Indianapolis-based Zipp has long been a pioneer of innovation. They were one of the earliest wheel makers to embrace carbon, and also at the forefront of the aero revolution. When Zipp innovates it does so in a clear and well-thought-through way. At the end of 2017, the company boldly relaunched their full line of carbon wheels with disc brakes and tubeless ready.
Zipp’s famed 303 Firecrest wheels have long been regarded as one of the most versatile, all-around sets on the market. At 45 mm, 303s are deep enough to provide discernible aero benefits to just about any bike. They are not so deep, however, that they toss riders around in pesky cross winds. In full disclosure, for years I ran (and brutalized) a set of 303s on a carbon race bike. No matter what indignity I put them through, they remained as reliable, rock solid and steadfast as a trusty old canine companion. Those wheels gave new meaning to the phrase “man’s best friend.”
Zipp clearly understands the category of road biking is rapidly expanding. No longer feeling constrained to classic tarmac, riders are eagerly pushing the boundaries of where to ride. “Without Limits” is even the phrase Zipp is using to market the 303s. So when a new set of the tubeless, disc 303 Firecrest wheels landed on the doorstep, I anxiously plotted an unfettered, full-throttle no-holds-barred test.
Out of the box, these wheels come ready to party. They include tubeless stems and a variety of hub end caps, which means the wheels can be mounted to both quick-release or thru-axle frames. The 303s need only the addition of tyres, sealant and a set of discs.
Wanting to put the wheels to a proper mixed-surface test, I planned to run them on a new Cannondale SuperX SE. This meant the rear wheel needed a subtle re-dishing to ensure it was properly centred on the frame’s asymmetric chainstays. With some quick adjustments by my neighborhood wheel guy, Fred (also as reliable, rock solid and steadfast as a trusty old canine companion), we were nearly in business. We mounted the 303s with a set of 32c Maxxis Re-Fuse tyres—plush enough for extended hours in the saddle, but sturdy enough to handle most surfaces: road, dirt, gravel or swaths of broken beer-bottle shards in nearby hobo encampments.
To date, this wheel-tyre combination has withstood every test with champion-level audacity. My local proving ground is a neighborhood course with 11 dirt sectors; it dishes out neary 500 metres of climbs over 15 km. The dirt climbs and descents are typically rutted, steep and punchy. Having the wheels set up tubeless means the tyres can run at a lower pressure. This does not entirely eliminate the bumpiness of a rutted descent, but it certainly eases it. A knobbier, more off-road tyre might be even more suitable for some sections, but the Maxxis Re-Fuse grips the surface with confident authority. Although it may very well be outside of Zipp’s recommended usage, these wheels—on this course—may sometimes get more than a little airborne. The blunt landings have forced the disc brakes a little off center, but the wheels themselves have remained straight and true.
On long 160-km group rides, the wheels and tyres hold their own against riders on pure road set-ups. The wider Re-Fuse tyres are remarkably grippy, and I assumed I’d have to work harder to maintain pace with other riders. Not so. Once up to cruising speed, the wheels had a rotational speed that allowed me to sit in comfortably behind stronger riders without skipping any pulls. In other words, relative to those riders, there was no extraneously wasted energy. Many, in fact, looked on with more than a spot of envy as I darted onto adjacent dirt and gravel side trails while they remained tethered to tarmac. As might be expected, on long road descents, with this particular bike-wheel-tyre combo, it’s much harder to match the speed of more aero road-specific rides.
The reputation of Zipp’s hubsets has improved through the years. The disc-brake 303s are laced to the company’s 77/177D hubs with Sapim CX spokes: they engage quickly, which means there’s no discernible lag between putting the pedal down and the bike taking off.
With Zipp’s wealth of R&D data matched to unparalleled production and tight quality control, it’s easy to see how they have created such a dominant position in the carbon wheel market. If you’re looking for a new carbon wheelset that will have longevity and remarkable durability, the Zipp 303 Firecrest is hard to beat. These wheels want to be ridden hard, and they dare to be challenged. Although some may feel they come with a premium-level price tag, the 303s simply have a greater lifespan than any other wheelset I have ever owned. Moreover, the level of service, value and peace of mind that come with the 303s make them more than competitive to any other wheelset in a similar price range.
Words & Images: Bryan Yates
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