and on one occasion the wheel build was definitely sub-par.
Granted, I’ve ridden only one set of wheels from Wheelbuilder, but I checked them for true when I pulled them from the box, checked them after my first ride, and checked them again at the end of the review. They hadn’t moved. Easton takes a lot of flak for hub and bearing issues, but I can say that I’ve seen no OEM or aftermarket wheel maker that produces a more uniformly tensioned and true wheel than they. Wheelbuilder, I’m finding, is every bit as good.
It only makes sense. Wheelbuilder’s only product is its labor, well, that and its ability to do custom builds of any selection of components you might want. But because its product is fundamentally a service, the build needs to be better than OEM; otherwise, what’s the point?
So PowerTap, in an effort to increase its appeal to buyers, has struck an agreement (I refuse to say “partnered”) with Wheelbuilder. You can now get Enve, Zipp and HED rims laced to a PowerTap hub. It’s not a huge increase in selection, but the point is, you now have more options and you don’t have to sacrifice build quality to get it; on the contrary, the build is likely to be better than what you might otherwise have been able to find locally.
Power-measuring devices have changed training the way that heart rate monitors did 20 years ago. The proof can be found as simply as by attending a group ride. Every group ride I do is faster than it was 10 years ago. While some of that can be attributed to smart training and nutrition, the fact is that the riders who have gained the most in their fitness are the ones able to talk one-minute power, five-minute power and 20-minute power. There was a time when talking power was like trying to eat sand; it was just a fancy number most folks didn’t know how to digest. Thanks, in part, to pro riders talking about their numbers and their training, the average joe has a much better working understanding of wattage and how to use those numbers.
It’s fair to say the market for power-measuring devices is heating up. Between SRM, PowerTap, Quarq, Stags and now Garmin, consumers have a great many choices. How you might go about choosing between those various systems isn’t the point of this post. Just which system you go for depends on how many bikes you have, how many wheels you have and how often you switch bikes and wheels. Whether or not you think there’s a right answer, the only obvious assessment is that there are no easy answers. I’m partial to PowerTap because it’s the only power measuring system that’s easy to move between bikes. That said, I know plenty of guys who have one bike and lots of wheels, so for them it’s not nearly as useful a system as something like SRM.
We (assembled members of the media) went for a ride when we met with the folks from PowerTap and Wheelbuilder. Naturally, I took the opportunity to check my wheels when they were first installed in my bike. One thing I’ve learned from years of building wheels (so long ago it was practically a different life) is that whatever re-truing is required following a set of wheels’ first ride will tell the story of those wheels’ life. If they don’t move in that first ride, they’ll last a long time (barring crashes). If they need a fair amount of re-truing and re-tensioning after five miles, they will only last a season. The wheels I rode didn’t budge even though I rode across all the rough and broken pavement I could find on our ride. Damn fine work.
I get a lot of questions from readers about purchasing dilemmas, and I do my best to answer them all. The questions range from what saddle is best (I have a favorite, but unless your pelvis is a clone of mine, you might not like it), to clothing sizing issues (hard to do without being in the same room with samples in hand), to the typical frame selection and sizing questions.
The single most recurring question that I get from friends and readers is what wheel to choose. For someone purchasing a single set of high-zoot wheels, what would I recommend? And because I’ve reviewed more wheels from Zipp than Enve, Easton or other manufacturers, the question is often framed as, would I recommend the 202, 303 or 404?
It’s not a tough question for most riders, at least in my opinion.
For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to use Zipp wheels, but I think a number of wheels, such as those by Enve or HED, could be substituted for Zipp in this comparison. The point isn’t the brand, it’s the category. And frankly, getting a handle on the competing aerodynamic claims from one manufacturer to the next isn’t something I care to undertake—the marketing claims prove each brand is faster than their competition.
Before I get into the considerations that lead to the choices I would make, I want to lay out a few assumptions that guide my thinking. The first is that because I’m aware that a set of Zipp wheels are more expensive than some bikes, I don’t really see them as something I’d routinely take to a race, even if I was still racing. Sure, I’d use them in a time trial, and I might have been willing to use them in some road races, but the average crit isn’t a place I’d be willing to risk a $10,000 bike, unless, of course, I was sponsored to ride it—and even then I’d have a fair amount of trepidation. So while a great many people think you ought to save your most expensive equipment for race day, I think if you’ve got good stuff you ought to go ahead and ride it.
The second assumption is that fast is fun, and faster is more fun. So while I may be riding long training rides with a select group of friends or the occasional gran fondo, I want to ride as fast as I’m able. To that end, I want aerodynamic wheels for all the free speed I can get. Third, if I’m going to be on aero wheels, I don’t see any point in being frightened when riding in a crosswind; I want wheels that offer handling as close to that of a box rim as possible.
So now for a bit of objective data. The images that follow I got from Zipp. They offer a fairly objective comparison of several different wheels against the 202, 303 and 404.
For me, there a few takeaways from these images. The most striking is how a traditional box rim is aerodynamic equivalent of an elephant. The improvement of the 202 offer over a box rim is significant, but considered against the 404, I can’t help but wonder why a greater effort hasn’t been made to make a relatively lightweight aluminum rim that offers better aerodynamics (and handling) than the box rim. To my eye, the industry has given up. The best offerings I can see in the sub-$1500 range are HED’s Jet series wheels which mate an aluminum rim with a carbon-fiber fairing. What else is noticeable is how much more crosswinds affect the box rim and traditional V rims, and while I’ve seen how Firecrest (and other similarly rounded rims) handle better in the wind than V rims, it is interesting to see that phenomenon illustrated.
The basic wisdom on rim depth is that the flatter the course, the deeper the rim, and vice-versa. It’s the single easiest way to choose, but it leaves out all the nuance that causes lunatic cyclists like me to actually fret over these decisions. The discussion that follows isn’t about the obvious choices, it concerns the nuances that make you second guess.
The big knife
For riders across most of the world, where flat land dominates, the wheel that makes the most sense is the Zipp 404. That’s the simple truth. The weight penalty is more than overcome by the aerodynamic gains. Why deny yourself that aerodynamic advantage? Now, that said, there is a caveat to that selection. If you’re a light rider and you live in a place where the wind is a frequent training partner and if gusts are an issue, you may want to consider selecting a different front wheel, such as a 303 or 202.
There’s a lot of new technology that addresses the wind’s input on steering. Zipp’s Firecrest, Enve’s SES and HED’s Jet rim shapes have all used a rounded spoke bed that has fundamentally changed how the wind affects the wheel. Not only are the aerodynamics better, but the handling, as I’ve written previously, is much better than the previous generation of V rims. My first experience with Firecrest was on a pair of 808s and the on-shore breeze in the afternoons here can push me around as easily as a pro defensive lineman. The 808s were so easy to deal with in crosswinds I wondered if I was on Punk’d. It’s worth noting that Tom Boonen told me he starts every race, except for cobbled ones, with a 404 front and an 808 rear.
Where the 404 becomes an issue is on climbs. Its aero advantage disappears at speeds below 20 mph and then there’s the extra rotational mass of the deep rim to consider. But the issue the 404 faces is less going uphill than dealing with changes in terrain. When I’m on climbs that change grade the liability I encounter is in trying to accelerate the bike when the grade lessens. It’s not a huge issue, but the 404 flat-out doesn’t accelerate as easily as the 202. I think if I were riding in the Rocky Mountains consistently, where downhill speeds can easily eclipse 50 mph and the grades on climbs can often hover around 5 percent, I’d still go for the 404, but in the undulating grades of California’s coastal mountain ranges, there’s another wheel I prefer.
The 202 Firecrest is a wheel I was excited about even while it was still on the drawing board. It features the same 16.25mm clincher bead width as the 404, giving the tire a bigger footprint for superior traction in corners (handy when descending), but at only 1343g for a set, as opposed to 1562g for the 404s. That’s not a huge difference in weight, but as all of the difference can be found at the rim; you notice it any time you start winding up the wheels. The combination of aerodynamics and low weight make it a climber’s dream, but only if your heart is set on clinchers.
The 202 does feel faster than a traditional box-rim wheel, but I can’t say that I sense the difference between it and the 303. However, on the flats and on descents, I hit higher speeds with the 404. I also notice a difference on descents between the 202 and the 404: The shallower 202 is more maneuverable in turns. By contrast, the 404 feels more stable and gives me confidence at speed.
I can’t stress enough how impressed I was with this wheel’s strength when I went down back in October. I went from 30 to zero in about the amount of time it takes to sneeze. The front wheel, which is what did the stopping, didn’t even come out of true. While Zipp wheels do flex some side-to-side, the incident did a lot to confirm for me how much stronger their rims are than they once were.
The wheel of all trades
And so what of that in-between depth of 40 to 50mm? If your home terrain has got a few sustained climbs of at least 5k, hills like politics has liars or roads bumpy as a bipolar’s emotional life, then the 303 may be your ideal choice. It’s a wheel that is light enough to climb well and yet still packs a powerful punch on the flats. It has gotten great play as a stout wheel for cyclocross and races involving pavé. Featuring the widest rim in the Zipp stable, the 303 yields the broadest tire footprint if any Zipp wheel, making it preferable for anyone concerned about tire adhesion in corners.
At 1478g, the 303 isn’t much lighter than the 404, but I’ve experienced them as being much easier to accelerate, or at least what passes for me accelerating. It makes them more cooperative on climbs while still lending a powerful aerodynamic edge on the flats and descents.
It’s worth noting that Enve has taken a slightly different approach to their SES-series wheels. Rather than using the same rim front and rear, Enve uses a shallower rim in the front. The 3.4 wheels use a 35mm-deep rim front and a 45mm-deep rim in the rear. Practically speaking, it’s like running a front 202 and rear 303. The 6.7 wheels use a 60mm-deep rim in the front and a 70mm-deep rim in the rear. The front is effectively a 404 while the rear splits the difference between a 404 and an 808.
If you’re only going to buy one set of Zipp wheels, chances are the 202 won’t be the best choice. I can only see buying the 202 if you live in a place that is binary—either up or down. I know there are people out there who think about purchasing high-zoot wheels for race day and saving them for special occasions. I’m not down with that thinking. Any day you put a great set of wheels on your bike is a special occasion. They, after all, are not like a bottle of wine which is destined to last but a single night. You don’t have to work very hard to take care of any of these wheels, so you can do consistent miles on them without fear that each ride is death by yet another paper cut.
I can’t claim that can always feel the improvement in aerodynamics of the 4o4 over the 303 or the 303 over the 202. On long, fast flats, my sense is that I’m just faster. I’m usually going too hard to reason my way through it at the time. But I seem to have a lot of good days with the 404s. What I can say for sure is that the 404 is noticeably faster than the 202; I’ve swapped the two out and been able to note the improved speed, even when the switch was one day to the next.
Coastal California isn’t like most of the rest of the world, though. The world is, for cycling purposes anyway, flat. Most places I’ve ever visited merit the 404. And that’s a handy thing. Whether you consider the 404, Enve’s SES 6.7, HED’s Stinger 5 or any of a host of other options, the real point is that once you have a chance to ride with your friends over known roads, you’ll be amazed at the advantage the wheels give you. Granted, some of these flat places experience a lot of wind. Even with the rounded profile of a rim like Firecrest, there can still be some steering input. For lighter riders who want some aero advantage with as little steering input as possible, I’d suggest a front 202 with a rear 404 or a set of wheels like the Enve 3.4.
There are a great many products that might increase your enjoyment on the bike, but very few I can swear will make you faster. For purely selfish reasons I should probably shut up so that the guys I ride with don’t all start buying aero wheels, but that would really violate the spirit of this site. We want you to have fun out there, and there’s no denying that more speed is more fun.
For all those of you who fell in love with the Castelli San Remo Speedsuit, this is the thermal ‘cross version. It features heavier-weight Roubaix Lycra for cold conditions and though the sleeves are longer, they are cut just to elbow length (just longer than) because Castelli’s research showed most racers were pushing up the sleeves on their long-sleeve skinsuits. Pricing on the custom San Remo Speedsuits is surprisingly good, though the number you buy will influence your final price. I have a covet.
Parlee showed a new frame set in the Enve booth. Long known for truly cutting-edge work in carbon fiber, the new Z0 rivals the very finest work any of the big guys are doing, while offering completely custom geometry. The frame will weigh in the neighborhood of 750 grams, depending on size and while the price hasn’t been announced, it will run upward of $5k.
Internal cable routing for either mechanical or electronic groups is one of the many, choice features of the frame.
The appearance of the new Z0 is as simple as it is elegant. Gone are the abrupt lug transitions of its predecessors. What you see now are the smooth lines of other monocoque frames. And that’s how Bob Parlee describes the frame—monocoque. Yes, it features eight tubes constructed by Enve, but what really brings those elements together in what appears to be an essentially seamless unit is Parlee’s incredible workmanship and skill. In a nod to what other companies have found regarding stiffness, the Z0 will feature a tapered head tube with 1 1/8-inch top and 1 1/4-inch lower bearings. That’s still not as big as most companies, but Parlee said it’s an effort to balance the needs of the all-day rider versus the need for performance. Speaking of the needs of the all-day rider, the z0 will accommodate 28mm tires. Yeah, it’s like that.
Parlee also showed this disc-brake version of the new Z0. They expect it to be a standard option soon. Making the bike all the more attractive was the powder blue with orange paint scheme that recalls the Ford GT40, arguably one of the more iconic cars ever created.
Stages Cycling introduced a new power meter that will go for $699 and is contained entirely within the non-drive-side crank arm. It is both bluetooth and ANT+ compatible so it can talk to any device you’re running, including your iPhone or Android. They’ve inked agreements with most crank arm manufacturers so nearly any crank you might be running is available.
The StageONE power meter has been in development for more than two years and while it might not do everything that an SRM does, the vast majority of us don’t need quite the level of detail that it provides. Honestly, I don’t care if I’m using a power meter that’s off by 10 watts, so long as it’s consistent, nor do I care that much about an imbalance in my leg strength; I have neither the time nor inclination to head to a gym to solve one relatively minor problem. I think the real genius in this is that: A) it adds only 20 grams to the bike’s weight and B) if you’re running the same group on multiple bikes, you can conceivably swap the crank arm from time to time so that you can enjoy wattage data from more than one bike while still enjoying your choice of wheel sets.
I can’t say that anything I saw at Enve was new. I couldn’t help but stop by their booth because of the number of cool bikes they had and I’m eager for a chance to ride some of the new Smart system wheels in carbon clincher. A chance just to look at them is too good to pass up.
Polar has a new wrist unit GPS. Okay, so wrist units strapped to a handlebar are sooo 1990s (they’ll have a handlebar-specifc unit for 2013), but the entry by Polar into the GPS game is pretty interesting. The genius of Polar has never been the units themselves, it was always the software and firmware. The company has always been fixated on helping users analyze their training so they get the most out of each workout. The RC3 GPS includes a full suite of GPS features plus Polar’s Smart Coaching software which provides a viable alternative to products like Training Peaks.
The RC3 GPS bike package includes a heart rate monitor chest strap plus cadence sensor and goes for $369.95. It’s also worth noting that while the usability of Polar units has long been in question (they can be more complicated to operate than a Rubik’s Cube), the RC3 GPS was terrifically easy to operate, with a minimum number of button presses to start a workout.
Also worth noting is that Polar is now selling a bluetooth compatible heart rate monitor chest strap. So for all of you out there who run Strava on your iPhone while it sits in your jersey pocket, this is a way to record heart rate data without a dongle. Not just cool, damn cool.
I got my first look at the Sufferfest videos over at the Minoura booth. Minoura has been making solid trainers for ages; I had one back in the 1990s that I put 1000 miles on in a single winter.
It’s a winter I don’t wish to repeat. However, if I had to, the Sufferfest videos with their funny copy, imperative instructions and first-rate race footage could make an hour go by like 15 minutes, and anyone who has ever spent time on a trainer knows that the world usually works the other way around. It doesn’t hurt that if you buy a Minoura trainer you get a Sufferfest DVD with the unit. I can say that the only way I made it through that aforementioned winter was by watching VHS tapes I had recorded of any/all racing that appeared on TV. The Sufferfest video boils the action down into crafted workouts that are both structured and fun to watch, if not to do.
Which is the point, I suppose.
This would be a detail from a Pegoretti frame. ‘Nuff said.
Giordana and DMT have gone big on neon yellow. For everyone who has associated the color popularized as “Screaming Yellow” by Pearl Izumi as the mark of a new cyclist, get ready to have your assumptions nullified like so many Florida votes. If Giordana has any say in it, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of this seemingly battery-powered color on the road. Whether it’s an offense to your eyes or your aesthetics (or both) having a few more of us out in this color can’t help. We might be seen with more frequency and if your average texting driver gets the idea that free-range cyclists are more common, then they might thumb-LOL their friends a bit less. Which would be good for our survival, huh?
Let’s see, it’s corporate and smacks of the kind of branding tie-in that results in Jack Daniels’ BBQ sauce at chain eateries like T.G.I. Friday’s. But dude, something about this screams summer day and, “Have a Coke and a smile.” Which it did. Make me smile, that is. The folks at Nirve are no dummies. It’s a Coke crate on wheels screaming with the Dopamine bliss of ice cold sugar and caffeine. I don’t just like this bike, I want it, but only if I can get it complete with the banner.
There’s a reason why companies like Trek, Giant and Specialized are working hard to squeeze lines like Focus and Felt out of their dealers. They are offering killer values. The Cayo Evo 6.0 in the foreground retails for a measly $2150 and features the exact frame as its more expensive Cayo Evo counterparts. The drivetrain is Shimano 105 with an FSA crank and Fulcrum wheels. Its big brother, the Cayo Evo 1.0 goes for $4500 and comes equipped with Campy Chorus and Vision wheels.
Of all the technological endeavors within cycling, the research and development being poured into new wheel designs has been run on more CFD software, used more wind tunnel time has attracted more talent than any other. So why are wheels such a hot area of interest? Well the simple answer is that no other component on the bike has realized aerodynamic gains as readily as wheels. Of all the component on a bike, no other has the capacity for gains that wheels do. Carbon fiber gives engineers a palette limited only by imagination and Asian manufacturing is plentiful enough that one can find a ready and willing partner for manufacturing.
But making a great set of wheels is more than just carbon fiber and aerodynamics. There are hubs to consider, spokes, lacing and even tension. Get any one of these wrong and your wheels will need attention after each and every ride. It’s not enough to be serviceable; a good wheel must be able to be ridden day after day without need for attention. Reliability, then, can be said to be of equal importance to all other considerations.
I’ve ridden close to a dozen different wheel sets in the last year. The single most recurring issue I’ve experienced are wheels that don’t stay true. If I can go through the first three rides on a set of wheels without needing to touch them up, I’m amazed. Now, that might seem like a high bar to pass, but I learned 20 years ago that a wheel brought into true under very low tension and then gradually brought up to tension is much more likely to stay true because of even tension on the spokes. Unequal tension on spokes is the killer, and all you need to do to test for tension on spokes is to tap each of the spokes with a screwdriver—a fancy tensiometer is not required. If you hear the same ting, ting, ting, ting as you tap each spoke, the tension is consistent. Wheels that were brought up to tension before they were perfectly true (both laterally and vertically) will ting, tang, tong—you get the picture. Pitch has a direct relationship to tension. Now, back to that need to touch up a set of wheels: If a set of wheels is brought into true at low tension, and then gradually brought up to tension, the wheels won’t go through that equalization period that often sees wheels move a bit once they are ridden. They’ll be as true following ten rides as they are following one.
Fundamentally, this is an argument for hand-built wheels.
Which is what brings us to Wheelbuilder. Based here in Southern California, Wheelbuilder gives you all the selection you might ever hope for with your local bike shop, the in-stock levels only available with the Internet and the skill of a crew of guys who do nothing but build wheels all day. Of course, they are an Internet retailer which carries a certain pejorative, but the knock against online merchants was always that they undercut the prices of local bike shops. Wheelbuilder’s business model is pretty different. You pick the rim, the spokes and the hubs, plus any other accessories you might need and then they build the wheels to your specs and ship them to you; start-to-finish, the process can takes days depending on the shipping option you choose. If choosing what kind of spokes and nipples is a bit more Commander Data than you want to go, it’s easy enough to call them for some guidance.
The wheels I rode were Enve 3.4 tubular rims laced to a PowerTap rear hub and a Chris King front hub. They glued up a set of Vittoria CX tubulars, so out of the box, all I had to do was install a cassette and skewers and I was ready to go. According to Wheelbuilder’s wheel-weight calculator, these things were a remarkable 1565 grams. That’s a pretty stunning weight considering there is a PowerTap hub, and it isn’t even CycleOps lightest model. As I like to say, neat trick.
Enve’s SES rims were designed in conjunction with Simon Smart, an aerodynamicist known for his work in Formula 1, and having designed Giant’s Trinity and Scott’s Foil. To the degree that any aerodynamicist might be a household name to a bunch of skinny guys with odd tan lines, Smart’s is it. Enve is emphatic that while their SES (Smart Enve System) rims were introduced shortly after Zipp’s Firecrest design was unveiled, they are not a copycat design. Like Firecrest, they are wide and feature a rounded design that comes from treating the spoke bed as a second leading edge, rather than as a trailing edge. As proof, in our meeting at PressCamp Enve’s Jason Schiers pointed out that rim development takes longer than the scant months that passed between the debuts of Firecrest and SES. Unlike Firecrest, SES rims are front- and rear-specific. In the case of the 3.4s the front rim is 35mm deep while the rear is 45mm deep (hence the 3.4 name). The front rim has an outer width of 26mm, while the rear was 24mm wide.
Schiers stressed that there was another important difference between SES and Firecrest. It’s their opinion that Firecrest can be a bit unpredictable in handling in crosswinds. Their desire was to have a wheel that responded to crosswinds in a very predictable and progressive fashion. So while a front 3.4 rim experiences more steering input in a crosswind than a box rim, it’s still not as much as a traditional deep-section wheel.
There’s another aspect of tension that has a bearing on wheel longevity. High tension is important because it prevents rider/bike weight from cycling spoke tension down to zero when the spoke passes the 6 o’clock position. That’s where a spoke’s tension is lowest and if a spoke is de-tensioned sufficiently (it doesn’t have to be all the way to zero), the nipple will begin to loosen. This bad. A wheel built with high tension prevents this from happening. But high tension is no panacea. It comes with its own set of problems. The wheel builder in question must be skilled and a wheel built with high tension has an even greater need for uniformity of tension because problems with high tension cause more noticeable problems. Overdo tension and you can break rims and nipples, or just shorten their lifespan to less than a season.
What I’ve been leading up to is that these wheels I received from Wheelbuilder were possibly the best-built set of wheels I’ve encountered in the last several years. I don’t have six months of riding on them (less than two months, in fact), so I don’t have the ability to report on long(er)-term durability, but I can say that the day I packed them up to go back, I spun each wheel on my truing stand and they were every bit as true as when I received them. I wish that was the case for more wheels I ride.
If ever I had doubted Zipp’s claims about Firecrest, the 3.4 rims would have put those doubts down like a lame horse. They were remarkably stable in crosswinds, and like the 303s felt more like a box rim in windy conditions than deep section wheels. I most liked these wheels on hilly rides, when having a light rim is helpful for accelerating the wheel following steep ramps on a climb. We’ve got a lot of climbs near me that don’t do Colorado-style consistent 5 percent grades. No, around here you’ll have a good 8 percent section followed by 100 feet of 13 percent and then a few hundred meters of 6 percent. Being able to accelerate once the pitch goes down is as important as eating while you’re on the bike.
Most of all, these wheels are fast. It was on descents that the extra speed was most apparent. Because an aerodynamic wheelset’s advantage increases as your speed increases, I noticed that on descents I was often entering turns with higher-than-anticipated speed. I braked on a few turns that I don’t normal tap the stoppers on. They were also really helpful on group rides any time I needed to stick my nose in the wind.
I took these wheels down some of Malibu’s home-wrecker descents (there can be hell to pay when someone goes down here) and melted neither rim nor glue. Whew. I’ll add that I was so impressed with the braking performance of the 3.4 rims that I’d really love to ride the carbon clincher version. These rims rival Zipps’ rims for braking consistency and power, so similar are they to traditional aluminum rims.
Now for the shoe to drop. These wheels are, to use a Southernism, “dear.” At $3080, they are more expensive than many good bikes. That’s about all I’ve got to say on the price. If it seems to you like that’s crazy money, well then it probably is. If it just seems like you need to take your sweet one out for the weekend before mentioning you’d like to pick a set of these up, well then bully for you. And if you’re asking the question just who is good enough to deserve these wheels, well then you’re missing the point.
Marketing materials indicate what a company values in telling it’s story. Wheelbuilder spends more time discussing the building of wheels and what goes into a good wheel than anyone else out there, but marketing materials are no substitute for good work. Again, my experience with Wheelbuilder’s build quality is limited, but during the time I had, I was impressed.
I’m in Park City, Utah, attending Press Camp, an event organized by Lifeboat Events. One of the partners in Lifeboat Events is Lance Camisasca, the former director of the Interbike trade show. Press Camp is a trade event for bike companies to get serious face time with the media. Sessions are broken into 45-minute blocks, of which I routinely ran over, but we’ll get to that.
That Camisasca is the former director of Interbike probably says something about where he thinks the industry is headed and whether or not he thinks there’s a problem with Interbike’s business model. As a means to reach the media, in only one day here, I have to say that I think it is entirely more effective. I was able to have real conversations with people in the industry, some of whom I previously knew, some of whom I didn’t, and discuss their product line in some depth without having someone interrupt us to ask for some stickers.
The funny thing about the increased time allotted for meetings is that I still never seemed to get through anyone’s full product line. For me, most of my mission was to identify products that I would be interested in reviewing at a later time.
I really welcomed the opportunity to meet the team behind NeilPryde bikes. The Bura SL, shown above, was really impressive. If the numbers I saw are accurate, it has one of the highest stiffness-to-weight ratios of any bike on the market. While they are doing a number of interesting bikes, this one was particularly interesting.
This frame features an asymmetric seat tube design without sacrificing any BB stiffness. And while all the engineering that goes into their frames appears to be very well done, I didn’t expect a brand new to cycling such as NeilPryde to have the ability to surprise me with weight and stiffness numbers that rival those from companies like Cervelo and Cannondale.
Stan’s NoTubes has moved into wheel production and these three rims show the evolution of one of their rims. Material was added at the spoke bed (center and left) as well as at the bottom of the brake track to increase lateral stiffness.
Of the many products out there I get requests for, perhaps the single most frequent category I’ve heard about in the last six months to a year is road tubeless. We’ll be rectifying that omission in the near future. I’ll make sure to ride some tubeless-specific wheels as well as convert some ordinary wheels to tubeless. Should be fun.
Guru seems to be best known for the carbon fiber bikes. What you may not know is that they started with TIG-welded steel bikes and then moved into titanium and aluminum before moving into Scandium. No matter what frame material you’re interested in, their delivery time is stunning. Few companies can offer a bike in less than a month, and Guru is delivering.
Guru has been on my radar for some time. I’ve been aware of the brand and some of their successes in racing, particularly in triathlon. That said, I’d never seen one of their titanium bikes up close. We’re discussing a review of one of their bikes and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’m as interested in their titanium bikes as I am their carbon fiber ones. That just doesn’t happen.
This helmet by Kali Protectives can be used either for cross country or the road; the visor is removable. What was most interesting about Kali’s helmets was that they are using a much lower density foam closest to the head. By using lower density foam more energy is dissipated before the head feels any impact. To use the lower density foam the vent holes have to be smaller and less frequent, but in the event of a crash that results in head impact, you could be substantially less traumatized.
I’ve been itching to get a chance to discuss Enve’s new Smart System rims and wheels. I’m currently finishing up a short-term review of a pair of wheels built with the 34 rims. And they were nice. The wheels that Enve’s Jason Schier and Simon Smart most wanted to discuss were the 67 (BTW: don’t say “sixty-seven,” say six-seven”). This is the mid-depth of the three wheels and it’s the one where they claim the greatest benefit of the new rims comes into play. Stay tuned.
Plot spoiler: These are the finest wheels I’ve ever ridden in my life.
There. That’s out of the way. Now that I’ve eliminated any sense of drama from this review, I can get down to the matter at hand and discuss the experience of riding Zipp’s standard-bearer wheelset.
There’s an arms race in cycling that’s been escalating over the last 10 years. I think back on the most I could spend on a set of wheels or even a whole bike 10 years ago versus the colossal $2700 that these wheels go for and I choke. There’s nothing else in my life that has escalated as badly over that time, save the housing market and we see what happened with that. Somehow, I don’t see Zipp, HED or Lightweight wheels suddenly dropping in both price and value—not now, not in the future.
The math on this is difficult to avoid. For that much money you could outfit an entire Girl Scout troop with iPhones. Or you could provide the entire U.S. Army with bubble gum. Or you could purchase a single set of wheels that would do more to improve your performance than an extra two hours of training per week can.
These wheels are so sophisticated I could probably write about them for the rest of the week and not divulge any of Zipp’s trade secrets. The 404s possess three distinct features that have caused me to come to the conclusion I did.
First and foremost is the Firecrest rim shape. While I am aware that one of Zipp’s competitors claims to have arrived at the rounded rim profile at the same time as Zipp, the fact is when Zipp came out with Firecrest at Interbike in 2010, their competitors talked crap about the silly shape. The trick to Firecrest is that it treats the half of the rim behind the axle as a leading edge and that blunt shape improves the rim’s aerodynamics dramatically. The most surprising aspect of this is what is called vortex shedding.
Those of you who have ridden deep-section carbon rims and been buffeted by the wind have experienced vortex shedding. Every time the airflow attaches to the rim surface and then breaks free from it the wheel is buffeted and you feel it at the bar. That’s not even the most dramatic feature of the Firecrest shape. This is:
It’s more stable in a crosswind.
The rim shape causes a change in the wheel’s center of pressure. It’s a crazy term for the point of leverage the wind has on a wheel; it’s a very east-to-feel phenomenon. Ride a deep-section wheel in a crosswind. If the wind is blowing from right to left, you’ll be steered to the left. That’s because the center of pressure of most wheels is forward of the steering axis. Firecrest, on the other hand, shifts it almost in-line with the steering axis. Ride a Firecrest wheel in a crosswind and you’ll feel almost no pressure on the wheels. It’s a bit more complicated than that, as the way a rim sheds a vortex changes slightly as the wheel spins; the center of pressure can actually shift behind the steering axis slightly, steering you into the wind instead of pushing you across the road. It’s a remarkable sensation and results in a real increase in confidence compared to riding other deep-section wheels.
How good an idea is Firecrest? Well, after bagging on it as crazy, both HED and Enve have moved all their wheels in that direction. And while competitors may be trying to emulate the vortex shedding properties of Firecrest, they can’t copy the golf-ball-like surface of the ABLC (Aerodynamic Boundary Layer Control) that keeps the air moving by the rims.
If you were to buy a set of 404s for only one reason, Firecrest would be it. No other deep-section wheel I’ve ridden is as stable as the 404 Firecrest.
The Carbon Clincher technology is my next most favorite feature of these wheels. The time I spend in Malibu riding with friends means I’ve either personally melted or seen melted wheels by every manufacturer except Zipp and Easton. Last summer a small group of us did the now notorious descent of Las Flores Canyon. I rode the 404s and didn’t have a bit of trouble, despite some firm braking at times. After reaching the bottom I waited more than five minutes for a friend to arrive. He was concerned his ultra-zoot wheels from a certain German manufacturer would melt, so he stopped three times to let them cool off. Granted, this guy weighs a good 30 or 40 pounds more than I do, but if you can’t take a mountain descent on a set of wheels, what good are they?
Other than the fact that they don’t melt—which is reason enough to take note—they do have one other detail that make these clinchers pretty killer: The rim width. Roughly 25mm wide, any clincher you mount on these wheels can be removed with no tire lever (sweet) and gives the tire a much wider footprint, increasing traction without—I’m told—increasing rolling resistance (amazing). There is a however, here, however. Setting up brakes for a rim this wide isn’t easy and you have to adjust the brake shoe angle because of the angled braking surface. Swapping out these wheels for another set is going to result in at least a half hour of work, if not more.
The wheels’ next best feature are the 88/188 hubs. They are an improvement on the previous iteration of the hubs with which I experienced near constant creaking. Really effing annoying. These are stiffer and don’t creak. What is more impressive is how these things roll. Zipp uses grade 10 ball bearings in the hubs. That is, they are accurate to .10 of an inch. That 2.5 times as round as the grade .25 balls used in Dura-Ace and Record hubs.
You may not think that’s particularly impressive, but I can say from experience that when I’m inside a group, the combination of superior aerodynamics and fast-rolling hubs causes me to hit my brakes to modulate my speed because I begin rolling up on riders in front of me when we’re coasting.
My set weighed in at 1562 grams, just a couple grams off the advertised weight. I’ll call it even. The combination of aerodynamics and weight mean that they are not only killer on the flats, but they are light enough to be reasonable climbers.
Engineers at two different bike companies told me off the record they have taken a number of wheels to the wind tunnel to test with their TT bikes. Both said that tire choice has a huge effect on aerodynamics. Even so, both also said that no other wheels they have tested are as versatile as the 404s.
Here’s the strange thing I’ve noticed about riding with the 404s. While I have many friends who will train on heavy wheels and save the good stuff for race day, in reviewing these wheels, I didn’t have that luxury. I needed to get miles on them right away. Oh, and I’m not really racing, so there’s that, too. With the addition of the 404s, the increase in aerodynamics gave me enough of an edge that I was able to get to the front of the group rides more easily. That, in turn, gave me the ability to stay at the front more. The upshot may seem counterintuitive; the wheels didn’t make the ride easier for me. They made it easier for me to get to the front and flog myself more, rather than sitting in the pack just trying to hold on to my spot. It seems I train harder with faster wheels.
Honestly, suffering more—not less—is the last thing in the world I expected to have happen.