There’s marginal gains and then there’s gains made using biomimicry. Bio what, you say? Well, Zipp engineers looked to nature to inspire their sawtooth 454 NSW wheels and not only do they look amazing, it turns out that nature knows how to win and winning is what the Zipp 454 NSW’s are built to do.

Zipp 454 NSW Clincher Disc-brake Wheelset Features:

  • Hyperfoil nodes create a Sawtooth 53/58mm depth
  • AeroBalance that delivers speed and crosswind stability
  • HexFin ABLC dimpling to improve airflow
  • Cognition Disc-brake Hubset with Axial Clutch technology
  • Aero optimized for 25mm tires (25-28mm recommended)
  • 17mm internal and 27.2mm external width
  • Sapim CX Ray J-Bend spokes
  • Weight: 1600 grams (750 front, 850 rear)
  • MSRP: $4000 ($1800 front, $2200 rear)
Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake Wheelset Review

Whale hunting in Chinook, WA with the Zipp 454 NSW’s.

454 NSW’s are a whale of a wheelset

If I told you the Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake wheelset was just another pretty set of hoops, I’d be lying. If I told you they will cure all your ills and make you sprint like Peter Sagan, I’d also be lying. The truth is somewhere in the middle because for an avid rider, these wheels offer noticeable speed benefits without getting blown around. So, how is this achieved? Whales. Yes, whales.

Zipp looked to nature to get the inspiration for these wheels. It turns out that imitating nature can yield some pretty astounding results. The technical term is called biomimicry and the interior edge of the 454 NSW’s is toothed like you’d find on the trailing edge of a whale’s tail fin. That same slippery efficiency in the water translates into efficiency in the wind and shed wheel-grabbing crosswinds as well as wheels half the depth of the 454’s.

Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake Wheelset Review

Aboard an all-rounder, the 454 NSW’s deliver straight-line speed and overall performance.

Traditional carbon wheelsets take many hours to build. The layup schedules can be complex, but overall it’s pretty straightforward. Adding Zipp’s Firecrest dimples adds complexity, but the addition of the Hyperfoil nodes and HexFin ABLC dimples makes the construction of the 454 NSW’s more complex than any wheel Zipp has built and are likely more complex than any other wheel on the market. That complexity has taken time to perfect, but the results are noticeable (on the road and in your wallet).

It’s hard to argue against the beauty of the 454 NSW’s as they feature ImPress graphics instead of big stickers and just look amazing. They roll around Zipp’s Cognition Disc-brake hubs with Axial-clutch technology. Axial-clutch utilizes magnets instead of pawls to engage/disengage the drive. It’s an interesting sound while coasting (a bit like a baby rattle). All that magic delivers a wheelset that rolls very, very well.

Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake Wheelset Review

You can also see the HexFin™ ABLC dimple pattern and Impress graphics.

Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake Wheelset Review

A closeup of the 454’s Hyperfoil nodes.

Absolute speed with all-rounder versatility

For me, I’ve felt like Zipp’s 404 wheelsets were too tall for the crosswinds I typically encounter here in Utah. Instead, I’ve gravitated to the 303’s as my go-to choice for all-around performance. So, as I dialed in the 454’s, I was skeptical. Would crosswinds knock me into speed wobble? Would I really notice the added depth on rolling terrain? As anyone should, I was doubting the hype.

Over the course of almost a full year, I’ve outfitted both the BMC Roadmachine 01 and Factor O2 Disc with the 454 NSW Disc-brake wheels. Building both an endurance bike and a Tour de France Podium-winning bike has proven the perfect testing environment to show just how these wheels perform.

Both test bikes are no slouches — fast, efficient and light. But, the Roadmachine is more of a hammer and the O2 is more of a dancer. How did the 454’s perform on these bikes?

Aboard the Roadmachine, the 454’s transformed it from a hammer into a sledgehammer — it’s the best way to describe it. I had previously set PR’s on segment-after-segment of rolling terrain with Zipp’s latest 303 Firecrest Disc-brake wheels. But, with the 454’s, I found the Roadmachine to roll even faster and slice through the wind with increased efficiency. It’s noticeable in the saddle and on Strava. That transformation was a ton of fun as everything felt that much faster and racier.

BMC Roadmachine 01 eTap Review

They turned the BMC Roadmachine into a sledgehammer.

On the other hand, aboard the O2 Disc, the 454’s didn’t slow this climber down at all. I didn’t shy away from any mountains and never felt as if the wheels were slowing me down at all. At 1600 grams, they aren’t feathery climbing wheels, but I had no issues powering up any incline. And, I always felt like I had just a touch more energy to burn — even when I thought I was fully redlined. So yes, they can climb well, but they really shine on rolling terrain where I bested my aforementioned PR’s I set on the Roadmachine.

Still, I will say that even though these are great all-rounders, if you are truly a pure climber, the 202’s would be your jam.

Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake Wheelset Review

And the Factor O2 could still climb with panache.

The ultimate wheelset test for me is how well they handle crosswinds, since they are so prevalent in and around Utah’s canyons. I’d be lying if I told you that the 454’s are completely unaffected by crosswinds,  because they aren’t. You will get blown around in a stiff crosswind, but they feel more like the 303’s in that regard (not enough to be a major concern). Even the strongest crosswinds are totally manageable without worry, even at high speeds.

In addition to rolling fast and having reduced crosswind issues, the 454 NSW’s truly turn any bike into a go-cart. Lateral stiffness is fantastic — even under intense load and high-speed corners. They spin up in a jiffy and hold their speed better than any wheelset I’ve tested. When you’re nearly out of gas, it always seems like the 454’s give you just a tad more energy as they are always willing to match any increase in tempo.

The Cognition Disc-brake hubset is unique with this being the first disc wheelset using them. I tested the first rim brake wheelset using them, the 303 NSW, in 2016. The guts are entirely different from traditional pawls because they use strong magnets to engage/disengage the drive. Zipp claims that they roll faster, reduce friction and last longer, but it is a departure from tried-and-true technology. It has functioned well for 500+ miles here and 500+ miles on the 303’s I tested previously, but I hope it functions just as well for another 2000 miles.

Adding to Zipp’s claims, I have a standard roll-to-stop test that I perform with every wheelset. The 454’s Cognition hubs have bested everything I’ve got available (ENVE SES 3.4, Zipp 303 and Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 wheelsets) by a fair margin. Indeed, they do roll well.

I used the 454 NSW Disc-brake wheels with both Zipp Tangente Course R25 and Pirelli PZero Velo 4S 28mm tires. Both are great options for these wheels, but I gravitated to the Pirelli’s for their supple ride and monstrous grip. The PZero’s measure out to 29mm on the 454’s.

The Good

  • Turns any bike into a go-cart
  • Handles crosswinds like 303’s
  • Turns your bike into a sledgehammer on rolling terrain
  • Cognition hubs roll smooth and fast
  • J-bend spokes with external nipples for easy maintenance
  • Centerlock hubs are Shimano-compatible
  • ImPress graphics instead of huge stickers

The Bad

  • Narrow 17mm internal width is not tubeless-ready
  • Cognition hubs are still new, unproven tech
  • $4000 is a tough pill to swallow
  • Don’t expect these to be invisible to crosswinds (no deep wheels are)

The Bottom Line: Zipp 454 NSW Disc-brake

For the ultimate in rolling speed while remaining all-rounder capable, the Zipp 454 NSW’s are the pinnacle of wheelsets. With their unique Sawtooth Hyperfoil nodes, the 454’s stand out by using biomimicry to achieve the crosswind stability of shallower wheels. I’ve used these as flatland crushers and mountain climbers and they only made me faster. But, in spite of that noticeable performance boost, there’s no shaking the fact that these are $4000. If these are in your wheelhouse, you’ll love them aboard the superbike of your choice.

Buy Now: Available at CompetitiveCyclist.com

In Summary

9.0 Whale of a Wheelset

With the 454 NSW Disc-brake wheelset, I always felt like I had one more gear. They simply fly on rolling terrain and won't hold you back on extended climbs. Crosswind stability is on par with shallower wheels and I've got to admit it... they look bonkers awesome. If you can afford them, these racy wheels are astounding in every way.

  • Lateral Stiffness 10
  • Responsiveness 9
  • Durability 9
  • Aerodynamics 10
  • Ride Quality 9
  • Crosswind Stability 9
  • Value 7

About Author

A Seattle native, Jason developed a love for the outdoors and a thing for mountains. That infatuation continues as he founded this site in 1999 -- sharing his love of road biking, mountain biking, trail running and skiing. That passion is channeled into every article or gear review he writes. Utah's Wasatch Mountains are his playground.

10 Comments

    • Yeah, when these came out, that wasn’t as big of a deal, but two years later, it’s a big miss. My guess is the complexity of the molds and layup required them to choose aero and fast or tubeless and they chose the former.

      Great wheels. Really great wheels, but alas, not tubeless. The 303’s or something from ENVE or Bontrager will deliver deep-section wheels that are also tubeless-ready.

    • Thanks! I asked Zipp when they were released why no tubeless and they didn’t have much to say about when/if there would be a tubeless option. These wheels are very difficult to build and maybe tubeless-compatibility would be too heavy or too difficult. Perhaps we’ll see in the next year or so if they figure out how to widen these up and add tubeless-compatibility.

  1. William Wightman on

    “The technical term is called biomimicry and the interior edge of the 454 NSW’s is toothed like you’d find on the trailing edge of a whale’s tail fin. ” Not actually. The feature added to this wheel is called a tubercle and is located on the leading edge of the fin, not the back. So the trailing side of the wheel should have the most improved airflow properties. The choice of sweep direction between spokes must have come from CFD comparisons. Tubercles are great for high variation in the angle of attack which is common on a bicycle wheel and adds almost no drag at zero angle of attack. The downside is that these tubercles are rotating about an axis so must encounter some drag due to circumferential shear which would not be seen on a whale fin or propeller.

    • Interesting. Thanks for adding some added insight there. Whether it’s mimicking the leading or trailing edge of a whale fin, it works as advertised.

      Certainly, the rotating nature of wheels doesn’t exactly mimic the flow of water over a whale’s fin, but the net effect works here.

      I appreciate you reading the review and providing more expertise in the matter. You’re hired next time I attempt to speak to things that are beyond my skillset. 🙂

  2. Hi Jason,
    Thank you for your review of the Zipp 454 NSW wheels. I haven’t ridden them as of yet but am considering buying a set for a new build. I have ridden Zipp 404 Firecrest and Zipp 404NSW wheels and felt the 404NSW was a superior wheel to the Firecrest by far.

    https://intheknowcycling.com/2017/07/23/zipp_454_nsw_wheelset_review/

    In the above review of the same Zipp 454NSW wheelset it was mentioned by writer “Steve” that he encountered a “wobble” through his testing of the Zipp 454NSW wheels……as follows:

    “Except, the front wheel of the 454 wobbles in the wind. By design. Of course, Zipp doesn’t call it wobbling. (See stories on whale fins, biomimicry, etc.). The wobble helps keep your bike on your line without you having to steer it there yourself.” “It felt like a speed wobble. A controlled, intentional, small speed wobble mind you but a wobble nonetheless. I could see where a more disciplined rider or racer could get used to riding the 454 NSW if he/she frequently rode in windy conditions. I couldn’t. I’m not comfortable riding wobbling wheels, intentional or not.”

    Just curious if you encountered any sort of so-called “wobble” riding into any headwinds and/or at any yaw angle’s/crosswinds while riding the Zipp 454 NSW wheels on any flats, uphills or downhills please?

    Thank you for your feedback.

    All the best
    David

    • David… thanks for your comment. I read through their review and I’m baffled, honestly. I have not noticed anything of the sort in my extensive (and continued) testing. They feel on par with a set of 303’s to me. Yes, they do get blown around still, but they are significantly less than 404’s in my experience.

      • Hi Jason,
        Thanks for the follow up. I would agree with you and your comments and as with every other single review I’ve read as well there’s not been one mention of any sort of “wobble” whatsoever as mentioned by “Steve” and his other test riders.

        I’ve also contacted a few athletes I know personally who are riding the Zipp 454 NSW wheels and not one of them including a present world champion who is riding them and has always showed and given complete honesty, integrity personally and professionally about anything and has stated, that the wheels are “super stable” and that they have ridden the Zipp 454NSW wheels, “downhill at 109.8km/h” stating, “I’d say that they are safe.”……………..

        I’ve been riding for over thirty years now competing internationally in endurance events, I find it difficult to understand how/why Zipp would release and don’t and wouldn’t release Any of their wheel’s without extensive research, design, testing and would release any wheels that had any sort of “wobble”(Please see Zipp’s direct response to my enquiry to them below)……….these are wheels that are ridden by Pro/Elite Tour cyclist’s and Elite Pro triathlon champions internationally on all sorts of courses, conditions…..My point is if there were any sort of concern’s of stability, safety, handling, etc………..when they could ride any wheel they wanted to and some being paid and could do so with any wheel manufacturer……Why would they ride a wheel that had any sort of “wobble?”………..It seems illogical, non sensical to me.

        Here’s his response:

        Steve August 5, 2019 2:27 pm

        “David,

        Nate, Moose and I, three very different riders each rode the same set of wheels on our different bikes, in different riding situations, and had much the same steering experience in the crosswinds. The wheels were new, true and evenly tensioned and on a good set of tires. Our process is to ride the wheels and write up our notes individually without sharing our experience with each other before hand. We each had evaluated the 404s,303s and other deep “aero wheels” previous to riding the 454s so had good reference points.

        I can’t speak to the process of the other pubs you link to. In general, there are major differences in how we operate and what motivates us. I have multiple dedicated enthusiasts go out and ride a set of wheels. They get no monetary compensation – they just like to try out new gear. We don’t run advertising, don’t go to expenses paid product launch events, don’t talk to product managers, don’t have a motivation or feel an obligation to write about or buy-into the story behind the wheels or give them the benefit of the doubt. We test and evaluate products and report about how they perform for us as road cycling enthusiasts. If you buy something through the links I provide, stores can provide us a small commission in return which we use to cover the costs of buying gear for reviews and site costs.

        We have tested a lot of Zipp wheelsets over the years. Some we’ve rated highly, some we’ve recommended above others, some we’ve pointed out their flaws and sometimes, like with the 454s, we recommend against our fellow enthusiast readers buying them. That’s just how it works out with our approach. Cheers, Steve”

        I also contacted Zipp HQ in the USA and here’s what they had to say:

        Aug 5,

        “Hi David,
        Thanks for your email.
        I appreciate the review. I’m not familiar with that particular blog, but the review is certainly interesting.
        454 wheels are designed for greater stability across all wind angles.
        Wind tunnel, CFD computer simulations, pro athlete evaluations, and on-road testing has allowed us to refine the aero performance and stability of Hyperfoil 454 and 858 wheels. You’ve already noted the other reviews by Media test editors. My suggestion is that you visit your dealer. Your bike shop may have a Demo Program which would allow you to test ride the 454.”
        “Thanks again!”

        Regards,
        Zipp USA

        Here are some other reviews of Zipp 454NSW wheels as well:

        https://www.cyclingweekly.com/reviews/wheels/zipp-454-nsw-carbon-clincher-wheels

        http://www.cyclingnews.com/reviews/zipp-454-nsw-wheel-review/

        https://www.bikeradar.com/reviews/components/wheels/wheel-sets/zipp-454-nsw-carbon-clincher-disc-brake-review/

        Take care and enjoy the ride……………

        All the best,
        David

        • Wow. Thanks for all that legwork. Our motivation is to be thorough and honest. I rode the 454’s for almost a year before publishing the review. That gave me plenty of time to test them in a variety of situations — including riding in wind conditions that I wouldn’t otherwise because #science.

          I’m not a Cat 1 racer, but an experienced rider who has ridden a ton of different wheels — more than almost anyone around. For me, 404’s are too unstable for the strong canyon winds we get around here. 303’s are the sweet spot. That said, I’ve felt the 454’s to perform as well as 303’s in crosswinds.

          If the 454’s had a widespread wobbling issue, I’m sure SRAM would have recalled them. My only real complaint (besides price) is that they can’t be run tubeless. But, if you are looking for the ultimate road racing wheels and are cool with the cost, these are beautiful-riding wheels.

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