Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher
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Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Wheelset
Zipp 303 Firecrest® Carbon Clincher
Tested June, 2012
What's all the fuss?
So is the perfect answer a carbon clincher? Unfortunately, it's still not clear. Relative to aluminum, carbon is a poor braking surface because it is much "slicker". This means that brake pads work harder to slow the bike, which creates additional heat on the rim. As the wheel heats up, expanding the volume in the inner tube, tires have been known to slip off the rim causing the tube to burst. Sometimes the friction created actually results in melting the carbon and epoxy of the rim, rendering the rim unusable if not downright dangerous. Both cases are pretty worrisome for cyclists. The last thing you want to do is worry about your tires exploding off on a hairy descent!
Given all of these challenges, how would the Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher wheelset fair? On the surface, they seem to have all the attributes.
So how did they ride?
In any case, once on the road, I was immediately impressed. They are very stiff vertically and accelerate quickly. They also felt "bullet proof"--not wispy like a superlight climbing wheel. On the flats, the aero benefits were definitely noticeable; they felt nearly as fast as the current 60mm front/90mm rear combo that I normally ride on with Fuji D-6 triathlon bike. On a glorious stretch of several miles I towed a fellow road biker (who happened to be running Zipp 404 Firecrests) at speeds well over 30 mph. The wheels were awesome!
Were they affected by crosswinds? At 150 pounds, cross winds do affect me. And with these wheels, they still did. However, unlike traditional aero wheels, the 303's were extremely easy to steer right back in line. There wasn't the heavy and alarming resistance that is typical of other aero rim designs. Zipp explains it as such:
"By moving the center of pressure – the focal point of side forces on the rim – to its optimal location near the steering axis, Firecrest offers stable, predictable handling at every wind angle."
The fellow rider on the 404's explained it as a "caster effect". Imaging you are pushing a shopping cart and the wheel is reversed with the mass way out in front. When you push, the wheel swings back in to line, tugging the whole cart with it. Now think of the wheel in it's proper orientation; it steers and self-corrects easily. This helped me visualize how these Zipps work. And you really feel it in practice; the wind may tug at the wheels but they come back to straight with very little drama or effort. With older deep wheel designs, in strong winds, it feels more like the wind is coming at you, trying to push the bike out from under you. The 303 Firecrest design really is dremarkably different and more stable.
Additionally, the wheels braked exceptionally well; I didn't notice a performance difference relative to aluminum rims and the pads didn't squeal.
Quibbles? The preload on the rear bearing seemed to be a little loose and there was some horizontal play in the wheel; going over road debris was a bit jarring at times. I didn't fiddle with the preload but it's something I'd have a mechanic dial in.
At $2,700, these wheels are not cheap, however, at any triathlon, you'll see that Zipps are extremely popular; their customers are already spending big for a race day wheelset. As an all-rounder, the 303 Firecrests are extremely versatile. They would be fantastic in triathlon use (perhaps put a disc cover on the rear wheel), would be phenomenal in bike racing, are strong enough for 'cross, and would make you feel like a hero in training rides. Given the versatility, perhaps the price isn't that outrageous after all.
Value: 4.5 stars (if you can afford 'em!)
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