Zipp Firecrest Shootout: 303, 404, 808, Super-9
article & images by Nick Salazar
May 16, 2012
One of the ways in which Zipp differentiates itself is that they don't just make rims; Zipp manufacturers nearly every component of the wheel. That includes the 88/188 hubset, the Tangente tires, the new-for-2012 Zipp butyl tubes, Zipp valve extenders, Zipp skewers, and even Zipp rim tape. Even the Platinum Pro pads carry the Zipp name, but are manufactured by one of the biggest names in pads, SwissStop.
The result of this end-to-end integration is that the resulting system is one that has predictable performance. All the components work in harmony to form one coherent product. This production methodology may remind you of another company, and the comparison seems fair. You could say that Zipp is the Apple of tri wheels.
Sure, you could mount up other tires, or even buy the rims separately and build them with different hubs. But the system was designed to work together, and it does so flawlessly. The rim tape is a one-piece semi-elastic material that snaps into place without any fuss. The Tangente tires mate beautifully with the rims, and the tubular versions are latex for low rolling resistance. The new butyl clincher tubes won't satisfy the latex aficionados, but they feature aluminum valves which save up to 11g per wheel, and reduce the high-speed wobble that a brass valve can produce.
The real centerpiece of the system, apart from the rims, is the 88/188 hubset. It's manufactured in-house at Zipp's Indiana headquarters, and it's rather amazing for an alloy hubset. It manages to strike a very good balance between light weight, wide bearing stance, and durable bearing sizes. Zipp makes little changes to the hubset every so often, including a minor shape revision this year intended to add stiffness. I can't say I detect the difference, but it's a good hubset nevertheless. There's a reason you don't see a lot of Zipp rims built with third-party hubs, and it's that there's really no need to do so.
Although it's a small aesthetic change, one of my favorite additions for 2012 is the new colorway, dubbed Beyond Black. The hubs, spokes, nipples, decals, and even the skewers have been anodized black, and the result is a set of wheels that's very stealthy, while retaining Zipp's branding. For the photo gallery, I also removed the wheels from the disc to show off its incredible construction, but it normally has the same decals as an 808. You can still snag the traditional type of colorway, called Falcon Grey. But the black decals are pretty slick. They're actually reflective, and catch more light at different angles.
If you haven't been able to tell yet, I'm a big fan of what Zipp does. But I've tried to explain in more objective terms why I like their gear. It's well-conceived, well-crafted, and performs to perfection. Of all the high-end wheels on the market, Zipp is the brand I keep coming back to again and again. I'm even more impressed now that the Firecrest line has been "completed" with the addition of the 303. But as always, there are tradeoffs to consider, and the primary one here is price. With a retail of $2700, a pair of Firecrest Carbon Clinchers is among the most expensive wheelsets out there. The tubular variety is less expensive, if you prefer them. And as with many things at the high-end of the pricing spectrum, there is a level of diminishing returns in terms of what you're buying. Are the aerodynamic benefits or weight advantages of Zipp wheels worth two to three times what cheaper wheels offer? For the budget-conscious rider, they probably aren't. But for those who have an itch for the finer things in life, Zipp's allure is tough to resist.