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.
My history with Zipp products goes back 14 years. In that time I’ve ridden wheelsets that scared me, cranks I thought should have been more popular than the Beatles and bars that changed my expectations for all carbon handlebars. The overriding impression I’ve had is that of a company less satisfied with its own products than intimidated by the competition.
Were I to personify Zipp’s professional ambitions, I’d say they are a lot like Eddy Merckx was in 1972, which is to say, after picking up victory after victory as if he was strolling through the Europe’s most decadent buffet with a trash can-lid-sized plate, he went on to trounce the hour record. In talking with Zipp engineers, I’ve been struck by how they really don’t seem to give a damn what anyone else is doing. They seem to begin each day with a question—how do we improve our products? And to give full credit where due, when someone else does a nice piece of work, they are happy to hand out the compliments. It’s a classy touch.
Now, you can’t begin each day with a blank drawing board; a new wheel can take a year to develop. And yet, despite their ambitions, it’s not like Zipp hasn’t had the odd black eye, such as the wheel failures the Garmin-Chipotle team suffered at Paris-Roubaix in 2008. Thought to be former winner Magnus Backstedt’s last shot at a big performance, he broke both wheels on the cobbles and ended his day in the team car. But compare that with Tom Boonen’s performance at this year’s Hell of the North, where the Belgian regained his old form and rode away from the decimated field and crossed the line on a set of Zipp Firecrest 303s.
The 303 is Zipp’s third set of wheels to use its revolutionary Firecrest shape, coming on the heels of the 404s and 808s. And while the unusual shape was roundly mocked by some of their competitors, a quick check of HED and Enve web sites shows wheels with rims with a highly rounded spoke bed, not unlike the Firecrest shape.
For those of you who haven’t been following these developments—and admittedly the nerd factor goes critical almost instantly—here’s a little primer: Wind, as you know, is the single biggest factor in determining how fast you ride a bicycle. And crosswinds affect both speed and confidence; if you’re getting buffeted by a crosswind, you’ll tend to back off and focus on holding your line. Naturally, deep-section rims are more prone to steering input by the wind. Even though the wind will push on the whole of the wheel, a wheel’s design will determine just how much force the wind can exert on it. This is expressed as an imaginary spot called the wheel’s center of pressure. A traditional box rim with 28 spokes has a center of pressure that is a bit forward of the bike’s steering axis. As you increase rim depth (think typical deep-V carbon wheels) that center of pressure gets moved farther from the steering axis, giving the wind more leverage on that wheel, increasing its ability to push you around like a mop.
Deep-V rims were design with the idea that the rim was the trailing edge behind the tire. Firecrest treats the spoke bed as a second leading edge, if you consider the portion of wheel behind the steering axis. In rounding the rim profile at the spoke bed, Zipp ended up with a significantly more aerodynamic rim. It also resulted in a rather unexpected effect—it shifted the center of pressure behind the dropout to an area very near the steering axis.
I should mention here that center of pressure isn’t a single static location, which is why I used the term “area” rather than “point.” It, like center of gravity, moves around, but instead of body position determining it, center of pressure depends on yaw angle—where the wind is coming from.
Okay, so having said all that, what it boils down to is this: Crosswinds have very little effect on the 303 wheelset. Further, when the wind hits a front 303 the effect is to steer you ever so slightly back into the wind, but practically speaking my experience is that it simply cancels out the force of the crosswind against your body and the bike.
So how much faster is Firecrest? Zipp says 8 percent faster than their previous design; that number isn’t hugely encouraging given that wheels are only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall drag of a bicycle. At best, you’re going to realize a slightly more than 1 percent gain in speed. But the gain isn’t so modest as that. Because Firecrest is that much more stable than a traditional deep-section wheel, you can ride with greater confidence and if there is a wind, you needn’t back off your effort to concentrate on controlling the bike.
Firecrest has realized yet another benefit. The wide rim—Firecrest is 25.1mm wide at the top of the brake track and 27.5mm wide at the bottom of the brake track—increases rim strength, and while that’s cool and everything, as you well know, that also gives the tire a wider footprint for better traction in corners.
I’ve ridden a lot of carbon clinchers. Some I liked, some I detested (but that’s for another post). The 303s strike an unusual balance. They are unquestionably aerodynamic. While I haven’t taken these to the wind tunnel, what I can tell you is that at crunch time on fast group rides, the 303s have aided my efforts. I notice a little something extra when accelerating or when putting my nose in the wind. The set weighs in at 1478g (676g for the front and 802 for the rear) which isn’t super light, but when combined with their aerodynamic advantage they are my favorite wheel for big jumps. And on longer climbs, when I will tend to slow down if there’s any sort of uptick in grade, a lighter set of wheels like this make it noticeably easier to get back up to my previous speed.
Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to this aerodynamic beauty. If you’re riding a Specialized Tarmac SL4 or Venge, you shouldn’t plan to mount these wheels on it. There’s very little clearance between the inside of the chainstays and the maximum width of the rim. That hasn’t stopped some riders I know from trying it anyway and claiming it isn’t a problem, but still. That whole voided-warranty thing can be a bitch.
I’ve done most of my miles on these wheels on a Super Record-equipped bike. Prior to switching them to that bike I’ll say that I had the impression that they were unusually stiff wheels, laterally. For reasons I can’t explain, the rear derailleur will rub spokes on every wheel I’ve tried when I put the chain in the big cog and stand up. I was surprised to hear the derailleur ting on the spokes of the rear 303. So it may be laterally stiffer than some, but it’s not stiffer than everything.
So that’s lateral stiffness. Vertical stiffness is another story. At 110 psi—the pressure I run most tires on most wheels—the combination of the 303s with Zipp’s Tangente clinchers is the most comfortable wheel/tire combination I’ve ridden. The difference isn’t huge; it’s not like running 80 psi with tubeless, but it’s enough to take the sting out of the rear end of a Felt F1. I probably wouldn’t have been able to note the difference had I not been riding these and other wheels on such a stiff bike.
The one consistent issue I’ve had with Zipp wheels has been build quality. On more than one occasion I’ve ridden a stellar rim and great hub laced together with a marginal build (this isn’t an issue peculiar to Zipp, though). Loosening spokes has been a recurring theme. Or at least, it was. The 303s I’ve been riding—and I’ve got more than 800 miles on them—have yet to come out of true. It’s worth noting that due to their angled brake track, if a Zipp wheel isn’t perfectly true both horizontally and vertically there can be a pronounced effect on braking. A rider will experience a high or low spot as either more or less grab at the brakes. It’s not a dynamite experience, but one I’m pleased to say didn’t take place with these wheels.
Another note on braking: Carbon clinchers and braking performance haven’t been good bedfellows. Some are as grabby as a drunk in a topless bar. Others have all the stopping power of an alcoholic at a frat party. The set of 303s I’ve been riding offer the absolute best braking I’ve experienced in carbon clinchers. Okay, so you’re wondering just what I mean by best; it’s a worthy question. What I mean is that the braking response is more similar to a set of aluminum clinchers than anything else I’ve ridden. I don’t want more stopping power, nor do I want less stopping power. I want to switch between wheels and notice only the change in sound, if even that.
And we’re not done on braking: I rode these wheels in Malibu, taking them down descents that some riders are now being advised to avoid. I’ve killed some carbon clinchers in Malibu, which is interesting given that I brake as little as survival instinct will permit. Braking is, after all, antithetical to fun. I don’t know a lot about the resins that Zipp uses, but I have at my disposal two details worth considering: 1) they have on staff an engineer with a Ph.D. in resin chemistry and 2) I am to understand that the resin used in the brake track cures at a temperature higher than any of their competitors; the brake track can handle temperatures north of 700 degrees, more than 350 degrees higher than the resins used by some of their competitors. I’ve yet to kill a Zipp wheel in Malibu; I know no one else who has done it. It’s an unusual record.
When last I dated I ran across any number of women who described themselves as “the whole package.” They were bright. Well-adjusted. Educated (graduate degree). Professional. In child-bearing years and willing. Not just healthy, but hot. They knew what they were and they weren’t going to date some guy writing a screenplay at Starbucks while on unemployment. These Zipps are kinda like that. Which is why they can ask $2700 for them.
I saw a great number of items I was very excited to get on and ride. The new Zipp 303 topped my list. But before I get into that I need to make a disclosure:
I wrote this year’s Zipp catalog.
That makes me ripe for the criticism that I’ve been paid for, but I’d like to assert that’s not the case. Here’s why: I’ve been a fan of their products for a good 15 years. I was a fan of their stuff even after former CEO Andy Ording tore me a new one for not making a favorable review favorable enough. I was scared of him, but not of their products. I agreed to write the catalog because I revere their work and champed at the chance to look under the hood.
I separate my editorial work from my mar/com client work. They are different hats and the way I work, I can’t really take someone on as a client if I don’t believe in their work.
I know things about this wheel I really can’t reveal. What I can tell is that the combination of this rim depth with the Firecrest shape makes this wheel exceedingly light and fast. To find a wheel this light (1498 for carbon clincher set and 1198 for tubular set) and yet offer as much claimed aerodynamic advantage without imposing a handling penalty on the rider is difficult.
I can’t yet attest to the aerodynamics of this wheel, but I know firsthand how well the Firecrest shape works in the 404 and 808 and it is mind boggling. I can also attest to how fast the hubs are and how nice it is to corner on rims as wide as these because of the broader tire profile. I want to ride these things in the worst way.
I’ve often wondered why you couldn’t choose saddles based on how firm they are or why you couldn’t adjust how firm they are. I’m not talking Sleep Number Bed complicated, but what if you could adjust the saddle’s tension with a 5mm wrench under the saddle? Nevermind, Fi’zi:k finally took care of this.
The nose piece shown above comes in three slightly different lengths that adjust the tension of the saddle. Genius move. I’ve got an Antares that I’ll be riding very shortly.
Whether you ride the Arione, Aliante or Antares, you’ll be able to get this new version of the saddle and adjust it to your comfort level. I’ll be starting off with the soft … and wonder if I’ll have any desire to go firmer.
Too rare is it that bikes and kits are matched. This Indy Fab with Mill Valley’s Studio Velo kit by Capo had PRO written all over it.
Best pint glass of the show: The frosted Capo glasses.
My favorite steel road frame this year was this decidedly old-school Fondriest. I reviewed one of these back in ’98 and even though it was fairly flexy, it was a terrific frame from a handling standpoint.
The thing that clinched my love for this frame was the combination of stylish Italian paint and real chrome.
Yah, yah, I know chrome is about a green as Rick Perry, but I can’t not look. I wiped my drool off before leaving.
When it comes to ‘cross and cool, Ritchey’s Swiss Cross has always been a straight flush. Few bikes ever achieve this fine a marriage of style, utility and function. I harbor the suspicion that if while aboard this rig you yell “track,” the poor SOB ahead of you will look back and on seeing this bike, just get out of your way.
Maybe I can review one … from say October through Christmas.