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.
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.
The 2009 Tour de France is still being contested in Alberto Contador’s head. At least, if you follow the Spanish newspaper Marca, or most any other news outlet in Spain, it would seem that while Contador won the war, there is yet a PR battle to fight. Not a week has gone by without the paper running some story on the turmoil within Astana as reported by Contador or a teammate.
Lately, Contador’s target has been as much Bruyneel as Armstrong. He’s been quick to talk about the team’s politics and what he saw as Bruyneel’s attempts to isolate him within the team. It’s hard to say what the truth is and gossip has the value of sand at the beach, but one previous skirmish recently resurfaced that makes the situation a bit more curious.
At the end of the tour, everyone was abuzz about Contador having to catch a ride with his brother because all the team cars were shuttling Armstrong’s cadre. The first occasion was from atop Mont Ventoux, the second on the way to the final time trial. Bruyneel and Armstrong said Contador’s claims were completely false; we’ll never know.
What didn’t get the same level of attention was Contador’s claim that he didn’t get top quality equipment. The claim has been translated a few different ways, but the insinuation was that Armstrong had better equipment than Contador did. Until this week, there was really no way to know just what he meant.
As he said/he saids go, this gets a bit confusing. It begins with Contador statement he didn’t get top quality wheels and had to go buy wheels for the prologue in Monaco. Armstrong shot back and said Contador had exactly the same wheels as his teammates. This week, in a blog entry on Marca, writer Josu Garai wrote that Contador told him and members of Contador’s entourage “confirmed” that Contador purchased a set of Lightweight wheels. Yes, the ungodly expensive, handmade carbon fiber wheels that hail from the land of der Jan.
Well purchase them he may have, but race them he never did. I’ve gone back through the archives of John Pierce, Yuzuru Sunada and Roberto Bettini and viewed profile shots of Contador in each of the mountain stages and the time trials. In each of the shots you can see Bontrager logos on the wheels.
Now disc wheels are all pretty similar, right? So Contador could have been running a Lightweight disc in the rear and a deep-profile-rim wheel in the front, both with Bontrager decals, right? Not so fast. The Lightweight disc has a transparent finish to it, so that you can see the carbon fiber internal spoke pattern. It looks nothing like anyone else’s disc. Similarly, the Bontrager-branded, HED-designed H3 front wheel and Jet disc rear wheel look nothing like any Lightweight. Neither the H3 nor the Jet disc are offered at retail by Bontrager, but because Bontrager licenses HED technology, the re-branded wheels are done with both companies’ full knowledge and consent.
So that leaves the wheels that Contador used on the climbing stages. The high-flange appearance of the Lightweights really can’t be confused with the utter flanglessness of the Bontrager Race XXX Lite tubulars. The white spokes, the beveled rim profile, it’s a distinct look.
A quick e-mail to a source at Trek also confirmed what is standard practice with sponsors: Each Astana rider at the Tour had exactly the same equipment, right down to the slowest of the domestiques.
Is it possible that Bruyneel told the mechanics to withhold wheels from Contador? In theory, maybe, but again a quick check of the photos shows he’s on the same wheels as Armstrong and the rest, so that variety of crazy didn’t take place. It’s true that Armstrong’s bikes and wheels had unique decaling, but unique equipment wasn’t limited to Armstrong as evidenced by the all-white Madone Contador rode for most of the Tour and the personalized black and yellow bike he rode on stage 21 into Paris.
It’s not hard to understand the Spanish media’s dislike of Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel. Alberto Contador is a national hero and the media has largely portrayed the conflict between Contador and Armstrong as a Hatfield/McCoy blood feud.
That Contador is happy to be free of Armstrong should go without saying, but until Armstrong’s return to the sport, it seemed that Contador and Bruyneel had a good relationship. Since parting ways, Contador has been spare in his praise of his former director and Bruyneel has spoken openly of how he believed success went to the Tour champion’s head, making him harder to work with.
And what of Trek? Insiders there are mum on the point, but having the Tour de France champion claim he was shortchanged on equipment must smart.
No matter whether you take a side or not or whose side you take if you do, the claim by Contador that he didn’t get the same equipment as his teammates and had to go buy his own is absurd. It begs the question why he would say such a thing. Seemingly, being wronged by teammates, staff and sponsor make him an even greater champion in the eyes of his countrymen. But with the truth being as weird as it was, one can wonder why that story isn’t enough.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International