Thursday, January 26, 2012

Zipp 404 Firecrest Clincher Review

Zipp's new 404 Firecrests mounted up and ready to roll.
Before I get to the review, I want to give a big shout out to Dave and Geoff at Durham Cycles for hooking me up with these wheels to test.  If you're in the Durham, NC area and you're in need of work done on your bike, parts/accessories, looking for a new bike, or just want to hang out and talk bikes, you'd be hard pressed to find a friendlier or more knowledgeable couple of guys.

Folks, first of all I apologize for the lack of updates.  Writing a PhD. dissertation is really starting to get in the way of riding bikes.  Today it hit 60 degrees, and I decided I had to put in a ride.  Thanks to the fine folks at Durham Cycles, I got to demo a pair of Zipp's new 404 Firecrest wheels wrapped in Vittoria Rubino Pros for about 50 miles today. According to Zipp, these are the new hotness in aero wheels, claimed weight of 1557g, the new blunt Firecrest shape, 58mm deep with the familiar dimples, a new heat resistant brake track, and yours for a mere (sit down for this one) $2700.  I won't bore you with the details, and just get right into answering the question: so how do these super-wheels ride?   Hit the break to find out.

I was anticipating heaping superlative after superlative on these wheels with every pedal stroke, and so it was with high hopes that I swung onto the Mt. Sinai Rd. climb at a hard interval pace and...well...you know that scene from Star Wars: A New Hope (the first of the three good ones) where Han, Luke, Chewy and the rest of the gang are trying to escape a Star Destroyer and the Han goes (something like) "Get ready for hyperspace!" and everyone gets ready for fireworks and the Falcon's hyperdrive falls on its face?  Yeah, that's what it felt like.

These wheels aren't heavy by any means, but being deep aero wheels, it's not hard to tell that most of their 1557 grams are in the rims.  Compared to the Ksyrium SL wheelset I normally ride, they were noticeably harder to spin up to speed.  I'm not sure if Zipp really wants to keep touting these as aero wheels that can climb on their website, because the 404s make you earn those climbs!  At least since I was hard out of the saddle for most of the climb, I got a chance to see how stiff these wheels are.  I'm happy to report that the word "flex" doesn't appear in these wheels' vocabulary.  Even running the brake blocks very close to the rim yielded no brake rub, and the minimalist skewers clamped the wheels very well into the dropouts.

Leaving the hard climb behind, and wondering if these wheels were more hype than performance, I headed into the next stretch of my loop.  This stretch took me through the rolling hills of Dairyland, Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the surrounding farms.  It didn't take more than a few pedal strokes before everything I had just thought about the wheels changed.  Just like the Millenium Falcon after Han smacked the control console, these wheels absolutely came alive and jumped me into hyperspace.

 "Chewy, if only we had 404 Firecrests on the Falcon when we made the Kessel Run, we could have made it in like 11 parsecs."

The 404s brake track has a special high temperature resin.
Notice the trademark Zipp dimples on the non-braking
surface.

As I tucked down into drops and settled into the big gears, glances down toward the computer to check my speed were met with amazement. Sustaining 28, 29, and even 30+ miles an hour on rolling terrain was not only attainable (by a hack like me) but felt, if not easy, then at least tolerable.  The faster you go, the faster these wheels want to go.  Small climbs were dealt with without downshifting, with the inertia of the wheels -- that had earlier worked against me --  carrying me up and over the hills.  As far as aero performance goes, Zipp's new blunt Firecrest shape works, and the advantage is very very real.  I should note that the aero advantage of these wheels is only pronounced above 21 or 22 miles an hour, and they don't really come into their own until you reach speeds in the high 20s.  This is no fault of the wheels, since that's true of any aero bike component, but it's still worth keeping in mind.  

Crosswind performance was also just as good.  Part of the ride involved a long bridge over a highway, a stretch notorious for crosswinds.  The Zipps performed admirably, and displayed no lateral yaw under a stiff crosswind.  In fact, aside from a slight lean of the bike (easily countered by shifting my weight slightly into the wind), there was hardly any indication a crosswind was present, and I was able to comfortably ride one handed and grab a drink.


Zipp 404 front hub.
Braking performance has long been the Achilles heel of full carbon wheels, but with the 404s, Zipp claims to have solved the issue with a special heat-resistant resin on the brake tracks.  Whatever they did, it worked.  I did not notice any wobble or shuddering that normally comes with carbon wheelsets and the braking power was as strong as aluminum rims.  However, compared to aluminum rims, braking was more grabby with less modulation and a noticeably louder braking noise.  I was using the Zipp supplied Swisstop pads on Ultegra calipers.

Zipp 404 rear hub
The hubs on the rims are quite thin, and the rear hub flanges are as not wide apart as some other wheels.  This is mainly to keep the spokes farther way from the seat and chainstays, and reduce turbulence and drag.  Despite this, as mentioned earlier, these wheels are absolutely rock solid, with no detectable flex, even under my 200+ pounds.  The hubs spin very smoothly, although I did experience several partial freehub engagements, announced with a loud "pop".  The wide rims (23.5mm at the top of the brake track, flanging to 25.8mm at the bottom) provided ample volume, even for the 700x23c tires (I normally ride 700x25c), and the ride was nothing if not downright cushy at 120psi in the tires.  The 700x23c tires also exhibited noticeably less "lightbulb" effect, helping the ride and smoothing airflow at the tire/rim interface.

The wheels use standard exposed nipples at the rim, with 16 straight pull spokes laced radially on the front and 20 straight pull spokes laced radially on the drive side and 2-cross on the non-drive side in the rear.  Despite these wheels being brand new, I did not experience any pinging or twanging of settling spokes.  There is nothing about these wheels that doesn't ooze quality.  If the loud red/yellow stickers aren't your thing, don't worry, they're only on the demo wheels and the normal wheels come with black and white stickers.

Bottom line: do these wheels deserve the term "superwheel"? In a word, yes, but not without a few caveats. If you mostly ride or race on rolling terrain without severe or extended climbs, or if you are a triathlete, they will fit your needs perfectly. In fact, the comfort and crosswind performance of these these wheels would be perfect for a windy Ironman course like Kona. However, if you are a climber or race crits, these wheels are probably not your best choice. Despite their low weight, Zipp can't disguise that fact that these are 58mm deep clinchers, and that a great deal of material lies close to the outer edge of the wheel.  Also, unless you are a strong rider and able to sit at 20+mph all day long, you will not reap all the aerodynamic benefits of this wheel.  Finally, while I have no doubts about Zipp's claim that this wheel is strong enough to handle the rigors of training, they are still full carbon wheels, and more susceptible to crash damage than aluminum wheels.  For most people, wheels like these are raceday treasures, and will rarely see the light of day otherwise.  And that brings me to the final point: if you buy these wheels, you will be spending $2700 on a set of wheels that will only see action on racedays.  For most, that's just not justifiable.  For the lucky few for whom having these wheels make sense, just promise to let us regular folks draft off of you.

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