Carbon wheelsets remain at the top of the list of upgrades for any serious cyclist, but with all the varieties out there (from cheap Chinese knock-offs to high-dollar brand names), what makes some better than others? As it turns out, there are a myriad of factors, but one fact remains: Zipp is at the forefront of carbon wheel technology.
For the better part of 2014 and throughout the 2015 season, I’ve had a set of the updated 2014 Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers at my disposal. Yes, they are expensive, but have proven fast and smooth.
2014 Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Features:
- New for 2014: New 188 v9 rear hub with Swiss steel bearings and “virtual 3 cross” rear lacing
- Increased rear hub torsional stiffness over previous and 25% stiffer than competition
- Sapim XC-Ray spokes with Sapim nipples
- 11-speed compatible
- External nipples for serviceability
- Width: 16.25mm (internal) and 24.62mm (at brake track)
- Pattern: 24 count 2-cross (rear) and 18 count radial (front)
- Depth: 32mm
- Includes: Tangente Platinum brake pads
- Weight: 1395 grams (complete set)
- MSRP: $1227 front, $1498 rear
The gold standard all-rounder wheelset
When it comes to wheels, there’s no denying that Zipp has the most cachet of all the wheelsets on the market. Their renowned engineering team designs and builds their wheelsets in their Indianapolis facility. That close-knit design and manufacturing process yields the most expensive wheelsets on the market, but allows Zipp engineers to better collaborate throughout the lifecycle of a wheelset and its components.
For 2014, the 202’s got the new 88/188 v9 hubs (not under the recent recall). The entire rear hub design is new with particular attention to the hub flange heights and widths as well as the lacing pattern (which changes to 2X on both sides) for the rear. Against the industry benchmark hub, the incremental gains achieved by the new v9 hub are intended to eke out every last ounce of rider input into forward motion while at the same time resisting lateral deflection. Feel free to geek out on the details in this report — it is very interesting.
Much of the hub changes were validated in the real world by Zipp-sponsored athletes — most notably sprinter Mark Cavendish. As we all know, sprinters in the pro peloton put amazing forces on their wheels as they redline themselves during a bunch sprint. Lateral and torsional forces are at their maximum and Cav has been very pleased with these changes and rode these hubs during his successful 2013 campaign and into this season. Too bad Zipp couldn’t re-engineer his collarbone in this year’s Tour de France.
Going beyond the hubs, the rims are unchanged and, of course feature Zipp’s renowned aerodynamics with dimpled surfaces to counter crosswinds and cut through the wind. At a 32mm depth, these rims are at home on mountain roads with hefty crosswinds and also are used extensively on the cyclocross circuit.
The 202’s love to climb
Naturally, I’m interested in the engineering behind these wheels as much as the next bike geek. However, that’s all numbers and figures until taking them into the mountains and pushing them as hard as I possibly can. To date, I’ve got over 1,000 miles on these wheels with more than 100,000 vertical feet climbed and descended. That’s enough miles and vert to deliver a verdict.
The 202’s have been ridden on three bikes: the Devinci Leo SL, Scott Addict SL and the Cannondale SuperSix EVO Hi-Mod. These wheels have been excellent on all of these bikes offering noticeable improvements in ride quality, quickness and excellent lateral stiffness.
Lesser wheels will flex under pressure, but not these. Under standing climbs or sprints, the wheels don’t deflect one bit — every ounce of power is transmitted to forward movement and not lost due to deflection. Not once have I had to expand the brakes to accomodate wheel flex from a standing climb.
I love how quickly these wheels respond to rider input. Going from a steady pace on a long climb to an all-out push, there is no hesitance. Hub engagement is also quick and instant.
When riding in the mountains, crosswinds are inevitable. I know where they typically occur and can plan for their unwelcomed arrival. The intent of Firecrest is to reduce the effective wheel cross-section, thus negating the effects of side winds. I will say that these wheels most certainly do reduce the effect of these types of winds, but they do still get blown around more than standard-depth wheels (like the Bontrager Race X Lite TLR).
The dimples and snub interior edge of the rims are also made to slice through the wind on the flats and maintain higher speeds. I’m always glad to be spinning these wheels on long, flat sections as they just seem to roll forward with less effort than other wheels in the stable.
Out of curiosity, I did some quick rolling tests between these wheels and the Bontrager RXL Wheels. In my testing, both sets of wheels rolled identical distances, coasting down a small slope and coming to a stop at the same spot every time.
How about braking?
Going from other carbon clincher wheel sets to these, I’d give these a bit better stopping power under dry conditions. I have used them with both SRAM Red and Force brakes using the Tangente pads and dry braking is excellent. You’ll get the occasional squeak under hard braking, but nothing out of the ordinary.
When things get wet, braking power deteriorates in a hurry. Again, nothing out of the ordinary with carbon braking surfaces. During one particularly wet ride, I actually had to stop myself by grabbing onto a light post. So, keep that in mind when riding in inclement weather… you will need a much longer stopping distance. Zipp hopes to cut that distance significantly with their new Firestrike wheels.
Durability and ease of servicing
Some carbon clinchers don’t feature exposed nipples. Luckily, the 202’s are not built that way. Any shop (or skilled DIY’er) can quickly true the wheel, when needed. In that regard, I do speak from experience as I hit a pothole pretty hard and flatted on one winter ride. The result was a slight wheel wobble (2-3mm), but no wheel damage. A quick trip to my LBS and they had things true as ever. I subsequently rode another 800 miles without issue.
The hubs are easily serviced and Zipp does also offer ceramic bearing kits as well as a variety zipp stickers to match your ride. A very easy YouTube video on hub pre-load is available here.
NOTE: Zipp has recalled their 88/188 v6-8 hubs. Luckily, these were the v9’s, so they were not under recall. If you believe yours are affected, take them to your local bike shop for inspection.
- Noticeable chatter reduction
- Super fast and smooth on the flats
- Lightweight, climbing-friendly
- Really a great wheelset for Utah’s mountainous terrain
- Lateral stiffness is as good as I’ve tested
- Easy servicing with exposed nipples and intuitive hub design
- Perfect width for 25mm tires
- Straight-pull, bladed spokes make things easy
- Performs well in crosswinds
- Rear wheel needed to be re-trued after a pothole experience (but the rim was undamaged)
- Rims have developed some white discoloration over time
- More expensive than the competition
- Be prepared for much longer stopping distances when wet
The Bottom Line: Zipp 202 Carbon Clinchers
With a premium price, you do get premium performance. It’s hard to imagine anything else you’d want in a carbon clincher. For dry-weather riding, these can’t be beat. They roll up fast, are rock-solid laterally and add a touch of smoothness you won’t get on alloy wheels.
Buy Now: Available at CompetitiveCyclist.com
The Zipp 202's are the benchmark for mountain-friendly carbon clinchers. They do everything well while remaining lightweight. The only downside is wet-weather braking.
- Lateral Stiffness
- Ride Quality