Thursday, March 22, 2012

Classics Leadout Part 3: The Wheels that Changed the Game

The cobbled classics punish a cyclist’s equipment.  They are the hardest test of durability for rider and his machine alike –passing over some of the most brutal terrain imaginable in a road race.  Teams and manufacturers are constantly looking to improve on the durability and performance of the equipment they use in these races.  Only recently has a full carbon wheel been able to pass through the gauntlets that are the cobbled classics.  In 2010 Zipp’s 303s  became the first carbon wheel to win in Flanders and Roubaix in the same year under the already legendary performance of Fabian Cancellara.  They followed that up with a repeat in Flanders in 2011—this time piloted by dark horse Nick Nuyens. 

Cancellara pilots the 303s to victory in the 2010 Paris-Roubaix

What is so special about Zipp’s 303s?  Why such a streak of dominance after years of carbon failure in these races?  They are just that good—that’s why.  Professional palmares, however, only go so far for us average joes.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning on making a run at Roubaix or Flanders in the near future—so why should I need a wheel that can take that kind of punishment?

To find out if the average earthling really needs these wheels, we set up our good friend and local crit crusher, Mike Egan, with a set of the new Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers to get his unabated feedback.  We didn’t prep him, coach him, or ask for any specific glowing review.  We said, “Here are some new wheels to try for a bit.  We’d like to know what you think.”

After sending him away with the wheels for a couple weeks, this is the write up Mike sent back to me:

“The success of a wheel company is often found at how well it capitalizes on the intersection of the science and real-world results of its product.  If the science is poor, it can hope that "might makes right" and they can point to results.  The problem with this approach is that the consumer is smart enough to know that it's the Indian, not the arrow, which determines the result.
If the results are poor, the company can hope to appeal to its own quantitative success in the wind tunnel, the lab, or on the scale.  The problem with this approach is that often times, might does make right for the consumer who thinks "I, too, can be like Fabian Cancellara if I ride what he's riding."
Fortunately for Zipp, they are able to market its wheels as being successful at both.
So, how do they ride?  That’s the question I will try to answer in a practical way.  I don’t care about the R&D results, and I don’t care that Fabian Cancellara won a bike race on them.  Bike races don’t take place in the lab, and I can’t hold 500 watts for the last 30 minutes of a 5-hour race.
I will “review” these wheels using 3 performance metrics important to all racers:  the steady-state interval; the fast paced group ride; and the four-cornered criterium.”

Steady-state interval:
The ability to go fast in a straight line is Zipp’s core competency, and it is evident in my interval session.  A simple 20-minute sub-lactate interval on a climb of about 3%, the Zipps were impressive.  Even the most rigid of Zipp detractors have often said, in a critique after use, some variation of the sentence “….BUT, once I got them up to speed…” and it was clear why during the interval.  Zipp’s Technical Director, Josh Poertner, has said that wheel depth is important, but it is secondary to shape. According to Zipp, all of the hallmark characteristics of the 303 have improved with the Firecrest Carbon Clincher. The Firecrest shaping optimizes the aerodynamic profile of both the front half and the back half of the wheel. In addition, Firecrest moves the center of pressure of the wheel backwards, giving the 45 mm-deep rim the crosswind stability a box-section rim. At the same time, the 26.2 mm-wide brake track allows the clincher tire to take on a wider, more stable shape without compromising rolling resistance. It’s faster, simpler, and more stable. Or as Poertner puts it, Firecrest is “lightning in a bottle,” claiming to be the “fastest, lightest, and strongest.”  What I love most about the Zipps is they just feel fast, and while it is the job of Poertner and his ilk to quantify this feeling, all that matters when the rubber meets the road is that the feeling is there…. and it is good.
The radically different firecrest shape gave Mike just what he was looking for...

Fast-paced group ride:
It is this notion of feel that, in my opinion, has led to the hesitation of many cyclists, both amateur and pro, to use Zipp wheels.  A battle I’m sure Zipp and other cutting edge equipment designers have waged for quite some time—they KNOW their product is the fastest to race on, but the rider undermines thousands of hours of research and development with the simple sentence, “but, it feels sluggish.”  Well, the Zipp 303 felt anything but sluggish.  A sluggish wheel requires a certain amount of overcompensation in order to “get up to speed,” and that is a luxury that a time-trialist can afford, but not one doing the BOS Ride in Scottsdale Arizona.  In this fast-paced group ride featuring 3 separate climbs of over 8 minutes in length, I was not fighting the 303s, they were my companion. 
The antithesis of sluggish is jumpy and it is the highest “lay” complement a rider can give a wheel or frame.  Forget vertical compliance, I don’t know what that means and I don’t care—if a wheel is jumpy, I’m sold.  The Zipps were jumpy.  And what’s nice about the 303 is that it is the perfect balance of weight and aerodynamics.  According to Zipp, the 303 Firecrest is 8 percent faster than the wheel that took victories at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and has been completely redesigned using the Firecrest shaping. The Carbon Clincher preserves the aerodynamic advantages of its tubular brother, while adding the convenience of a clincher tire. And at just 1,498g, it’s light enough to climb up the steepest gradients with ease. 
Many also complain that with many aero wheel sets their stability starts to decrease as the winds, particularly the cross-winds, start to increase.  The Firecrest shape combined with the 45mm rim depth of the 303 has eliminated this completely.  It can get windy in Arizona, and not once did I feel “squirrely.”

4-Corner Criterium:
And here is where I put the Zipps to the ultimate test: A 60-minute, 4-corner criterium on the East Coast of Florida.  Speed is important in a time-trial; feel is important on the road; and while both combine to play important roles in a crit, confidence is most critical.  If you are not confident in your equipment when racing a crit, you race is over before it even begins.

The race began with myself and 30 other guys (including 2 teams of 8) hammering each other hoping to establish a breakaway.  Because 50% of the field was made up of 2 teams, no attack could contain a member of these 2 teams or else my race would be over.  So I went with just about everything!  I went with 2 out of every 3 attacks, every single attack containing a member of the 2 teams, and bridged to several others. 
The process of bridging in a crit usually requires both an attack and a very aggressive turn through a corner.  This sentence reads like a blatant advertisement, but the 303’s cornered as though on rails.  Attacking, cornering, bridging… and then with 30 minutes to go hoping to establish a break, I attacked on my own.  By now I knew that I could rely on Zipp’s superior aerodynamics and although my attempt ultimately failed (a break caught me, but we were caught by the field near the end of the race), it was the confidence I had in the equipment that manifested itself in my desire and ability to race aggressively. 

I wanted to test the Zipps in a variety of different circumstances and hold off forming an opinion until the conclusion, but now I have no hesitation in claiming the 303s to be the very best wheels I have ever raced on and hasten to add that the 303 Firecrest CC is the perfect wheel, combining the best of weight, aerodynamics, or in my case—speed and feel.  The hardest thing for me to do will be giving them back.”
I just want to emphasize again: I did not solicit an overtly positive review from Mike.  In fact, I was expecting a less emphatic reaction from him—but I guess that points to the quality of manufacturing and research that Zipp has achieved.  I also want to be careful not to get carried away here.  Mike might beg to differ, but I am a really strong believer that there is no “perfect” wheel—or any component for that matter.  Gains in one area usually mean diminishing returns in another, and not to sound totally trite, but a jack of all trades often is a master of none.  Zipp’s jack, however, is edging ever closer to master status.  

I also found some really interesting videos about the 303 and its durability and victories at Flanders.  Check them out:

Overall, Zipp has come up with a superb all around wheel set with the 303 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers.  It is not a pure climbing wheel—there are lighter options.  It’s not a pure aero wheel—there are more aerodynamic options.  So if you have the cash for several “specialist” wheel sets, you can surely mix and match to get the perfect set up for every situation, but if you are looking to make one solid investment to suit many needs—these wheels are what you need.  Just ask Cancellara or Nuyens—they worked out alright for them. 

Do you have questions, ideas, or products you would like to see reviewed? Let me know what you want to see in this blog in the future! Contact me at or comment below.  Happy riding!

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