Zipp Firecrest Shootout: 303, 404, 808, Super-9
article & images by Nick Salazar
May 16, 2012
404 + 808 Carbon Clincher
I've been riding on Firecrest wheels since they first launched in 2010. At that point, I was happy to report that a 404/808 combo was the best all-around tri wheelset on the market. And a year and a half later, and it's still the wheelset to beat. I've had a lot of time on this particular combo, and continue to be impressed by its versatility, convenience, and all-out speed. It's still the first place triathletes should look when building a set of race wheels. Why? First of all, having two spoked wheels means you don't have to deal with disc adapters. And since both are available in carbon clincher form, you can ride them year-round and just swap tires as needed, or reserve a special set for race day. You can more easily experiment with latex tubes to see what the hubbub is all about. I'm riding mine with a 21mm Tangente tire up front, and a Tangente 23mm in the back for a little extra stability.
Because the tires are so easy to change on Zipp's carbon clinchers (you can do it without any tools), I ride these routinely, even on training rides. Zipp has proven its ability to make a tough carbon rim (Roubaix, anyone?) and I'm of the opinion that life's too short not to ride on nice equipment, if you have it. So off I go on my carbon hoops, and the 404/808 set is good for just about anything I throw at it. Moreover, since there's no disc in back, you can use the set at any race, including Kona.
The drawback, of course, is that it's not quite as fast as Zipp's deeper sets. Jump from this set all the way to an 808 front and Super-9 rear, and you get faster by roughly 7 watts. That's significant. It translates into about 30 seconds over the course of a 40k bike leg. So the question for the athlete is whether those 30 seconds are worth the convenience, the improved handling, the peace of mind, and the ability to use these things for daily rides. For me, it often is, especially when traveling.
If you're willing to give up an additional watt or two, swap the 404 for a 303 up front (and I'd pair a 23mm Tangente with the 303). It improves crosswind handling just a little bit more, and is a touch lighter, which is nice for hilly terrain.
Take No Prisoners: 808 + Super-9 Tubular
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the epitome of a race-day wheelset. If you're the kind of athlete who wants to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of your gear, regardless of cost or convenience, then your choice is clear. The 808 front is the fastest spoked wheel that's ever been tested, and even independent results don't show a faster wheel. The Super-9 in back is not only capable of generating negative drag, but is particularly well-suited for today's frames that shield much of the rear wheel already. Its wide, flattish design is the best aero match for most modern frames, and its unrivaled stiffness really feels fast. I set mine up with a 21mm Tangente tubular up front, 23mm Tangente tubular in the rear. Zipp's tubbies are latex, so you get the extra benefit of that low rolling resistance, in a tire that was designed to mate beautifully with these rims.
And yes, while riding this combo in an aero helmet, you'll be able to hear the infamous woosh, woosh of the wheel echo in your helmet as the disc turns through the air. It's almost eerie, as the reverberations I heard inside my Giro Selector actually sounded like they were coming from somewhere else - as in, another rider. But I was the only guy on the road. What these wheels offer, apart from their aerodynamic gifts, is that they instill confidence. You earn the psychological benefit of knowing there's not a faster set of hoops on the planet. Personally, this set can be too much for me on occasion. Mostly, I've just gotten spoiled on clincher convenience, and like knowing that clinchers are easier to change when needed. But for local races, when the wind is dead, and I can bring along extra wheels just in case, then I unleash the beast that is the 808/Super-9 combo. And it's a lot of fun. But most of the time, I scale back to the 404/808 with no regrets. If you can afford just one set of hoops, I recommend the 404/808 CC. If you can afford a second set, or you have no qualms about wind, or creature comforts like clincher tires, the 808/Super-9 is as good as it gets.
Now that we've had a good look at the wheels themselves, let's take a look at the ecosystem of accessories Zipp has built around their rims.