Zipp Firecrest Shootout: 303, 404, 808, Super-9
article & images by Nick Salazar
May 16, 2012
In my opinion, Zipp's biggest news this year is the release of the 303 Firerest. The wheel was completely redesigned from the ground up with the wide rim shaping that worked so well on the 404 and 808. The new 303 is fast. And while it doesn't quite hit the drag numbers of its deeper siblings, it represents a very compelling choice for those who are willing to trade the aero performance for a lighter wheel that performans even better in the wind. It's a huge win for smaller riders, less experienced riders, or those just sick of fighting harsh winds in their area.
When I took these out for the video review, gusts were uncharacteristically high, going up to 50mph. Which is kindof ridiculous. In those winds, the best remedy was having the 303 up front, which not only handled the wind with grace, but is a joy to take uphill. It's still plenty stiff, and with a 23mm Tangente tire up front, provided a very comfortable ride. The water cooler talk among triathletes is that you "have" to get a deep set of wheels to go fast. Well, that simply isn't true. The beauty of Firecrest is that is scales so well, that even the 303 is a true race wheel. If you do a lot of races with significant climbing, or worry about wind, I can't recommend the 303 enough, as a front wheel.
Zipp hasn't positioned this wheel specifically as a triathlon wheel, but like it or not, the 303 has become an excellent option for triathletes. The 404 used to be Zipp's do-it-all set, but with Firecrest tech, the 303 is threatening to take that title.
The 404: Old Faithful
Zipp has been making 58mm-deep wheels for a long time. The 404 has been Zipp's most universal, best-loved rim since before it even carried the 404 name. And this its reputation is well-deserved. The 58mm depth strikes a near perfect balance between light weight, aerodynamics, stiffness, and crosswind handling. The introduction of Firecrest improved all of the latter characteristics without affecting weight. And the carbon clinchers actually saved quite a bit of weight compared to the previous generation of aluminum clinchers.
In terms of aerodynamics, the 404 sits in quite the sweet spot. Between its two Firecrest siblings, it's closer to the 303 in terms of depth, but closer to the 808 in terms of aerodynamic performance. In short, the 404 represents the best depth-to-aero ratio of any Firecrest wheel.
If you want to judge a wheel by its results, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single fault with the 404 - it's won enough races to be a team unto itself, across just about every discipline in the sport: long-course, short-course, ITU, etc. When in doubt, you can slap on a pair of 404's and know you're using one of the best wheelsets on the market. This may be why Specialized chose to stock 404's as original equipment on the top-end Shiv launched last year.
To nitpick the 404 would be an exercise in frivolity. It's a fantastic wheel with a lot of history, and it's clear that the 404 deserves a place on everyone's short list.