ZIPP 303 FIRECREST – NSW A YEAR LATER, A GRAND LESS
If you bought one, it’s maddening that a set of top-rated, all-around, carbon bike wheels you spent $3100 on could drop in price nearly $1000 and be surpassed in performance by a successor model in as little as a year.
If you didn’t buy one, now may be the time to get the less expensive model that’s a lot like the one you could have spent a whole lot more for, especially if its strengths and budget suits you.
Such is the world of Zipp wheelsets and the innovation going on more broadly in the carbon clincher wheelset world these days.
In 2017 Zipp started selling its line of NSW wheels with new rim shapes and hubs. The Zipp 303 NSW knocked the Zipp 303 Firecrest off the top of its performance and price perch and the 303 Firecrest price was reduced to $2200.
In 2018 Zipp did it again. A new NSW line of carbon road bike wheels was introduced including a new Zipp 303 NSW. This time, the original 2017 303 NSW rims have become the centerpiece of the new 2018 303 Firecrest, the one I’m reviewing here, together with Zipp’s 77/177 hubs first put on the 303 and other Firecrest wheelsets in 2016.
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These changes were triggered by Zipp’s efforts to improve the speed, crosswind management, braking, stiffness, comfort, and handling of its wheelsets. With innovation in the wheelset world focused on these areas over the last half dozen years, other wheelmakers had caught up to or surpassed the Firecrest wheels in several of these areas where its performance was tops.
Some of the improvements (speed, crosswind management, braking) showed up in the first-generation NSW rims that are now the core of the 303 Firecrest. Other improvements (comfort, handling) are seen in the latest NSW wheels that are wider and tubeless.
So, how does the latest Zipp 303 Firecrest perform?
This new 46mm deep, 1500 gram carbon clincher wheelset is very snappy when you want to accelerate. Once up to speed they maintain your momentum very well, riding like wheels 15mm deeper on the flats. They climb like ones 10-20mm shallower uphill and practically laugh in the face of crosswinds, running as straight as a low-profile alloy wheelset in gusting or steady winds.
If you’ve never ridden carbon wheels, those brief comments about responsiveness, momentum, climbing, and crosswind behavior are the first things you look for in separating out carbon wheels. Most carbon wheels that sell for less than the 303 Firecrest can’t do most or any of the things. Some that sell for the same or more than the Firecrest can’t do all these things as well.
The textured brake tracks on the new 303 Firecrest (that came with the earlier NSW rims) are a clear step up from earlier non-textured models. They can give you the kind of confidence on dry roads you get from alloy brake tracks. On wet roads, they are better than carbon wheels with non-textured tracks but not as good as alloy ones.
Top of the line (and more expensive) ENVE and Bontrager Aeolus XXX series wheels provide better power, modulation, and wet braking than the 303 Firecrests. But these brake better than other wheels Nate, Moose and I have evaluated in the same and lower price ranges as the 303 Firecrest.
Earlier 303 Firecrests and NSWs always felt moderately stiff to me and perhaps not stiff enough for heavier or stronger riders. Amongst carbon bike wheels, ENVE and Easton hoops have always felt stiffer.
Zipp put redesigned 77/177 hubs on the 2016 303 Firecrests. That, perhaps along with other things they may have done with the rims made those stiffer wheels. The hubs carry over to the new 303 Firecrest.
If you are light (68kg/150lbs) or not regularly cranking over 3.25 watts/kg, you’ll likely find the current 303 Firecrest plenty stiff and will enjoy the responsiveness I feel from these that may not feel with a stiffer wheelset. If you are over (82kg/180lbs) or cranking it out at over 4 watts/kg, you might find yourself wanting a stiffer wheelset going uphill and in your more competitive rides.
I find the 303 Firecrest very comfortable on the road and handle with a kind of riding on rails confidence you want in every wheelset but find in few. With a set of 25C Zipp Tangente Course or 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000 II S tires, you’ll get a good aero fit where the mounted, inflated tire width is less than the 27.5 rim width at the brake track.
If you are purely a road cyclist committed to clincher and tube setups, the rest of this review won’t matter to you. If you do want wheels to ride for cyclocross or occasional dirt path riding, know that these 303 Firecrest don’t come tubeless. They also have relatively narrow inside widths (17.5mm front, 17.2 rear) than those best suited for off-road riding.
With other rim brake wheels being tubeless ready and inside widths at 19mm or even 21mm wide, there are better choices for you than the 303 Firecrest if you value greater stability and low pressure riding off road. Zipp went with a tubeless, 19mm rim on the latest 303 NSW to make them more competitive with what others had already done in this rim brake carbon clincher wheelset category.
There is one question that I’ve been wondering about. You may be too after reading this review. The question: Is it worth waiting another year to see whether Zipp will pass on more NSW technology to the 303 Firecrest?
With Zipp’s recent track record, it’s entirely possible they will do so yet again before long. However, seeing the technology separation Zipp has kept between the NSW and Firecrest lines that help justify the price difference, I don’t see them being able to pass more technology down in the next year or two, for example, 19mm tubeless rims, without blurring those lines.
This review appears alongside reviews of similar wheels in the post THE BEST CARBON ROAD BIKE WHEELS