ZIPP 454 NSW WHEELSET REVIEW – A WHALE OF A TALE

The following review is part of the post BEST AERO BIKE WHEELS

The storylines in reviews of Zipp’s 454 NSW wheelset have been hard to ignore.  Whale fins, biomimicry, sawtooth, vortex, the shape of things to come.  All these analogies, descriptions and hyperbole to describe how the wheels are supposed to uniquely defeat crosswinds with their rim depths that vary between 55 to 59mm.

I like a good story as much as the next cyclist but I really wanted to know how they perform before suggesting anyone buy them.

The Zipp 454 NSW perform like the first generation Zipp 404 NSW I reviewed here in my post comparing the Best Aero Bike Wheels. I headlined the 404 NSW review “A top pick for flat road races, crits, TTs or solo breakaways”.  I’d say all that is true for the 454.

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.

If you ride or race a lot in windy conditions, I imagine you could get used to it and even use it to your advantage as Zipp intends.  I couldn’t.  Nate had no problems on the flats but freaked going downhill.  Moose was fine with it.

Different riders?  Yes.  Different situations?  Somewhat.  Worth an explanation? That’s what In The Know Cycling is here for.

I’m a light (150lb/68kg), B-group rider. 18-20mph/29-32kph ride average. 25mph/40kph while busting it on the flats. Fast enough to enjoy the benefits of a deeper aero wheelset but not so fast to be able to do anything about it (i.e. race).

I thought the 404 NSW was pretty good in the crosswinds.  Yes, it was affected by them but I found the effect manageable compared to other deep aero wheels I’d ridden, even with my slim arms and meh strength.  I had to steer the front wheel back in but I didn’t get blown off my line.

Admittedly, it’s not a fine line – a foot or so either way.  But, it’s a line I could keep riding the 404 NSW on even in 15-20mph crosswinds.

Zipp NSW 454 Wheelset

Zipp NSW 454 Wheelset

Normally, if it’s that windy, I’m not going out.  If it gets that windy once I’m out, I’m easing up a bit.  More because of the way my light body gets blown around than the way the wheels or the bike is.

Riding the Zipp 454 NSW in 15-20mph steady crosswinds, the wheel came back into line on its own.  Then it went out the other way.  Then came back.  Then went out.  Then came back.  Until the wind eased or I rode into a sheltered area.

To complicate matters, when the wind blew the wheel out, I initially tried to bring it back in, same as I would any wheelset.  That was a natural reaction.  That was also exactly the wrong reaction for this wheelset, as I was adding to the correcting the wheel was doing itself, only making things worse.  So I backed off and let the 454 do its thing.

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.

I preferred the manual steer of the 404 NSW in the crosswinds to the self-correcting 454 NSW.

Nate, my very experienced cycling friend, A-group leader, and CAT 3 racer rode the Zipp 454 NSW a couple times before racing them.  Riding 25-30mph (40-48kph) on the flats in a steady side wind, he noted a “subtle micro-wobble” back toward the wind.  The 454 NSW offered a different way to deal with crosswinds than other modern wheels he’d tested for our comparative aero wheel review.

Was the wobble a concern? Not for Nate in those conditions.  Did it live up to the hype of being a radically different way to handle crosswinds?  Not really. The Zipp 454 NSW and 404 NSW handled the crosswinds differently, but both were fine.

When Nate raced the 454s down a 45mph+ (75kph) descent, however, the wobble became unstable. The winds were moderate and swirling that day. He held back the second and third time on the same long downhill leg of the three lap Bear Mountain Spring Classic course.  Others racing different 60mm or so deep rims didn’t seem to have any problems bombing downhill in the wind.

He fell back and lost several seconds from the lead group each time down the descent.  He chased back past the bottom turn after the first and second descents.  The final time down, the group was gone before he could.

Moose, my 200lb friend and president of his own mythical FFBC (Fat F*ckers Bicycle Club) felt the wobble like Nate and I did on the flats. He was totally unconcerned by it, locking in instead on the pleasure of speeding along the flats and rollers on the Zipp 454 NSW wheelset over long rides.

While he’s heavier, what separates Moose from lightweights like Nate and me and other 200lb riders I know is his barrel shaped torso. “Strong” doesn’t do him justice.  I can only imagine that 20mph crosswinds to him are like a gentle breeze to me.

So, there you have it.  Different reactions in different situations from different types of cycling enthusiasts to the intended wobble of the Zipp 454 NSW.  If your reaction to what I’ve reported motivates you to buy a set, you can do so at the best prices from stores with the best customer satisfaction records by clicking through to Competitive Cyclist for US/CA residents and at Tredz 10% off with code ITK10 for those in the UK/EU and other countries.

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You can read more about other aero wheelsets that are compared in the chart below by clicking on it or my review of the BEST AERO BIKE WHEELS

11 comments

  • photosbywtgterry

    Thank you for the review. Although I am much more like Moose that y’all other two, I am grateful to not be tempted by these wheels. Thanks again for the great review and site!

  • Thank you for the honest review.

  • Sometimes new developments are fine in wind tunnels and on paper, but not on the roads…

    Couldn’t get used to the looks anyway. 😉

  • Hi Steve. I am used to riding tubulars on my climbing bikes (Zipp 202, Enve 2.2 and Lightweight Gipfelsturm) and just bought a Trek Madone that requires an aero wheel. I am considering the 404 tubular, but am afraid they’re not the latest design. Which would you choose: Zipp 404 tubular, 454 carbon clincher or 404 NSW carbon clincher? I mention only Zipp because other brands are hard to find and service in my country. Gluing tubulars is not an issue for me. Thanks and best. TMB.

  • TMB, I’d suggest the 404 NSW. It’s a superior wheelset than the 404 and the 454 is not a favorite of mine as you read above. Steve

  • Steve, thanks for the reply. But what about the fact that the 404 NSW is only available on Clincher. Is it better than the 404 tubular? I don’t have a problem with gluing tubulars. Thanks!

    • TMB, I haven’t tested the 404 Firecrest Tubular but I found the 404 NSW Clincher to be superior to the 404 Firecrest Clincher – stiffer, more aero, less crosswind effect. The 404 Firecrest Tubular is only 50g lighter than the 404 NSW Clincher so I wouldn’t expect the Firecrest tubular to accelerate any better than the NSW clincher. Steve

  • Thanks again, Steve. One last question: I understand the weight is approximately the same, but what about the rolling resistance of tubular against carbon clincher? Do you have any thoughts on that? Rgds.

    • TMB, Minimal if any difference (see my tire review here), certainly not as significant as the benefit you get from the NSW’s improved stiffness, aero and crosswind performance.

      If you are still set on tubulars, take a look at my Best Aero Bike Wheels post here. ENVE 4.5 (and 7.8) come in tubular.

      Not sure where you live but you can use the links in my review to find stores I recommend that ship most places around the world and have competitive prices and high customer satisfaction ratings. Would be supporting the costs that go into the site for reviews and comment responses by doing so as well. Steve

  • Thanks for the response again. Your site and opinions are great. Best. TMB.

  • Hi Steve, Do you have any opinion about the Lightweight Meilenstein Tubular? Best. TMB.

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