Every now and then I encounter a product that defies expectations. It can be a bike from a storied brand that rides like a Huffy, or it can be something I suspect will be absolute junk that turns out to be at least silver if not gold. That very thing happened to me on the first day of Winter PressCamp.
Before I arrived and got my schedule I had no idea who or what Infinity Cycling was. New brands come and go from cycling like African governments, so I didn’t feel like I’d been remiss in my duties in not finding out just what this company did. Upon walking over to their booth, I noticed a bunch of saddle prototypes plus some old saddles and then something that was more air than saddle.
I’m going to be perfectly honest and admit I groaned a bit—on the inside. When I looked at the saddle my mind immediately went to the Selle SMP. I’d ridden one—for less than 10 miles—some years ago. I made the mistake of putting it on one Friday night and on Saturday morning I rolled out for the training ride and had to turn around before I was half-way there because the thing was so uncomfortable for me. I missed the ride as a result of the saddle swap and I found myself angry over that stupid detail. While the anger subsided, my dislike of the saddle never did. I’m aware there are people who like, even love, that saddle. My body won’t budge on that detail. So when I spied the Infinity saddle, I groaned.
Here’s why: I didn’t want to have a meeting with someone and be polite about a product that wasn’t going to work for me. I don’t like lying to people. But I didn’t want to argue with someone about how the saddle design did little more than hurt me. And how could any saddle design with less surface area than a Selle SMP not hurt worse than that saddle.
Here’s the funny thing: I was wrong. I sat down—albeit in jeans—and then proceeded to pedal a spin-type bike. The way you sit on the saddle requires what appears to be a significantly higher saddle position than you might expect but there was no denying that I was pedaling without pain or a constant need to shift. I reveled in being perfectly honest. I told its design, Dr. Vincent Marcel—he’s a chiropractor—that I was uncomfortable on the Selle SMP and as a result expected not to be comfortable on his saddle. I can’t help but wonder just how many times he’s heard something similar.
To his credit, he has located a number of people who believe in his design, even without riding it. To bring the saddle to market he used a Kickstarter campaign and raised nearly $800,000, more than 700 percent more than his goal. His is a classic Kickstarter success story.
I can’t say if this saddle will be comfortable over a 100-mile ride, but I’m confident I could do 20 miles on it without regret. One notable detail about it is that it’s a real one-position saddle; it’s not like a Fi:zi’k Arione on which you can slide forward and back at will. Philosophically, it’s much closer to the Aliante, a much more contoured saddle.
Reynolds Cycling was the first company to put a carbon clincher into large-scale production. That gave them an advantage in terms of market penetration but it also meant that early adopters satisfied with their wheels didn’t necessarily progress to their newer technology. I’m beginning with this shot of the inside of the rim to show just how clean their molding is. I’ve seen a lot of carbon wheels and that level of precision at the inner wall and bead hook isn’t common.
We spent much of our session discussing their Aero line of wheels which includes four different depths: 46mm, 58mm, 72mm and 90mm. These wheels range from $2675 to $2975 and are the wheels most directly meant to be competitive with Zipp, Enve and the like. While the wheels are a traditional deep-V design, I’m told they’ve worked on the rim shape to make them more stable in cross winds, and while I haven’t had a chance to ride them yet, I can at least report from previous experience that not all deep-V rims are created equal when it comes to crosswinds.
One of the questions I posed to Reynolds’ Paul Lew was whether the company had found in wind tunnel if a particular brand of tire resulted in better aero performance. Their answer surprised and intrigued me. He said that thanks to that little notch you see in that rim cross-section above that comes just beyond the brake track, differences between different tires are really minimized. Their testing showed that 23mm tires definitely are performing better than 25s or anything deeper, but that notch is meant to neutralize the difference between tire profiles so that you can run any tire you like and not suffer a penalty. It’s a fascinating concept; I hate the idea that I’m going to be slower if I run Tire A rather than Tire B.
Given the amount of resistance I encounter from readers any time I review a set of wheels that get north of $2500, I have to admit that I was especially interested in Reynolds’ Performance line of wheels. Three wheels comprise the line: the 29mm Attack ($1575), the 41mm Assault SLG ($1800) and the 90mm Strike SLG ($1900). I know that’s still a fair amount of money for a set of wheels but it’s a chance to get first-rate American production along with what I’m hearing is stellar braking thanks to Reynolds’ CTg technology, which stands for Cryogenic Glass Transition, which is really just a fancy way of saying they’ve put a lot of effort into matching their brake pad compound with the resin used in their wheels. They’ve also introduced a new, larger brake pad, the Cryo-Blue Power which reportedly offers a 33-percent increase in braking power in dry conditions and a 42-percent increase in braking power in wet conditions. I’m intrigued by the possibility that a set of carbon wheels might actually brake better in wet conditions than an aluminum clincher. I’ve got a set of the brake pads and am just waiting on a set of wheels to review.
I’ve written previously how I was not an electric bike believer even despite having an experience that gave me an ear-wide grin. What changed my opinion was when I considered the impact that electric bikes could have on society. Every additional person riding an e-bike who didn’t used to ride at all, or rode less is another person who thinks of him or herself as a cyclist. That’s one more person who sees the rest of us as like-minded souls, not the other. E-bikes have the ability to increase the range of those who might only have ridden in their own neighborhood previously, exposing them to more traffic and helping them appreciate how important a little extra room on the road can be.
In addition to helping evolve minds and making the roads safer, people using e-bikes to run errands and commute to work has the potential to reduce the number of cars on the road. That means less gas usage, lower emissions, fewer cars on the road which will reduce congestion, not to mention healthier people. There’s not another segment of cycling growing as fast as the e-bike category. And there’s always a chance that today’s e-bike enthusiast will be tomorrow’s new roadie. In my head there’s not a single downside to the e-bike.
This was my first chance to look at any of the bikes from Currie Tech. The first bike I rode was the eFlow E3 Nitro. At $3500, it’s not nearly as expensive as the Specialized Turbo and Currie offers a one-year same-as-cash financing deal. The motor sits in the rear wheel, which is the most common location for them. They hide (if you can call it that) the battery in the seat tube, which places that extra mass in-line with your body, making the bike pretty easy to handle.
The E3 Nitro gives the user a choice between a twist throttle (above) and just placing the bike in one of several modes that simply add to the wattage you put into the pedals. The name is a bit over the top, but the bike has a terrific, even zippy, feel. It’s the sort of thing that were my parents a decade or two younger, I’d recommend to them to keep them outside and active.
Just which mode the bike operates in can be selected easily with the plus and minus buttons on the left side of the computer. I fault the web site for deluging users with too much technical info. It’s tough to get high-end brands to publish that much info on their bikes, but for a purchase that seems unlikely to be overly analytical given the relative inexperience of the typical buyer, the web site is utterly overwhelming. It’s a shame because the bike itself isn’t.
Currie Tech also distributes the Haibike line of e-bikes. Haibike is a higher-end line of bikes for the more performance-oriented rider. The Haibike line includes a trekking bike (pictured above) plus a flat-bar road bike and a full-suspension mountain bike. They range in price from, on the low end, $4000 all the way up to $8600 for one of the full-suspension mountain bikes.
The bikes use Bosch’s transmission which puts the power into the crank. Selling points are that if you try to pedal with no power assist all you’re doing is pedaling a heavy bike, unlike bikes like the eFlow, which force you to overcome the generator, plus you can swap out wheels any time you want. Of course, the drive system is really noticeable, but you get better battery life with this system.
Users can select five modes of operation, from no assist at all to roughly a 300 percent assist; that is, nearly 3 watts added to every watt you put out. I nearly lost control of the bike when I goosed the pedals a bit too much as I was turning around in tight quarters. The trekking bike had particular appeal to me because it seemed better spec’d for commuting and errand running, thanks to the rack and fenders.
I have to admit that I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for me in terms of decreasing fitness. I’m much slower than I was 10 years ago, and while I think I’ve got the ability to get much of that lost ground back this year, I have to admit that there will come a point where my current fitness will become a year’s high-water mark. An electric assist bike may become my way of knocking out 80 miles when I’m 70 years old. It seems a weird thought, but I don’t have to make my peace with that today.
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.