For many years Zipp has served as the gold standard for carbon wheels. While they still rank high on many riders’ wish lists, they are now facing more competition from brands such as Bontrager, Enve, Lightweight, Williams, and many others. Many of these competitors are coming it at lower price points or boast lighter wheel weights which seems to be allowing them to grab some of Zipp’s market share. However, Zipp is constantly pushing innovation; to this end they introduced their new, full carbon clincher and the updated Firecrest rim in 2010. The shape of the rim is not the only difference from previous versions; the rim itself is wider as well. The full carbon Firecrest clincher is lighter than previous versions of the same wheel and Zipp claims the wheels are more aerodynamic, provide better handling, and a smoother ride. The reworked rim shape is meant to add an aerodynamic advantage as well as more stability in cross-winds while the wider rim is supposed to offer several advantages.
Zipp sums up their take on the advantages of a wider rim on their site:
…a wider rim offers greater vertical compliance for control and comfort on rough surfaces while increasing lateral stiffness for sprinting and cornering. The same holds true for Firecrest rims with clincher tires. And because the hook beads are farther apart, the tire itself takes on a more stable shape without adding rolling resistance.
We won’t go into all the details on the specs because this information can easily be found over at the Zipp Website.
So we wanted to know, is this all just a bunch of hype meant to sell more wheels or is there really something to the redesign? We purchased a new set of 2013 Zipp Firecrest 404 carbon clinchers to compare to other wheelsets we have ridden. The Firecrests were an upgrade from a set of 2009 Zipp 404 clinchers. We had also been riding on Zipp 303 clinchers, Zipp 404 tubulars, Planet X 50mm full carbon clinchers, Zipp 808/900 tubulars, Dura-Ace tubeless, and various brands of box rims over the past few years.
Let’s face it, when it comes down to it, we want our equipment to look hot. It needs to be sleek, well designed, and just look fast. The Zipp Firecrest 404s meet each of these requirements. We have received many compliments on the look of the wheels once they were mounted to the bike. When you roll up on a set of Firecrests, you will at least look the part.
Many wheelsets do come in at lighter weights but these wheels are lighter than the previous incarnations and considering their 58mm depth, they are very light wheels. Zipp claims a weight of 1525grams (Front 695g/Rear 830g) with a rider weight limit of 250lbs. Our wheelset is built up with a 2013 SRAM Red Cassette (11/23), 23mm Vittoria Open Corsas, and Zipp skewers. Moving from the heavier aluminum rim 404 to the lighter full carbon version provided several advantages such as quicker accelerations and faster climbing. The difference was slight, but a reduction in rotating weight provides much more of a performance advantage than a reduction of static weight from the bike.
These wheels are stiffer than their previous counterparts thanks to the new design and wider rim profile. Sprinting, cornering, and even climbing are where the increased stiffness is felt most. The wheels carved corners cleanly and we felt there was a small, yet noticeable improvement in high-speed cornering during criterium racing. The wheels accelerated up to speed in sprints quickly. We also noticed an immediate improvement when chasing other riders up hills on the local group rides. These differences are surely due to a combination of factors but the stiffer wheel set was definitely a contributing factor. However, even though they are stiffer, better lateral compliance allowed for a smooth ride that did not leave us feeling every bump in the road.
Sometimes it can be hard to separate the hype from real world performance. You can buy the next newest thing and not be sure if you can truly feel any difference in performance. That is not the case when it comes to these wheels and the claim of improved cross-wind performance. If there is one claim from Zipp about the new Firecrest design that we can fully support without any hesitation, it is the crosswind stability of this new rim shape. It was the most significant difference between this wheelset and any other deep carbon wheels we have ridden, including our previous set of 404s. The wheels delivered amazing performance in cross-winds of 20mph. Even when the winds began to blow in the 30mph range there was almost no detriment to handling felt. The front-end remained stable in winds that were bothersome on older, non-Firecrest, Zipp 404s and other brands of wheels in the 50-60mm depth range. While not impervious to cross-winds, one or two wind-gusts have caused slight front-end instability, these have far surpassed our expectations in their ability to muffle the effects of side-winds. We can only imagine that throwing a 303 Firecrest on the front would all but eliminate cross-wind troubles.
That being said, our test rider’s weight is n the 170-175lb range. Obviously, a bike with a heavier rider is going to be a little more stable in cross-winds. A lighter rider might still have issues when the winds start blowing at higher speeds. This would be the case no matter what deep wheelset they are riding. If you are a lighter rider who has control issues with deeper rims, you might want to consider running a 404 rear/303 front combination or a complete set of 303s.
How they Roll
Aerodynamics, stiffness, and the hub all go into making this wheel roll fast. When riding at speeds around 27-30mph the wheels really felt like they held their speed better than other wheels we have ridden. They seemed to roll further and hold their speed longer.
Carbon wheels have always suffered from weaker braking than their aluminum rimmed counterparts. In dry weather, with the included Zipp brake pads, these wheels perform great. Breaking is strong and a big improvement over other full-carbon wheels we have used in the past. We had the chance to try them out in the rain as well. While we could tell that wet-weather braking performance has been improved, there is still a lot of room for improvement. They still do not perform as well as aluminum rims. In fact, while we would probably be ok racing with these wheels in a wet road race, we might think twice in a high-speed criterium and go with a set of aluminum rims in that case.
There is no way around it, these wheels are expensive. While some comparable wheelsets come with higher price tags, some come in slightly lower as well. With a retail price 2725.00 before taxes and/or shipping, this is speed that is going to cost you.
A Bump in the Road
While we have been happy with the performance of these wheels we have come across one issue. After less a month on these new wheels the rear wheel was badly in need of truing. A quick trip to the local shop fixed the issue but we will keep you updated if this continues to be an issue. A little research online came across several riders with the same issue so this might be something to consider if you are thinking about a new wheel purchase. It might be a break-in period issue and not a big deal but we feel that 3000 is a lot to spend on a wheelset that has to be trued less than a month after it is taken out of the box.
Zipp has improved on the flagship wheelset. The Firecrest 404s are a stiff, light, and fast set of wheels. We felt that the new design improved nearly all aspects of the wheels. These are wheels that are meant to go fast and they definitely crave speed. The performance of these wheels are best felt at higher speeds, so those riders who are constantly pushing the pace at 20+mph are going to notice the most performance advantage. The lighter, stiffer, and wider wheels perform well in all situations we have come across on the road. They climb better than previous versions of the 404, they sprint up to speed very well, the provide increased stability in cross-winds, and carve out corners like they are on rails. Assuming the issue we ran into with the wheel true doesn’t become a continuing problem, we would recommend these wheels to anyone who is looking to improve their ride and take advantage of what an full carbon, deep rim wheelset has to offer. Assuming, that is, they have the money to spend.
The creaking issue was more or less taken care of with the reapplication of the grease. However, the issue with the wheel true degraded to the point of making the wheel unusable. By the end of each ride (truing has been required once to twice a week just to keep the wheel rideable) the wheel was so badly out of true it would most often be rubbing the brake pads on each rotation, sometimes on both sides. Several mechanics from different shops tried their hand at fixing the issue to no avail.
Customer service from Zipp was less than helpful with a quick suggestion of, “apply Loctite.” Why buyers should need to overhaul their new wheel set that costs almost three grand is beyond us but we went ahead and followed their suggestion.
After the Loctite had been applied and was given ample time to set we mounted the bike for a local group ride, sure that the problem would now be solved but realized quickly that it had reared its ugly head again when a rider following behind asked, “What is going on with your wheel?”
On a side note, two other riders in our area have recently suffered issues with their Firecrest 404 rear wheels. Both of them have suffered structural cracks during normal use. Quality control could be an issue creeping into the Zipp manufacturing process which is something to keep an eye on.
We will keep adding updates as the situation unfolds. At this point, we are beginning regret not opting to try the new Bontrager wheels we contemplated at the time of purchase.
UPDATE 8-5-13: After several weeks of use the rear wheel began making a very noticeable, and very annoying, creaking noise. The noise got so bad we were afraid to continue using the wheel. After some online research it seems to be an issues Zipp wheels have been having for a while After taking the hub apart and adding some grease the noise seems to have abated for the time being.This issue, combined with the rear wheel needing a true every week for the first 4-5 weeks has us questioning the durability of the Zipp wheels and the quality control from the factory.
We don’t feel that a wheelset with an MSRP of almost $3000.00 should have these sort of issues out of the box. Riders are paying for top-quality gear and they should get what they are paying for. We will continue to monitor these wheels and let you know if we continue to have issues or concerns with more use…