ZIPP 303 NSW – THE NEW BEST PERFORMER ALL-AROUND ROAD BIKE WHEELS
With the 303 NSW, Zipp has outdone itself. In this case, “itself” is Zipp’s 303 Firecrest which has been the all-around standard that carbon mid-depth wheelsets have been measured against and was the one I’d previously picked as the Best Performer among all-arounds.
Well, there is a new Best Performer and the 303 NSW is it.
The 303 NSW handles better, rolls better, climbs better, brakes better and deals with crosswinds better than the 303 Firecrest and every other all-around wheelset I and my fellow tester Nate have ridden. It sustains your momentum like a much deeper wheelset, accelerates like a much lighter one and is stiffer and more responsive than its predecessor.
(Author drops the mike….)
Umm… (author clears throat; picks up the mike)… It costs more too. Zipp reduced the Firecrest MSRP/RRP about 25% when the NSWs were introduced and the NSWs are priced about 10% more than the Firecrests were. If I’ve done my math right, that puts the Firecrest now at about 2/3rd the full price of the NSW or the NSW about half again more the price of the Firecrest.
That said, the NSW (USD$3100, £2,370, €2,800) is in the same price range as the new ENVE SES 3.4, its perennial performance competitor. It is more expensive than the other all-around wheels in this review but it also performs better. (I’ve not reviewed the new ENVE yet).
These wheels handle remarkably well, providing you precise cornering at all speeds and a “glued to the ground” feel of total confidence.
Nate described being figuratively blown away by how well the 303 NSW’s crosswind performance prevented him from being literally being blown away. These 46mm deep rims seem to have the cross-section of 25mm alloys, when you can feel the wind pushing your body sideways, but feel nothing torquing your handlebars. You get the sensation that your wheels are actually compensating for the wind and keeping your line straight.
The NSW line brings dry braking on par with alloy wheels and wet braking close to it. While the Firecrest braking is very good indeed, these are clearly a step forward and give you no shelter under the “alloy braking is better” excuse some use to pass on carbon wheels.
What I probably liked most among all the things I liked about these wheels is the way they roll, respond and climb. Riding a lot of different wheelsets and a lot of distance over varying terrain during the year, I’ve gotten quite attuned to these three, often related factors.
These 303 NSWs roll very smoothly and give you the sensation that they aren’t holding you back when you freewheel. Likewise, they feel like they maintain their speed when you ease off the cranks better than other mid-depth wheels. As I often find myself working to hold on to the group I’m riding with, this saves me a bit of energy I can use when the group starts to turn the screws or when the road turns uphill.
That’s where the responsiveness of these wheels makes me smile. They go when I want or need to stay with a move. They are stiff, there is no lag when I spin up my cadence and they transmit energy from my legs to the road in an uncannily quick and efficient way. I feel the same efficiency when the road pitches up and I need to get up out of the saddle or increase my power output while seated.
As the old saying goes: Oh what a feeling!
For those of you focused on specs, I measured the set I rode at 45.8 mm deep, 27.5mm wide about halfway up the brake track, and 28.5mm max width, each an average of measurements at a half dozen points on each wheel. The front wheel’s inside width averaged 17.5mm and the rear 17.2mm.
The wheelset weighs 1479g with rim tape on my scale and the skewers add another 70g. This is exactly 100 grams less than what the 303 Firecrest weighs though, from what I’ve read, most of the weight difference comes in the hubs. Less weight in the hubs doesn’t contribute much to the improved climbing performance and overall responsiveness as much as the improved performance of the hubs them themselves. And most won’t feel a 100g difference from wheelset to wheelset.
I could go on about the NSW’s new hub design and rim shape, revised dimple surface, upgraded brake track with their unique names and the other cool new design aspects of these wheels, all of which likely contribute to the performance I’ve described above. I believe that how the wheels perform is far more important in choosing between them than their design features and prefer to spend most of my time (and yours) in reviews focused on the former than the later.
They aren’t tubeless ready, which I don’t think most people looking to ride a high-performance wheelset like this one will care about. (The new ENVE 3.4 are.) The do look pretty sweet to my eyes, which I think most people riding any wheelset do care about even though it doesn’t make them any faster, unless you ride harder because you feel good about what you are riding.
Let me try to answer (or dodge) a couple questions I’d expect I’ll get if I don’t. Yes, as I think I’ve explained, they are noticeably better than the Firecrests in most of the key performance areas. No, I can’t tell you whether they are worth paying extra for than the Firecrest or the wheelset I picked as the Best Value. (That was the dodge.) It’s up to each us to decide how much you are willing to pay for added performance.
Also, know that somewhere around early 2016, SRAM, Zipp’s parent, instituted tighter pricing controls on their dealers where they can. Specifically, they require their dealers to sell in countries and regions near their stores. For example, US and Canadian dealers can ship to customers at US and Canadian addresses and UK and EU stores can ship to customers at UK and EU addresses but UK and EU stores can’t ship to US, Canadian, Australian, Japanese and other customers who live outside of the UK and EU.
Further, MAP or minimum advertised pricing laws in the US and other countries (but not UK and EU ones) allow Zipp to set an advertised price floor for these wheels in those countries where the law applies. If an authorized dealer gets caught advertising below the MAP, Zipp can pull their distribution agreement. So much for free market competition.
With that in mind, here are links to stores that I recommend based on their high customer satisfaction ratings and that have the 303 NSWs in stock at the best prices in several regions as of March 14, 2017 US/CA Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, Westbrook Cycles.