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.
Zipp assembled a number of journalists to introduce the 650c Firecrest 404 Carbon Clincher, Vuka Stealth bar, the new 30 and 60 wheels and Elsa and Riken Quarq cranks. There’s not much point to bringing us all together just to talk about this stuff. The hope had been that we’d ride three days, but the Tucson weather had other ideas.
There’s a belief that Tucson, Arizona, is a place to go when you’re tired of winter elsewhere. Just how this belief came to proliferate, I can’t tell. In my two visits to Tucson during the late fall and winter, I have to say this place is colder than most of California and it’s hard to make a case that you’re a winter-free locale if snow can fall there, something that did happen on Monday, killing that day’s ride. This isn’t a criticism of Zipp; it’s a curiosity about the source of what strikes me as a fundamental fallacy. There are stories enough about Discovery/RadioShack training camps with Belgian weather occurring in Tucson that you’d think someone would have amended the Wikipedia entry.
We did manage to get out for two rides thanks to excellent support from Jose Alcala, Justin Koch and Chad Contreras at SRAM NRS. We were provided with Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4s (those of us who were riding road bikes—guys checking out the Vuka Stealth were on Cervelos) equipped with SRAM Red which was great for me given I’d just finished riding a Tarmac.
For both rides I went out on the new 30 wheels. As I clipped in for my first ride, which came before our tech briefing, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d already seen the rim shape and wondered how they would performer. Of course, that first ride was miraculous. What really made the difference were the special edition testosterone and dopamine-laced Clif Shot Bloks, but I didn’t suspect them at the time. As we were rolling out from the Starr Pass resort, I delivered a 1350-watt 20-second effort, jumped a flock of road runner and then skidded sideways to a stop without folding up the wheels.
Okay, so that didn’t happen.
What did happen was as we descended out of the resort I felt that familiar difference in acceleration that I experience with more aerodynamic wheels. I’ve just spent a bunch of time on the latest Dura-Ace hoops and while they rolled strong, true and reliable, they are to aerodynamic what Marlboro is to healthy living.
Numerous studies have shown remarkably consistent application of the Rate of Perceived Exertion by athletes. I bring that up because a couple of weeks ago, troubled by my inability to think of a more objective way to quantify the difference in experience I have with aerodynamic wheels vs. standard wheels, I began thinking about whether I could view it as a difference in RPE. Bingo. I’ll probably do a survey of my experiences in a separate post if I can put together something that seems sufficiently rigorous to report as responsible analysis. Let’s suffice to say that my experience at effort placed these distinctly ahead of box rims, but not nearly as fast as something like the 303s.
Despite the fact that these aren’t what I’d call light wheels (in my head, 1500 grams is the big dividing point), they were easy to wind up. My takeaway on that is a reinforcement of the wheels’ notable aerodynamics.
According to my Garmin, I’ve got about four hours on the wheels in two rides. I’m impressed by them, full stop. I’m well aware that not everyone wants to spend $850 on a pair of wheels. I’m also aware that there are RKP readers who can spend that much for a set of spares. If $850 is more than you want to spend, that’s fine. But in that $750 to just less than $1000 range, I think these are a fairly remarkable set of wheels.
I love the chance to ride new products; some end up amazing, but others … not quite as much. The funny thing is going to these events is often less about the products themselves than the people there. I had plenty of reasons to stay home: My wife is pregnant. I missed the chance to do a fun ride in Malibu with friends. I also missed a chance to take my son to the skatepark. The days were long, and while the quality of the room was stellar, Having a few boxes show up at home while I stay put would be easier. I go to these events in part because I’m honored that they ask, but also because it’s invariably an opportunity to talk with other people—smart people—passionate about bikes, people who are passionate enough about bikes that they gave up the chance to earn more in another industry by sticking to what most of the world thinks of as a kid’s toy. Just showing up means a chance to learn something.
There’s a lot in the bike industry that excites me, but it’s not everything by any means. In writing about new equipment I’m chasing the promise of something that makes the experience fresh, that renews what it feels like to get on a bike for the first time. These wheels are a great option for those who want a great set of wheels but don’t want to spend top-shelf cash. But why take my word for it? I’ve already heard from friends who were asking how soon they’ll be available so they can purchase a set.
Zipp is launching a bevy of new products and assembled a few of us journalist types in Tucson, Arizona, for some riding and in-depth presentations about these new products. The weather hasn’t been quite as cooperative as expected; so far I’ve managed only one ride, though we’re hoping today our ride won’t be canceled by falling snow.
You may have heard recently that Zipp has introduced two new wheels sets, the 30 and the 60. In broad strokes, these wheels are (compared to other Zipp wheel sets) more budget oriented and specifically made for day-in, day-out use. They both feature aluminum rims with a parallel brake track (not the canted brake track that is such a signature part of other Zipp wheels) for predictable braking under the harshest of circumstances.
All those of you who have wanted Zipp aerodynamics with aluminum reliability and a less painful bite to your wallet, you may now rejoice.
The 30 wheels take a low-profile rim approach. The “30″ refers to the rim depth of the wheels—30mm, which puts it on a par with the 202 and 101. The 60 is the more distinctly aero wheel and features a roughly 60mm rim (58mm, actually), which puts it on a par with the 404, in terms of depth. They use the same hubs featuring preload-free stainless steel bearings compatible with both 10- and 11-speed drivetrains from SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo. Both sets use an 18-spoke front wheel and a 20-spoke rear wheel. The spokes are Sapim CX-Ray stainless spokes with Sapim’s new locking nipples for the most maintenance-free build possible.
Both rims feature a hybrid toroidal rim shape and the aforementioned parallel brake track. The rim design nicely characterizes the overall design of the wheels themselves. The canted brake track found in Zipp’s Firecrest wheels is faster, period. But it’s harder to manufacture and requires much more stringent tolerances for vertical truing so that you don’t have braking issues if the wheel comes out of true. The 30 rim is an all-aluminum rim, while the 60 rim is very much like the old 404 clincher using an aluminum brake track with carbon fiber fairing. However, Zipp’s David Ripley cautioned the journalists present not to think of the 60 as an old 404 clincher redux. Zipp engineers beefed up the aluminum and carbon fiber to prevent the occasional rim failures they saw at the spoke holes. Ripley stressed repeatedly that they wanted these wheels to be absolutely bomb-proof wheels suitable for daily use. [CORRECTION: Zipp informed us that the 60 rim employs a structural carbon rim with an aluminum hoop (the brake track) co-molded. This is a significantly stronger and more durable design than had the carbon just been a fairing.]
Both wheels take a page or two from current Zipp designs. The 30 features a 21.5mm max rim width while the 60 features a max rim width of 22.5mm to give tires a wider footprint, better traction and lower rolling resistance, not to mention increased rider comfort.
The wheel weights we were presented weighed 1655 grams for the 30s and 1780g for the 60s, so they aren’t especially light wheels. What really sets these wheels apart from other wheels in this price category are their aerodynamics. The 30s are a bit slower than Zipp’s Firecrest 202s and 101s, but not hugely so. The 60s, while not as fast as either Zipp’s Firecrest 404s or Firecrest 303s, are notably faster than many competing wheels. Drag numbers for the 30 put it easily ahead of the Mavic Ksyrium E5 and even faster than the Easton EC90 Aero 56.
A set of wheels includes quick releases, tubes and rim strips (brake shoes aren’t necessary thanks to the machined aluminum brake track).
I’ve had a single ride on a set of the 30s and experienced a quick, trouble-free ride, which is what you’d expect—at least the trouble-free part—for the first miles logged on a set of wheels, but it occurs to me that at $850 for the 30s and $1500 for the 60s, these wheels really change what people can expect for aerodynamic performance from a set of wheels at a significantly lower price point. With the 30s especially, this should be the beginning of the end for the box rim.
Zipp has also added a 650c version of their popular Firecrest 404 Carbon Clincher. Compared to a 66mm-deep V-shaped 650c rim, Zipp’s testing indicates the new 650c 404 will shave 127 gram of drag off of the V-rim’s 194g, for only 67g of drag. It’s a pretty staggering reduction in drag. We’re told the wheels weigh in at 1465g total, have a spoke count of 16 front, 20 rear, use Zipp’s proven 88/188 hubs and are compatible with 10- or 11-speed drivetrains from SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo. Included with the wheels are quick releases, tubes, rim strips, valve extenders, wrenches and brake shoes. Suggested retail is $2725.
For those of you who do time trials or triathlon, Zipp has introduced a new integrated carbon fiber bar/stem combination called the Vuka Stealth. To give you some idea about the new bar and stem’s aerodynamics, the Vuka Stealth is said to have the same aerodynamics with its UCI-legal 3:1 aero profile as the 4:1 profile Vuka Aero with the SL145 stem. Cable routing in carbon aero base bars dispenses headaches like Coke machines do soda, but the Vuka Stealth has a surprisingly simple routing aided by specific layup, called Rapid Routing, and multiple exit holes allow the bars to be set up specifically for the different cable entry of bikes from companies like Trek and Specialized. It comes in three lengths with a two-position insert to allow a +/- 10mm fore/aft adjustment. And because it’s a Zipp product, it has nearly 2000 possible fit combinations. The hardware is made from aluminum and titanium and the clamp diameter is an industry-standard 22.2mm to accept extensions from nearly any manufacturer. Suggested retail is $1070.
Finally, Quarq has introduced two new cranks, the Riken and Elsa. Like previous Quarq cranks, these are accurate to +/- 1.5 percent. Riken brings Quarq power measurement to a new price point: $1595. Elsa weighs in at just 735g and adds two crank lengths: 165mm and 162.5mm; it goes for $1995. Both are available in BB30 options for an extra $50.
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.
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.
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
The world changed when the bike industry moved to carbon fiber for fabricating most high-end bicycle frames. The shifts were myriad. Many of the bigger companies began employing engineers for the first time ever. Most of the bigger companies either started producing what was effectively their own tubing for the first time or had someone else produce tubing for them, to their spec. The way marketing materials were written changed as they sought to attempt to both hide what materials they used even as they tried to pitch the objective advantage their materials offered the buyer.
It was a helluva change.
Think back. For those of you who went through a steel frame or three before buying a first carbon fiber frame, you’ll recall that bike companies, as well as small framebuilders, all touted just whose tubing they used. So much so, they put a sticker on the seat tube announcing just what they used. It was anything other than a secret.
How companies like Trek, Specialized, Felt, Zipp and others deal with their materials is very different. They effectively create their own alloy by buying carbon fiber from different mills and blending it within their frames as they see fit. To make matters worse, when you try to talk to the folks charged with media relations, one will talk about sourcing from Toray (one of the big mills), while another will talk about modulus and tell you the source doesn’t matter, while another will say modulus doesn’t matter, compaction and resin are the issues. It’s maddening.
Without the benefit of that tubing sticker, bike companies go to great lengths to check out the work of their competitors. They have two primary tools at their disposal. The first is the saw. They will cut frames apart to see what’s inside. They can get a look at exactly what fibers are being used. The other method involves baking. A frame can be put in an oven and baked apart; all you have to do is exceed the resin’s cure temperature. What it yields is a bunch of sheets of carbon fiber. You can see the exact shape and position of ever sheet used. Unfortunately, this method of investigation comes with a downside. You can’t tell what any of the sheets of fiber were; there’s no telling if they were intermediate modulus, high modulus or ultra-high modulus.
I’ve long admired Cervelo’s work, even if I have found some of their designs less than attractive, or comfortable. The SLC-SL remains one of the most unpleasant to ride bikes I’ve ever swung a leg over. But with a pair of Zipps, it was a very fast bike. I found myself constantly scrubbing speed inside the group. What was more impressive about the bike was its torsional stiffness. The bike, despite its aerodynamic-profile tubes, didn’t twist to any appreciable degree. I’ve been on many similarly shaped frames that would twist under a hard acceleration even while firmly ensconced in the saddle.
What elevated my regard for Cervelo’s work a few years ago came not from anything their PR people told me, not from a big win aboard one of their bikes and certainly not from some bike magazine review. An engineer for one of their competitors had baked apart a frame and told me of the sophisticated layup they were using. That there were places where he’d have loved to know what fiber they were using to achieve the stiffness and strength they managed at the bottom bracket. The frame was too light, too stiff and too strong to make the answer easy or obvious.
This guy was unimpressed with some of the work he was seeing from the big three. He talked about how you’d see stacks of fiber maybe five or 10 sheets thick grabbed and placed. Maybe with decent care, maybe not. In his view it was the downside of having to achieve the production numbers they needed. He said with Cervelo you could tell that each sheet was placed individually. You can’t make frames as quickly that way, he told me. But they break less often and usually offer the rider better quality and improved stiffness because the sheets are perfectly oriented for their intended role.
The conversation (actually, I’ve had a similar conversation with two other engineers not employed by the Canadians) made me sit up and take note of Cervelo in a fresh way. It also gave me a new perspective on my previous experience with the SLC-SL. Maybe some of that incredible stiffness was due to great care. Huh.
Since then, I’ve ridden every Cervelo I can get my hands on. I’ve had a day on the S5 (I wrote about that here) and a couple of days on the old R3 SL. This spring Cervelo sent me the new R3. I rode it through the spring, summer and into the fall.
I didn’t want to send it back.
Tomorrow: Part II
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.
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.
This week I got a visit from Zipp’s head of marketing and media relations. He stopped by with examples of their new designs, in particular, the new Firecrest 808s and the carbon clincher 404s, which also benefit from Zipp’s new Firecrest rim shape.
You’ll find below this post my belated review of the previous iteration of the 404 in tubular form. It is unequivocally the fastest wheel I had ever ridden. Well, it used to be. I’ve ridden the 808 and it, well, I’ll get to that.
Deep-section carbon fiber wheels all have a “V” shape in cross section, that is, except for Zipps. The 404s I’ve been riding employ a hybrid-toroidal shape that makes them both faster and easier to handle. The new Firecrest shape doesn’t really look fast when viewed in cross-section. It looks rather fat and not exactly fast. Looks are often deceiving.
Not only is the Firecrest shape faster, it adds stability in a cross wind and increases rim strength for impact over rough road (or pavé). The most surprising aspect of the Firecrest shape is how Zipp engineers were able to tune the shape in the 404 and 808 so that the center of pressure, that is, the focal point of a cross-wind’s pressure on the rim was not only near the steering axis, but slightly behind it. The thrust here is that a cross wind from the rider’s left didn’t push the rider to the right, but rather ever-so-slightly steered the rider left and into the wind, making these wheels stunningly stable in a cross wind. To ride the 808′s stability in a cross wind is to know the meaning of unlikely.
Total claimed weight on the 808s is 1519g. That said, there’s a fair amount of carbon that constitutes rotating mass. Even though the wheel is reasonably light, I wondered just how easy it would be to accelerate. What surprised me was they were as easy to accelerate as any of my lightweight clinchers.
The wide rim bed (25.94mm front and 26.24mm rear) gave the tires an ideal platform to retain their true tubular shape. Cornering on a twisting descent on the 808s was Cirque du Soleil-nimble. Brake response was decidedly even and smooth, but one small word of warning: This rim shape is very wide. Brake set up and brake shoe position are such that you won’t be able to swap other wheels in or out for the 808s without taking some time to adjust both the brake and the brake shoes.
This was but one ride and Zipp has more patented and trademarked technologies that I’ll go into later when I’ve had a chance to ride these wheels in greater depth. My initial sense is that the new 808s are the fastest wheels I’ve ever ridden by a couple of country miles.