Zipp Firecrest Shootout: 303, 404, 808, Super-9
article & images by Nick Salazar
May 16, 2012
One of the most shocking results Zipp found with the Firecrest shape was what it could do when properly applied to the 808. The first important result was that it's faster than the 1080, previously the fastest spoked wheel Zipp had ever tested. And perhaps more significantly, the 808 is a full 27mm shallower than the 1080. Accordingly, the 1080 has been dropped from Zipp's lineup, since the 808 is better in every way. But what's even more interesting is that the 808, in independent tests not conducted by Zipp, is faster than some discs. You can bet that's an impressive result.
The wheel is all business: it's stiff as a board, slices through the wind like butter, and with Firecrest shaping, handles like a much shallower wheel. Still, for front use, I'd save it for calmer days. Many pros race it even in the notorious crosswinds at Kona. Macca even won the race using a pair of 808 Firecrests. If you know you're a solid bike handler, and have had no problems with deep wheels in the past, by all means grab the 808. But if you have your doubts, there's nothing wrong with going a little shallower up front. For me, the peace of mind is worth the aero sacrifice. Others come out differently.
What I really like the 808 for is rear use. As mentioned, it's almost like a disc, but doesn't carry the inconvenience of needing a pump adapter or valve hole cover, and the carbon clincher provides an undeniable convenience.
Super-9 Disc: The Real Deal
As far as aerodynamics go, a disc is typically as fast as it gets. Above, I mentioned that the 808 has been able to best some discs in wind tunnel tests, but it doesn't beat the Super-9. Zipp has been making them for over two decades, and the Super-9 is the absolute cutting edge. It's based on the same wide-rim concept that eventually led to the Firecrest line. And funny enough, it's actually simpler in design than their breakthrough Sub-9, the hybrid-toroidal disc that first recorded negative drag. The Sub-9 is still available, and is roughly equal to the Super-9 in terms of drag. The distinction between the two is primarily stiffness. The Super-9 has a honeycomb-grid core all the way from the hub to the tire bed, and as a result, the wheel is incredibly stiff. The Sub-9 on the other hand, is hollow where it bulges out, and consequently provides a more compliant ride.
Choosing between these two discs comes down to personal preference, and I actually like the stiff ride. Some athletes find it more fatiguing over the course of a long race, but don't tell that to Marino Van Hoenacker - he broke the Ironman world record in 2011, riding a Super-9 rear and an 808 front. Ben Hoffman prefers the Super-9 as well, as he told me in Hawaii last year.
In terms of rideability, the disc is a good choice on nearly any course (except for the few that prohibit discs, like Ironman Hawaii). Even smaller riders should be able to ride it in all but the most extreme wind conditions - remember it's the front wheel that has the biggest effect on handling. However, I tend to save my discs for races where I can easily bring a couple wheelsets along. A disc is a bit more of a hassle to deal with - you have to use a special adapter just to pump it up, which once got stuck on the valve and I ended up needing a wrench to pull it off. That's not Zipp's fault, it's just the nature of the beast. Then you have to cover the valve hole with a sticker, that is prone to fall off after you apply and remove it enough times. (Fortunately, Zipp sends you 5 of them with every disc, minimizing the hassle.) On top of all that, the Super-9 is currently only available in tubular form, meaning if you want to take advantage of the "clincher convenience" of the firecrest line, you'd be best served to avoid the disc. Otherwise you'll need two types of spares in your flat kit.
But all that said, this disc is a powerhouse. It's faster than every spoked wheel that Zipp makes, giving you back almost 20 seconds over the course of a 40k ride. It's the right choice to make when every second counts, and convenience is a secondary factor.
Those four wheels represent the core of Zipp's lineup. There are a couple other disc options, and I didn't cover the 101 or 202, which aren't really meant for triathletes. Now the question becomes how to combine these wheels - what should you grab up front, and what should you put in the back? Hit the jump to get my recommendations.