Author’s note: I began a review of the Zipp 404s in late 2009. Along the way, I ran into a few issues with the wheel and took my time getting answers and assistance from Zipp. My mistake. Within days of being ready to run the review, Zipp announced the new Firecrest rims as well as other changes to the design of the 404s, including a new all-carbon clincher. I shelved the review until I rode the new Firecrest 808s this week and realized I needed to post this review as a prelude to what I’d say about Zipp wheels in the future.—Padraig
My experience with Zipp products goes back 15 years. In 1996 I rode a set of Zipp 440s, which are analogous to today’s 404s. They were ungodly stiff, had the menacing sound of a carnivorous machine and a fiberglass braking surface. The Dura-Ace brake pads bit down as if the bike was equipped with disc brakes; I actually slid forward on my saddle the first time I hit the brakes. I hated the brake response so much it clouded my opinion of the bike they were on; I plain didn’t like riding the wheels, no matter how aerodynamic they were.
A few months later I had the pleasure of reviewing the Zipp 530s, which were essentially the same wheel in clincher form with an aluminum braking surface. When I say pleasure, I mean that I loved the wheels so thoroughly I didn’t want to send them back. Yes, they were heavier than the 440s, but a less-than-1600g set of aerodynamic clinchers was all-but unknown in 1996. The combination of unchanged brake response, decreased weight (relative to other clinchers), the ease of changing flats with clinchers and improved aerodynamics struck me as the proverbial unbeatable combination.
In my review I noted that I weighed the wheels without skewers, tires, tubes and cassette. The accompanying reviews in our roundup of carbon fiber wheels didn’t note that and as a result, Zipp’s founder, Andy Ording, got the idea that readers would believe that only his wheels had be weighed that way, potentially creating the impression that Zipp wheels were heavier relative to the competitors’ wheels. His follow-up phone call resulted in an extra body cavity for me. With friends like me, he reasoned, he didn’t need competitors.
I’m not sure anyone came to the conclusion he feared; it required a leap of illogic more cynical than most bike geeks would make. Regardless, the call left a lasting impression. While I felt badly that he believed my review resulted in a less favorable presentation than I intended, I was more impressed by his passion. Ording was a guy who simply wouldn’t tolerate being outdone.
Wind tunnel testing and composites engineering are present-tense advertising bywords. You’ll find them in copy from Specialized, Cervelo, Felt … and Zipp. However, those were bywords common to Zipp (and almost no one else other than Kestrel) in the 1990s. So long as Ording had any say in it, there would be no wheels lighter and more aerodynamic than Zipps.
We’ve all heard of the now-famous Kona Count. Every manufacturer goes to Ironman Hawaii and counts just how many athletes have spent their kids’ college tuition on their gear. Kona is the canary in the coalmine of triathlete purchase trends. Spinergy, once one of the most popular brands among triathletes, now has a less than 1 percent share of the wheels at Kona. And Zipp? More athletes purchase their wheels than all other brands added together.
There’s a reason why an amateur athlete will spend more than two grand on a set of wheels: They are fast. Damn fast. In a sport full of agonizing decisions, Zipp is the no-brainer answer to fast wheels.
For me, it had been a while since I last rode a set of Zipp wheels for more than a day or two. I had a few days on a set of 202s and they were sweet enough to fill my head with thoughts of larceny, but it had been nearly ten years since I’d last done a dozen rides or more on a set.
The 404s I’ve been riding were the latest and greatest for 2010: ABLC dimpling to make them slice through the wind faster than a speeding golf ball, tubular construction for the lowest possible weight, Carbon Bridge technology and the VCLC system to increase impact resistance while cutting vibration transmission. They also roll on ceramic bearings. Prior to glue, tires, skewers and cassette, the wheels weighed a measly 1238 grams. I’ve had meals that weighed more than that.
If we take Zipp at their word that they have devoted more than 100 hours of wind tunnel time to the 404, testing its response to the wind blowing from 0 to 30 degrees (broken down in five-degree increments—that’s seven different angles), that’s six figures of development cost right there. If there is a more thoroughly researched wheel on the market, I’d like to hear about it.
In riding, several details of my experience made the bulk of my verdict about the wheels. The critical factors were speed, weight, braking performance and even sound.
Speed: There’s no way to tell where the increased speed due to aerodynamic factors stops and reduced friction from the ceramic bearings starts. The combination of the two made the 404s quite noticeably the fastest wheel I’ve ever ridden. Cynics, take note; my assertion isn’t just lacey language. While I could do nothing to override my impression of instant adrenal power, I have several objective factors to back up my impression. I made a habit of taking my HR up to 155 on these wheels and with other wheels. I consistently rode 1-2 mph faster with the 404s. Even more apparent was the way the wheels rolled when coasting; when coming up to turns in a group I found myself needing to brake earlier and sometimes more firmly than usual because I was running up on the rider in front of me. Add up the reduced rolling resistance of the clinchers, the improved aerodynamics of the rim and the reduced friction from the ceramic bearings and these wheels just rolled and rolled.
Weight: As I mentioned, my set of wheels with no skewers, tires, valve extenders or cassette weighed just 1238g. Lighter wheels exist, but the combination of F1 aerodynamics for high speed and ballet dancer weight for long climbs makes me think I can eat the cake I keep.
Braking performance: Using the Swiss Stop-made Zipp brake pads, I found the brake performance to be the most even of any carbon fiber wheel I’ve ridden. On every other wheel I’ve ridden the pads will grip more firmly on one part of the rim. This inconsistent brake response is disconcerting and has the ability to cause heat buildup at that point on the rim. I’ll address that particular problem—and its ramifications—in another post.
Sound: Some bikes sound as cool as they look. The 404s are the only set of wheels in the sub-60mm rim category that impart some of the sound of a disc wheel. The white noise whoosh a disc makes has always given me an electric surge and the 404s include a dash of it, kinda like the packages of hot sauce you get with your burrito.
Okay, now for the downside. No, I’m not talking about the $2285 price tag of the tubulars with ceramic bearings, I’m talking about the aspects of these wheels that weren’t grand-slam perfect. These wheels are so close to ideal, both you and the folks at Zipp deserve to hear about the wheels’ few blemishes.
Rim balance: With the aluminum (not brass) valve extenders attached to the tires’ valves, I experienced a noticeable weight imbalance. Out on the road, a noticeable pulsing feel emerged at speeds above 30 mph. It was a little disconcerting on descents. Even when I added wheel magnets to opposite spokes, I couldn’t completely overcome the weight imbalance; the valve extender always spun to the bottom of the wheel when the bike was in the stand. When I asked the folks at Zipp about the phenomenon, they said they had two choices and they chose the lighter wheel and believe their customers prefer it that way.
Spoke tension: I had two spokes on the rear wheel detension to a significant degree within the first 400 miles of riding. I don’t know the cause, but I suspect the spoke tension was not ultra-consistent around the wheel. After so many flawless miles on Easton wheels, I have come to expect wheels that stay true over a longer term. Proper spoke prep and even tension shouldn’t be an issue with these wheels, but I was able to correct it without rebuilding the wheel.
Creaking: I had a devil of a time tracing creaks in both the front and rear wheels. They creaked from the first mile. Getting this corrected took months of fiddling.
The Zipp 404 is the best all-around wheel I have ever ridden. Full stop. The technical term for this is funfunfunfunfun. These wheels are a benchmark by which I can measure all others, the Muhammed Ali of wheels. Perhaps this is the assessment Ording had hoped for all those years ago.
The handmade bicycle is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The last time high-end hand-built frames were this popular … they were all that was available.
Don Walker’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show is the grand daddy of the growing number of shows. It’s still the biggest and best of them, and this year will be the biggest yet. Just today Don announced that the 2011 show, which will be held from February 25-27 in Austin, Texas, boasts an incredible 160 exhibitors, and there’s still some space left. It probably helped that Don selected a city to hold the event that resonates with cyclists.
With the fall-off in A-list exhibitors at Interbike (a trend that frustrates me but that I sincerely hope the organizers turn around), NAHBS this year will be the show I most anticipate attending.
I’ll be posting daily at the event, but much of the work I’ll be doing while there will be on behalf of peloton magazine. There will a bigger announcement on that coming soon.
As of this post, the following companies and builders will be displaying at NAHBS.
- ALCHEMY BICYCLE CO.
- ALLIANCE BICYCLES, LLC
- ANDERSON CUSTOM BICYCLES
- ANT BICYCLES
- ANVIL BIKEWORKS
- APRES VELO
- ARUNDEL BICYCLE COMPANY
- BAILEY WORKS
- BICYCLE FABRICATIONS
- BICYCLE FOREST
- BICYCLE TIMES MAGAZINE
- BILENKY CYCLE WORKS
- BISHOP BIKES
- BLACK CAT BICYCLES
- BLACK SHEEP FABRICATION, INC
- BOO BICYCLES
- BROAKLAND BIKES
- BROMPTON BICYCLE
- BRONTO MTB CO
- BURRO BAGS
- CALETTI CYCLES
- CALFEE DESIGN
- CANTITOE ROAD
- CHERUBIM BY SHIN-ICHI KONNO
- CHRIS KING PRECISION COMPONENTS
- CO-MOTION CYCLES
- CRUMPTON CYCLES
- CURT GOODRICH BICYCLES
- CYCLE DESIGN
- CYCLE MONKEY
- CYFAC INTERNATIONAL
- DALTEX HANDMADE BICYCLES
- DARIO PEGORETTI
- DEAN TITANIUM BIKES
- DEFEET INTERNATIONAL
- DELLA SANTA CYCLES
- DESALVO CUSTOM CYCLES
- DINUCCI CYCLES
- DIRT RAG MAGAZINE
- DOMINGUEZ CYCLES
- DON WALKER CYCLES
- ELLIS CYCLES
- ENGIN CYCLES
- ENVE COMPOSITES
- FIXED GEAR GALLERY/HELL-YES CLOTHING
- FORM CYCLES
- FULL SPEED AHEAD
- FUNK CYCLES
- GALLUS CYCLES
- GAULZETTI CICLI
- GEEKHOUSE BIKES
- GJERTSEN TECHNOLOGIES
- GROOVY CYCLEWORKS
- GURU CYCLES
- HAMPSTEN CYCLES
- HED WHEELS
- HELM CYCLES
- HENRY JAMES BICYCLES & TRUE TEMPER SPORTS
- IGLEHEART CUSTOM FRAMES & FORKS
- INDEPENDENT FABRICATION
- IRA RYAN CYCLES
- KENT ERIKSEN CYCLES
- KIMORI CO, LTD
- KIRK FRAMEWORKS
- KIRKLEE BICYCLES
- KISH FABRICATION
- KVA STAINLESS
- LEGOR CICLI
- MAIETTA HANDBUILT BICYCLES
- MOMENTUM MAGAZINE
- MOSAIC CYCLES
- MOUNTAIN FLYER MAGAZINE
- NAKED BICYCLES
- NOVA CYCLES SUPPLY INC
- PAC DESIGNS
- PARAGON MACHINE WORKS
- PARLEE CYCLES
- PAUL COMPONENT ENGINEERING
- PEACOCK GROOVE
- PELOTON MAGAZINE
- PHILOSOPHY BAG CO.
- PRIORITY CYCLES
- QUIRING CYCLES, LLC
- RETROTEC & INGLIS CYCLES
- REYNOLDS TECHNOLOGY LTD
- RICHARD SACHS CYCLES
- RITCHEY DESIGN
- ROLF PRIMA
- ROULEUR MAGAZINE
- RPS NIPC
- SAMURAI CYCLE WORKS
- SCREEN SPECIALTY SHOP, INC
- SCRUB COMPONENTS
- SELLE ITALIA
- SEROTTA BICYCLES
- SHAMROCK CYCLES
- SHEILA MOON ATHLETIC APPAREL
- SIGNAL CYCLES
- SIX-ELEVEN BICYCLE CO.
- SOTHERLAND CUSTOM BICYCLES
- SPEEDHOUND BIKES
- SPUTNIK TOOL
- STRONG FRAMES
- SUNRACE STURMEY ARCHER
- SYCIP DESIGNS
- SYLVAN CYCLES
- TERRA NOVA CYCLES, LLC
- TI CYCLES FABRICATION
- TOMMASINI BICYCLES
- TRUE FABRICATION BICYCLES
- TWIN SIX
- UNITED BICYCLE INSTITUTE
- VANILLA WORKSHOP
- VENDETTA CYCLES
- VERTIGO CYCLES
- VICTORIA CYCLES
- VP COMPONENTS
- VULTURE CYCLES
- WATSON CYCLES
- WHEEL FANATYK
- WHITE BROTHERS SUSPENSION
- WHITE INDUSTRIES
- WINTER BICYCLES
- WOUND UP COMPOSITE CYCLES
- YIPSAN BICYCLES
- ZANCONATO CUSTOM CYCLES
- 2011 NEW BUILDER TABLE EXHIBITORS:
- APPLEMAN BICYCLES
- DEMON FRAMEWORKS
- DORNBOX PERFORMANCE BICYCLES
- FORESTA FRAMES
- LITTLEFORD BICYCLES
- MAGNOLIA CYCLES
- MILLS BROTHERS BICYCLE COMPANY
- RICH PHILLIPS CYCLES
- ROSENE HANDBUILT BICYCLES
- VANLOOZEN BROTHERS BICYCLES
- VIOLET CROWN CYCLES
Bike companies will, in some cases, say almost anything to cajole you into buying their product. From suggesting women (or men) will swoon in your presence to the possibility that victory is assured, marketing efforts have been known to make claims that would be laughed off even by those who still believe in Santa. You knew about Santa, right?
Oops, my bad.
In 2008, I was doing oodles of copy work for a bike industry company that shall go unnamed. That spring, I had a ringside seat for one team’s journey through the Spring Classics. Along the way, Zipp had some notable wheel failures, particularly at Flanders and Roubaix. I was able to gather that some folks were mad of the hopping variety.
That anyone would risk their most important rendezvous of the season on as-yet unproven technology struck me as undue sponsor influence. What else could explain a situation going so seriously south as Magnus Backstedt’s double pinch flat at Roubaix?
For the better part of the last year I’ve been hearing about how the redesigned Zipp 303 conquers the problems encountered in 2008 and 2009, how this wheel is literally twice as good as the previous wheel. What has surprised me about the presentations I’ve attended with Zipp staff has been how forthcoming about the wheel’s shortcomings in 2008. They really don’t hide the fact that the wheel didn’t do the job then. There wasn’t an ounce of spin-doctoring from the staff.
Such honesty is really refreshing.
Zipp enlisted Ben Edwards (formerly TestRider.com, now of peloton magazine—and yes, I do freelance for peloton and know and like Ben, but I have no incentive to promote this effort) to create a documentary that would help them catalog the improvements they made in a set of wheels that went from shattering the hopes of a former Roubaix winner to actually helping Fabian Cancellara win the race.
At 16 minutes, it’s short enough to be considered, uh, short, but in-depth enough to be bike-geek fascinating. I can smell spin faster than I detect skunk spray, though I like the scent no better and this is as devoid of it as any promotional film I’ve ever seen.
Even if you have no interest in paying thousands of dollars for a set of Zipp wheels, the film makes for interesting viewing for anyone curious about how products are developed, especially carbon fiber products.
Check it out here.
Thor Hushovd image by Tim DeWaele
I’ve been to a number of trade shows in different industries. Interbike is the only trade show that I ever liked other than NAMM, the trade show for the music instrument industry. Interbike is also the most crowded trade show I have ever attended. The show floor can be a truly confusing thing to behold. On a couple of occasions I managed to get turned around enough that I got lost and those events shocked me because I think of the layout of the Sands Convention Center as enjoying a very straightforward layout. I felt like I’d gotten lost in my own neighborhood. And as a small aside, I don’t mind admitting that I used the Powerbar and Clif booths as pit stops to keep me fueled during what has traditionally been a no-lunch day. It used to be the two booths were well-placed on the with one rather to the left of the primary entrance and the other dead ahead of the main entrance, but this year they were positioned very close together. I found myself oddly irritated by the move.
It’s a noisy affair and by Friday everyone is hoarse; some of the more enthusiastic marketing types are hoarse by the end of the first day. Keeping your body in working order demands terrific walking shoes, a bag that can hold a drink bottle (I’m sorry, but walking around the show with a Camelbak is the domain of the eternally single sock-and-sandal set) and lip balm.
The new Serotta Meivici AE is the market’s first bike that combines modular monocoque construction with custom geometry. It’s rather difficult to overstate just how significant this step is. There’s not a single lug to be found in the frame, giving the frame better ride quality and vastly superior aerodynamics. Built in eight sections, the pieces are co-molded in jigs to complete the frame. The Meivici AE ushers in a stunning new era in custom frame building.
The Zipp 404 carbon clincher is probably the best all-around wheel on the market, and even if it’s not, it is very likely the most coveted wheel on the market, which it deserves to be. The more time engineers spend testing products in the wind tunnel, the more they learn just how important aerodynamics are. The upshot is that in many instances aerodynamics a highly aero wheel will make a bigger difference in performance than will a super-light wheel.
The Zipp 808 is now available in a carbon clincher as well. The big surprise here is that with the new improvements to it including the Firecrest rim shape and Zed Tech, the wheel’s center of balance is very close to the hub, making it amazingly stable in a crosswind. This wheel is no longer restricted to windless days, or necessarily paired with a front 404 in breezy conditions. The only question I have is if these things would allow me to get away from the pack rather than just drag them around for a bit. Maybe I should train more instead. No, I need these, too.
The Assos airJack 851 answers the question of what happens when you cross Assos’ world-class materials, cut and design with FIM Superbike styling. Okay, so it’s a question maybe only they asked, but if there was a better-looking jacket at the show, it was within six feet of this one. I could see myself wearing this out just to make a style statement.
The iJ.haBu5 is a new jacket from Assos, but rather than getting caught in trying to say all that, just call it the Habu. It’s designed for late fall to early winter conditions, which is to say that for those of us not fortunate enough to live in Switzerland, it will carry you through most of the winter with only a single layer beneath it. And yes, that’s an iPhone in a lightweight mesh pocket on the right arm. So what’s it doing there? Assos doesn’t encourage people to ride with earbuds; you won’t find buttonholes in pockets to run your earbud cable. However, this pocket will allow you to slip your iPhone in and select music then listen to it on the iPhone’s speakers. Alternately, you could keep your pet vole in it.
Nalini showed off an impressive new jacket with built-in balaclava for days when you have trouble getting anyone to join you on the ride. If things warm up, just push the balaclava down and keep going. Better still is what the sleeves do.
The sleeves pull away thanks to this special zipper. Pull on the tab and the zipper pulls apart and you can pull the sleeves off and—voila!—you’re wearing a vest. I suspect that in really dry desert and mountain climates this jacket would kill.
Contracts to produce Grand Tour leader jerseys are highly sought-after. Nalini took no small pride in the fact they produced all three leader’s jerseys this year.
Interbike, the annual peek inside Santa’s workshop, has arrived. Even though the bike industry has moved to a year-round product development and introduction cycle, thanks, in part, to events like the Sea Otter Classic and the Amgen Tour of California, Interbike is the place to wow cycling’s devoted with the latest and greatest.
The question of whether Interbike or Eurobike is bigger is a distraction. Go to Eurobike and a fair chunk of what you’ll see—say trekking bikes, for instance—will never enter an American port. If you want the pulse of the American market, Las Vegas is the place, at least one last time.
Going into this year’s show, I’ve been more focused on the names of the companies I won’t be seeing there rather than thinking about the new stuff I’m convinced I can’t live without. The number of companies displaying only at the Outdoor Demo is growing as is the list of companies that won’t even be there this year. I’m hoping that Airborne’s new head honch Rick Vosper’s prognostication is correct, that part of the move to Anaheim included negotiating a large-scale return to the show floor for everyone from Trek to Giant, Cannondale, Cervelo and Felt.
Their absences, and the absences of plenty of others, made the show floor a little less interesting last year, if easier to get through. Still, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
The question we put to you this week: What have you heard about in the run-up to the show that you are most excited about? New wheels from Easton? New bars, stems and more from Zipp? Puncture-proof Hutchinson tubulars? Whose new bike would you most like to ride?
When I reviewed the Zipp SL145 previously I noted its steller performance. It’s stiff like a belt of Scotch and light enough to keep weight weenies quiet. However, it was not without flaw. My one criticism of the stem was that the faceplate corroded. Living near the Pacific Ocean, any metal part with inadequate plating suffers an ignominious demise as its surface corrodes. I can only take flaking chrome or other plating for so long before I replace the part.
At Interbike my contact at Zipp informed me that the SL145 had a new faceplate that, hopefully, wouldn’t suffer the same corrosion the old one had. I haven’t gotten any technical details on the faceplate yet, but the surface appears to be shot peened with a polished center section.
The new faceplate will be standard with all SL145 stems. Zipp has not yet determined if the faceplate will be available aftermarket, something I encouraged them to offer for those who experienced the same issue I did. If you need a new faceplate, I encourage you to leave a comment to show the folks at Zipp the need.
I’ll report back next spring with the results of my experience with the new faceplate.
Day two of the Interbike show was a mad dash from one appointment to the next. Unfortunately, some of the coolest things I saw, including a new power meter that measures torque at the pedals, were in display cases that didn’t permit acceptable photography. There were plenty of autograph signings, lots of beer being served and wrenches trying to score schwag, but the one thing retailers told me over and over was that they weren’t placing orders. They had already placed their preseason orders or they were waiting to see how things would shake out with the economy in general and their business in specific.
A few years ago I got to spend a few months riding Zipp’s Contour SL bar. It was the first carbon fiber handlebar I had ridden that weighed less than 200 grams and one of the more comfortable wing bars I’ve tried to date. It was stiffer than single-malt Scotch straight from the bottle.
Since then, I haven’t encountered many truly sub-200g bars. Lots of companies advertise that their super-light Ultrabar X weighs less than your conscience, but a simple fact distinguishes reality from marketing hype: mold. Well, the plural: molds.
Most companies producing bars in the 200-250g range are doing so because they produce all the bars in halves, trim the sections to length and then bond them to the clamp section. Three pieces. The extra weight comes from the overlapped carbon in the bonded areas.
All sub-200g road bike handlebars have in common monocoque construction. The key to producing one is machining a mold for each size and each bend. Given that carbon fiber handlebars start in cost around $250 and run upwards of $500, each new mold can run a few thousand dollars to cut, a company has to sell a shipping container’s worth of bars to recoup the development cost and turn a profit.
To achieve its low weight the Zipp engineers had to resort to what may seem like a bit of old tech. To combine ultra-low weight and race-worthy stiffness the engineers had to employ a round bar profile throughout its length—no cable grooves, no wing shape. The wing shape adds about 20g. My test bar weighed all of 177g.
zipp_bar_dropsWith the SL bar, the company’s lightest offering, riders can choose from four widths (38, 40, 42 and 44cm c-c) and three different bends (traditional, ergo and compact). That’s 12 molds total. It’s a significant commiment to fit and comfort at the high end of the market.
My review bar was the 42cm compact (or as they call it, short and shallow). No matter what you call it, the compact bend, when compared to more traditional bars, reduces both reach and drop, usually in the range of a half to a full centimeter. While I’ve heard some riders deride the compact bar for making your drop position as the same as your bar top position, anyone who has compromised flexibility (rhymes with 40th birthday) can appreciate three usable hand positions. Unless you are still racing, comfort rates more highly than aerodynamics, and three usable positions is a winner.
This was my first experience with a compact bend and the big thing I noticed was how easy it was to ride in the drop position after having spent time on the hoods. The short drop from the hoods to the drops is easy to manage four hours into a ride when my hamstrings start to tighten up.
What I found most unusual about the short and shallow drop was the bend of the drop. The traditional bend is a bar that has fallen out of favor with product managers, but not with pros. No less than Lance Armstrong still runs a traditional bend bar on his bike. I prefer the ergo bend, but found the short and shallow to be a most unusual compromise. The bar bend isn’t as tight as a traditional, but because it doesn’t flatten out the way an ergo bend does, you don’t turn your wrist when in the drops. On the off-chance you may not have noticed, when using a traditional bend bar, your hands don’t bend at the wrist when using the drops, but when using an ergo bend, you hands bend sharply at the wrist. Anyone who has ever had carpal tunnel syndrome can tell you ongoing road shock makes ergo bars hell due to the wrist bend.
It took me a few weeks to get accustomed to the different bend. It seemed to reduce the reach to the levers a bit (I couldn’t figure out a decent way to measure this) and gave me a very comfortable position for descending. Under hard sprinting the bar felt unusually stiff, if not the stiffest bar I’ve used, then easily in the top three.
I assume the SL stands for Super Light. If so, mission accomplished. Price-wise, the bar sits squarely in the middle of the price range of carbon bars at $375. So the tally is: very light (lightest?), very stiff (stiffest?) and not most expensive. I like those numbers.
A few words about the SL145 stem: I’ve used a few different carbon fiber stems that have a certain amount of flex. While I don’t mind vertical flex in a stem due to the comfort it can bring, I never notice flex in that plane. What I notice is twist when I grab the levers and stand up. Years ago I had a very light, very trick titanium quill stem that twisted like Chubby Checker.
The Zipp SL145 doesn’t twist. At all. I’ve ridden it in the 120 and 130mm lengths and couldn’t detect any change in flexibility. Zipp reports the stem is made from 50 different pieces of carbon fiber in order to achieve its combination of stiffness and low weight (my 120mm weighed 152g). It retails for a cool $200.
My only criticism of the stem is the face place. I live near the ocean and occasionally I encounter an aluminum part with what is in my view substandard plating. I’ve ridden this two copies of this stem and despite judicious cleaning, my time near the beach has caused the face plate to corrode and the plating to flake off with fewer than six months of riding. For 90 percent of the country, this won’t be an issue, but those of us who live near salt air will find this phenomenon frustrating. Zipp needs to offer either replacement face plates or—better yet—they need to improve the plating on the face plate.
Taken as a whole, the SL bar and SL145 stem are truly exceptional. Light enough to keep climbers happy, stiff enough to keep the sprinters jazzed and with enough fit choices to satisfy the fussiest fit, they are a formidable combination, an inarguable choice for any rider determined to find the optimal combination of fit, comfort, stiffness and weight without having to pay top dollar.
Readers of BKW may recall a set of reviews I did of Neuvation Cycling‘s R28 aluminum clincher and C50 carbon fiber tubular wheels. I was impressed by the wheels for their quality, performance and cost. I’d known Neuvation’s owner, John Neugent, since the 1990s and was surprised by his decision to launch a consumer-direct company. In the bike biz, consumer-direct was once viewed with the same jaundiced eye vanity press editions were seen by the publishing world—generally speaking, they were manuscripts too bad or offbeat to be picked up by any commercial publisher, and the determined author would elect to pay for his own print run. For me, the Neuvation wheels put to rest the idea that consumer-direct was the bastion of those who didn’t understand the market and couldn’t achieve sales by traditional routes.
Debate raged in the comments. Some readers thought the Neuvation wheels were anything but PRO; after all, they didn’t cost thousands of dollars and weren’t in use by a ProTour team. Radio Freddy and I thought they were PRO because of their particular combination of performance and value. A dollar well-spent is just that. And while some readers reported some spoke breakage, all were adamant about John’s good customer service. Since that review, several consumer-direct operation have entered the bike market; I decided to have a chat with Neuvation Cycling’s owner.
RKP: For RKP readers who aren’t familiar with your long resume, fill us in a bit on your background please.
Neugent: I started as a partner in a bike shop in 1973 and have since been a rep, product manager, and VPs of sales, marketing, and purchasing for various bicycle industry companies. I was president of Sachs USA for 10 years and worked with Lee Iacocca on his E-bike project. I’ve been in the industry my entire adult life.
RKP: Given your experience, someone with your experience must be in high demand at bike companies. Why did you choose to launch a consumer-direct operation?
Neugent: I wanted to live in San Luis Obispo. I also felt that job security in a big company is, at best, an illusion. After I was fired from my last job for telling the owners they would go out of business following their business plan (which did happen within two years after I left), I decided it was time to really follow my long term dream of starting my own company.
RKP: What was the attraction for you in deciding to launch a consumer-direct company?
Neugent: I can sum up consumer direct sales in a very short paragraph. For the first time ever, it’s possible to buy well engineered and designed product off the shelf from the same suppliers who supply the premier brands. That is not smoke and mirrors marketing. It’s a fact. Add to that the efficiency of the Internet, and consumers can save 40-60% or more on products of equal quality and design made from the manufacturers who make the “Gucci” brands.
Brands have always used and will be forced into more use of smoke and mirrors marketing – which I define as vastly overstating the benefits of their differences. Now more than ever, they have no choice.
The real challenge for us, as a consumer direct company, is to out perform other consumer direct companies. Customer service is one of the keys. Customer service is not lip service (“Have a nice day.” does not cut it). I define customer service as how efficiently we resolve problems. That is not to say everyone gets everything for free all the time but we go out of our way to treat our customers, and ourselves, fairly.
RKP: Is the emergence of consumer-direct sales in high-quality wheels and composite components and frames really just a matter of product availability overseas? Can it really just be chalked up to Taiwanese and Chinese companies doing more in-house engineering, or were there other market forces that permitted operations like yours to emerge?
Neugent: The emergence of Taiwan and China as good sources of not only engineered product but also well designed product made it easier but the Internet and affordable, easy to use, computer programs were also a major factor. One small case in point. I normally handle about 100 customer correspondences a day (sales or customer service). In a bike shop, it would take 4-5 people to make the same contacts. On all levels, the Internet is driving down costs, making better consumer deals possible. Given that much of Internet technology is less than 10 years old (what was life like before Google?) it’s only natural that most industries, including the bike industry, are lagging behind.
RKP: Are your primary competitors other consumer-direct companies such as Williams, rather than big wheel makers such as Mavic and Zipp?
Neugent: Anyone who sells wheels is my competitor but the two giants are Mavic and Zipp. Zipp now more so because of the increased sales of carbon wheels.
RKP: What is the driver for growth in your product line? Is it just opportunity—availability of product—or is it by design—are there items you have wanted to add to your line?
Neugent: Cash. There is tons of opportunity but you need to be able to pay for it and effectively market it. I have had multiple offers from people wanting to buy the company but it’s not for sale. I plan on doing this a long time. It’s my dream job. But because I want 100% ownership, the growth is limited by my ability to fund it. In terms of new products, I will have a vastly expended saddle line, a tri bike, cross bike, MTB wheels, single speed wheels, and a higher end carbon frame all in the works. Also some additional stems and bars and seat posts (some in white – one of the hottest colors out there). Most are due in 2-6 months.
RKP: What do you see on the horizon for the consumer-direct channel in terms of new products and new challenges?
Neugent: New products – you name it. It’s honestly hard to imagine something you can’t do this way. The fundamental problem companies have is that they focus on the wrong thing. They focus on having new “technology” they claim is better. They they market the heck out of it even though it’s really just different and not better. Don’t tell them this (they won’t listen anyway) but what they need to focus on is how to bring true quality products to consumers for a lower price. That’s what I do. It’s a totally different focus.
The challenges are honestly quite simple and can be summed up by asking “What do my customers want and how do they want to be treated?” It’s simplistic to say that it’s easy to answer those questions while making a fair profit but that’s all there is to it.
As a recent Dilbert blog said “By far, the most interesting thing to anyone, is themself.” Therein lies all real marketing.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity of the interview.
When I was initiated into proper roadiedom, I was taught that if you were serious about doing things the right way, the Euro way, then you did things a certain way. The quickest way to show others you knew what you were doing was to show up on a Campagnolo-equipped bike with a Cinelli bar, stem and seatpost. Your saddle was Italian and your tape was the same color as your decals or the accent color in the windows of your lugs.
That mindset, though it created some gorgeous bikes that served well for tens of thousands of miles, squashed some great ideas over the years. I’m reminded of a Pasadena company, Sweet Parts, that made cranks and stems from steel of surprising stiffness and low weight. Alas, in the mid-1990s it was hard to get a rider to break rank with those suites of parts used in the gruppo or other componentry. After all, if your bar, stem and seatpost were supposed to match, what did you pair an oddball stem to?
Times change, and so do bikes. And while sometimes too much emphasis is placed on weight, it is tough to argue that today’s bikes aren’t noticeably superior in almost every performance aspect: Lower weight makes them easier to accelerate and speeds climbing; increased frame stiffness improves power transmission and more sophisticated componentry has improved shifting, given us more gears and increased brake modulation.
The proliferation of aftermarket components—everything from bars to brakes—means that we’re more accustomed to seeing bikes with parts that may not match. Zipp helped lead the way into this fray some years back. In fact, carbon fiber has been the company’s bread and butter for close to 15 years. Fortunately, the 3k weave used in many carbon fiber parts makes them more similar than not, even if the decals don’t match.
Zipp’s latest crankset for road (as opposed to TT/Tri) use is the VumaQuad. It uses a four-arm spider (the crankarm is one of the four arms of the spider) and is available in two different chainring configurations, either 53/39t or 50/34t; interestingly, both configurations use a 110mm bolt-circle diameter, so you can change chainrings out depending on the conditions or your fitness. The crankset is available in four lengths: 170, 172.5, 175 or 180mm. The spindle is oversized and machined from aluminum to the new BB30 standard; it is integrated into the non-drive arm and secures to the drive-side arm with a self-extracting bolt. And because Zipp is predicated on making you faster, the bottom bracket is offered with ceramic bearings (as well as precision steel); the cups are available in either English or Italian threads. All this in a sub-600g package.
My review setup was 50/34 rings with 175mm arms and ceramic bearings. I tried the cranks first on a bike that previously had a set of carbon fiber cranks that had some detectable flex. I immediately noticed the increased stiffness as well as a weight reduction. The easier spin of the bearings was noticeable (if not hugely apparent) when I sat down and shifted to a small gear for a hill; I felt like I was turning out an extra 10 watts or so.
Next, I swapped the crank over to my preferred ride. This frame is stiffer at the bottom bracket and I was curious to see how much of an improvement I’d feel over the Super Record Ultra-Torque crankset (a review of the Super Record will be coming). The change I felt was comparable to my first ride on the Dura-Ace 7800 crankset—I was stunned by the seamless transmission of power. I had the sense that the bike itself was stiffer at the bottom bracket, even though I knew that wasn’t the case.
Ten years ago I had concerns about parts not matching on my bike. Five years ago I had concerns about the durability of carbon fiber cranks. Last year I started wondering if you could even tell whether your bike had ceramic bearings anywhere other than the wheels. The VumaQuad has super-hero-like powers to alleviate me of anxiety and improve my performance. Of course, all this performance will cost you; $1250 (with ceramic bearings) is a weekend getaway at a swanky resort, but there’s no question in my mind this crankset is superior to every crank I have tried from Campagnolo, Shimano, Specialized and FSA. Honestly though, for that kind of money, you shouldn’t be left wondering if it was worth it.