We tend to think of great achievements as unparalleled statements of personal belief. The great sporting performances, the great works of art, the great leaders, are easy to see as examples of uncompromising will. We like to think of Claude Monet as an artist without peer, yet even at the height of his powers he was aware of the work his contemporaries were doing, and often discussed them and their work in his letters.
We think of compromise as a kind of sacrifice, a net loss, something less than an individual’s pure art.
The Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers are an achievement borne of compromise. These aren’t the lightest wheels on the market. They aren’t the most aerodynamic wheels on the market. They aren’t the stiffest wheels on the market, nor are they the strongest. They aren’t even the best riding.
Sounds like they aren’t all that terrific, doesn’t it? Well that’s where the compromise helps. I’ve ridden the tubular 202 and have serious miles on the Firecrest 404s. The tubular 202s accelerated like a goosed cat and forgave over-geared climbing with the aplomb of an Irish priest. I’ve not ridden another wheel like them. On the other hand, the Firecrest 404s are a divine instrument of personal torture. Little else can inspire me to dig deeper than to look down at my Garmin and see 30 mph and know I still have a few beats in reserve. Not that it happens much, mind you, but going that fast is high-school-make-out fun. And if the only downside to riding that fast was chapped lips, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of this computer right now.
I flat-out have never ridden a wheel this light that wasn’t a liability aerodynamics-wise. Weight on the Firecrest 202s is 606 grams front, 737g rear and 1343g pair, significantly less than the advertised 1375g. Sure, there are lighter wheels out there, but wind tunnel tests say the traditional box rim throws 324g of drag when laced with the same spoke pattern as the 202s. By comparison, the hummingbird of the Zipp line throws only 131g of drag, for a 60 percent reduction in drag. Now, compare that to the 80g of drag of the Firecrest 404s.
Now consider the difference between the tubular 202s with the Firecrest Carbon Clincher 202s. The tubulars weigh what a lot of frames weigh—1115g. That’s 228g lighter than the clincher model and if the folks at Zipp were as bad at weighing the tubulars as they were the clinchers, that difference in weight is even greater, which is to say that the Bugatti Veyron doesn’t accelerate as quickly as these wheels do. The trick is, that weight loss is completely offset by the wheels’ unremarkable aerodynamics.
All the bike industry engineers I talk to are singing the same song: Weight is going to matter less and less. We’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. The real gains, as I’ve reported before, are going to be in aerodynamics. It took a while for me to become a believer, but I’ve ridden enough aero wheels and frames at this point that even if I didn’t want to believe, I’ve seen the results displayed before me on Strava. It took me months to understand why I set my fastest time down Decker Road in Malibu on a day where I really wasn’t trying hard to go fast. Finally, one day I recalled that on the day I’d bettered my previous top speed on that road by a full 2 mph (with no tailwind), I was riding the Cervelo S5. Oh. Ah. Right.
My sense is that on flat rides these wheels aren’t the liability other climbing wheels are. They are still an improvement over most of the aluminum wheels your friends are riding. But on climbs you’re going to have an easier time keeping your cadence up than if you were riding a heavier wheel. And if you’re an Eagle among frogs, an acceleration on these wheels will deliver dividends that will leave tongues lolling on stems.
It’s easy to focus on the Zipp rims and forget about the notable quality of the Zipp 88 and 188 hubs. Honestly, without the grade 10 bearings or ABEC 7 races, these wheels wouldn’t roll as fast or last as long. Because of the impending release of Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9000 11-speed group, the rear 202 came equipped with the new 188 V8 hub. It features a new axle and freehub to allow for 11-speed cassettes. Riders with existing 2012 wheels (black or gray hubs) can get them retrofit with the new freehub and axle. This new hub requires a slightly different dish to the wheel; increased dish is always a concern for wheel longevity.
In years past, Zipp wheels had a reputation for being, well, fragile. As I mentioned in my post, “What About the Bike?” when I crashed, my front wheel struck something and came to a stop with the sudden inaction of a computer freezing. It took me almost as long to understand what occurred. By that time, I was on the ground and as rearranged as a freeway guardrail. Days later I inspected the front 202. I’ve inspected it a few times and can’t find anything that looks like damage. It’s not even out of true.
The rear wheel did come out of true a bit in the first few weeks of riding—not badly, but it didn’t stay perfectly true. I continued to ride it that way for another two weeks just to see what would happen. I attribute the change to spoke creep/stretch/settling, but even under continued riding that initial loss of true did not increase.
Zipp wheels are expensive enough that they, like Assos clothing, come in for as much criticism as the Lakers on an off night. It might not be just how you want it, but there’s no denying they are good. Spending $2700 on a set of wheels just isn’t in the cards for a great many people; hell, I’ve got a baby on the way and I wouldn’t even bring this up to my wife right now. But there are other people, people who got graduate degrees that weren’t MFAs like mine. They got PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs. They were both smart and disciplined. To them, the spoils … and an extra 40 watts or so. But the alternative—open mold stuff—is the cycling equivalent of a Corvair: not as fast, not as well-made and unlikely to fair as well when safety is an issue.
On my first few fast descents on the 202s I had some questions about how they’d fair on the technical descents in Malibu. Just because I’ve never melted a Zipp wheel doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen. With less material to dissipate heat when compared to the 303s and 404s, I wondered if there was a chance that I could melt the brake track under hard, sustained braking.
Yeah, the answer to that would be no. Of course, should I get caught behind a slow-moving car on a mountain descent with no place to pull over, I’m confident I could eventually push these or any other carbon fiber wheel there.
Let me acknowledge yet again that these wheels are as easily afforded as a two-week binge on cocaine. Even if you come up with the scratch, there could be lasting consequences, right? And for those who occupy the same economic stratus that I do, let me suggest: Move along—nothing to see here. That said, there’s no reason to badmouth these wheels. They are the technological leading edge that will trickle down through production and in three to five years, you’re likely to see something nearly as fast as these for a third the price. Of course, by then Zipp’s wheels will be even faster.
Those who have the spare cash, however, can enjoy a wheel that’s faster than a box rim on the flats, climbs like Reinhold Messner, and handles like Fred Astaire dances. Sometimes, compromise ain’t a bad thing.
I’ve got something to share with you. Part of the cost of me being a total word nerd is that some turns of phrase in the bike industry drive me crazy. Case in point: Any time a magazine refers to a “review” as a “test.” The God’s honest truth is almost no one ever gets a piece of gear from a manufacturer with the express advance consent to destroy it by some scientific method. Sure, bikes get broken (been there, done that) and phone calls containing profuse apologies ensue (made them). But actually putting a bicycle frame or component on some sort of test rig so that you can push it to its absolute limit and then report on the particular method of failure isn’t something bike magazines routinely do.
The upshot is that what we all publish are best described as “reviews.” My opposition to the use of the word “test” is that it implies some sort of scientific evaluation. While I do my best to subject bikes and components to objective evaluations, there’s always a subjective element, a part of the experience, the appraisal, that cannot be reduced to raw numbers. As a result, it’s really rare that we are ever in a position to discuss failure mode on a first-hand basis.
That said, crashing can be a pretty effective way to find out just how strong a part is. When I went down in Tuna Canyon, I came as close as I’m likely to come to finding out about failure modes for a few different items. Some of you have asked what I was riding and how it fared. The bike that day was a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4 with the new SRAM Red and Zipp Firecrest 202 Carbon Clinchers.
Aside from my jaw and teeth, I can also claim to have thoroughly investigated failure modes for the S-Works Tarmac SL4 frame and fork, not to mention the S-Works Shallow Bend Carbon Fiber Handlebar, as well as the new Zipp 202s.
The final GPS sample taken just before my ill-fated face-first dismount indicated that I was traveling at 29.9 mph. That’s one true statement about the moments leading up to my crash. Here’s another: I never touched the brakes. I think it’s safe to conclude that by the time I buried my wheel in whatever I shoved it in with sufficient gusto to arrest my bike’s forward motion like a couple of drunks in a bar fight, I may have scrubbed a bit of speed, but it couldn’t have been anything significant. Of that last statement I’m certain for one simple reason: The time that elapsed between my bike stopping and me stopping was insufficient to allow me to tuck, roll or even get my hands or arms up to protect my head and face. When people talk about things happening in fractions of a second, I can tell you this was faster than love at first sight.
If ever there had been a time where I might have reported on riding something hard enough to break it, well, this would have been that occasion. Taking one for the readers. Occupational hazard. Being empirical. Whatever. The simple fact is that I didn’t break the handlebar. I didn’t break the fork. I didn’t break the stem. I didn’t break the frame and most impressive, I didn’t break the front wheel.
Let’s say that last one again, for emphasis: I didn’t break the front wheel. Hell, it didn’t even come out of true. While my face took the majority of the impact force, the front wheel did take a fair drubbing when it hit whatever it did to bring the bike to a stop and thrust me, tether-ball-like, over the bar.
I can recall my friends picking up my bike as the paramedics were doing their dead-level best to convince me that I’d been unconscious since the release of Star Wars. Amid the many questions they asked as they secured me to the backboard, in the background I heard my buddies say, “Man, his bike is fine.”
I also recall thinking, “Yeah, no shit. Have you seen my face?”
Like I said, I thought that if for no other reason than it hurt too much to say out loud. At that point I still had a mouthful of gravel and dirt. The dirt didn’t bother me; the gravel was a definite pain. The experience was not unlike having a mouthful of peppercorns. Inevitably, you’re going to swallow some and I really could have used a beer to help wash it down. Looks like I have plenty of those now, though—thanks again.
I’ve broken my share of components over the years. I’m not a heavy guy (that day I was all of 162 lbs.) and I’m not even all that forceful as I ride, but I’ve broken bars, stems, seatposts, saddles, a couple of forks and plenty of wheels. When I picked up my bike from the friend who stored it for me for a few days, the only indication I could find that proved the bike had hit the deck was some dirt on one lever and on the bar tape; there was a bit more dirt on the front wheel.
I’ve inspected the bike thoroughly. I can’t find anything wrong with it. And I’m aware that the way composites are laid up today, they are designed that if they suffer a serious impact, though several layers of carbon may break, the entire structure won’t instantly fail. This gives the rider the opportunity to feel that something is soft, not all is right, time enough to pull over and avoid catastrophe.
I can tell you this bike feels the same as it did before I went down. The story might be different if the bar or levers or some other component had taken the second big impact, rather than my face, but they didn’t. I’ve looked for any indication I can find that I shouldn’t trust this bike and I couldn’t find a reason not to ride it.
So I rode it today.
It’s fine and I’m better for getting back in the saddle of the horse that threw me.
My ride today was, in part, an affirmation in my belief of how far carbon fiber technology has come in the bike industry. I don’t think manufacturers get enough credit for how much they’ve improved the durability of carbon products. And I’m not suggestion this is in any way isolated to Specialized or Zipp. I am willing to bet most of the bikes and wheels out there would have survived my particular crash. I can’t imagine how hard you have to hit to actually make any of those things fail.
Like I said, I didn’t enjoy this, but I’m glad that the bike I was on performed as advertised. I might even call it a “test.”