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.

Are you following me?

Oh, and the 2018 Zipp 303 Firecrest sells for a market price of $2,200/£1,880/€2,200. It is available through these links to recommended stores in the US/CA Competitive Cyclist and in UK/EU at Tredz.

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Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Bike WheelsThese 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

35 comments

  • What carbon rim wheels then do you recommend for people over 180-184 lbs?
    Can you rate from 1 to 5 ? I thought you said nsw 303 are the tops vs enve and all ?
    I think your point here is that some of the nsw features are now passed down to Firecrest and the price is a good deal as a result of some of the passed down tech

    • Jemonda, I rate wheels on a lot of criteria and go through those in detail in the post I referred to at the bottom of this one. Some wheelsets rate higher than others against specific criteria and that’s what I’m trying to point out in this review of the 303 Firecrest. Providing a summary rating is an easy way out but suggests all criteria are equally important or that some are weighted more than others. I try to comment on how each wheelset does against each performance criterion to give readers the opportunity to pick which wheelset is best suited for them. When one is clearly better against most criteria and has no areas of sub par performance, I’ll rate it the best performer, as was the case of the 303 NSW against the others I evaluated a year or so ago. But, as explained in the post above, new wheelsets have come out since then that outperform it. Steve

  • I would like to see a comparison with the new Mavic Cosmic Pro USB Tubeless wheels / wheel- tire combinations.

    • Brett, Take a look at the post I linked to at the bottom of this one. It has a review of the Mavic you referred to. Steve

  • I have the 2018 Zipp 303 NSW tubeless. I love everything about them except the braking noise.
    Sounds like a jet coming to a stop.
    Do you have any remedies for this?
    I have tried Zipp Platinum EVO pads and Swissstop Black Prince pads, towed in, flat and towed out.
    Nothing seems to work , I wondered if Swissstop yellow pads would work , and/or if they would turn my rims yellow?
    Maybe they quiet down after a month or so when they brake surface wears a bit?

    • Dave, I wouldn’t expect they will. Textured brake tracks tend to be louder than smooth ones (though those can sometimes squeal). I’ve tried different pads on that brake track and I think the Zipp pads are the best-suited ones. Yellows are inferior to Black Prince in my experience. Steve

  • For racing 303 are some of the best wheels. On the market . Light stiff and powerful stopping

  • Hi Steve, is review of the NSW 303 Disc still on your radar?

  • Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the review. You mentioned that inflated 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000 II S tires is 27.5mm. Its more than the published max rim width at 26.4mm. Would you consider 23C Continental Grand Prix 4000 II S tires for marginal gain?

    • Buven, I measure the 303 Firecrest width to be 27.5mm at the brake track and 28.0mm max. The brake track width matters more since that is where the tire and rim join and the place where the airflow needs to travel with as little disruption as possible. A 23C Conti GP4KII will measure about 24.5 to 25mm at 100 psi. The 25C Conti will measure 26.5 to 27mm. So either will provide a good airfoil by my measurements. Steve.

  • Rupert Weissenbacher

    Hello Steve!
    I’m from Austria and my english is not good! Excuse me!
    Steve I’m looking for a wheelset
    I also drive a lot of mountains.
    I like the Zipp but is he stiff enough?
    I am about 80 kg heavy and also over 1000 watts wenns must be.
    lg
    Rupert

  • Matthias GUTHARDT

    How did you come up with the 82 kilos limit about the stiffness of the 303 firecrest ?

    I’m thinking about getting those wheels but I weight exactly 82 kilos and I want to change my mavic cosmic carbon wts (alloy/carbon) because of their lack of stiffness. Thank to your reviews, I learned about the bontrager Aeolus xxx 4 and I’m waiting for my local dealer’s offer.
    I can buy the 303’s for less than 1700 dollars. Would this change be worth the money I’d spend or the difference beetween this two sets (and maybe also the aeolus xxx 4) will be too small ?
    I ride a 2018 Canyon Ultimate cf SLX and I believe that at age 40 I can still improve my riding.
    Thank you in advance and congratulations for your great website, I love it.

    Matt

    • Matt, 82 lbs is the rounded equivalent of 180 lbs. That’s roughly the weight (or the power put out typically by someone at that weight) at which the Zipp is going to start to feel quite soft. It’s not scientific, more a triangulation from feedback of several testers.

      I don’t know the Mavic wheelset you have but the new Cosmic Carbon SL without the alloy insert is about as stiff as the Zipp. Take a look at the chart in this post of carbon wheels to compare stiffness. The Aeolus XXX is noticeably stiffer as are several others in the same category. Steve

      • Matthias GUTHARDT

        Thanks for your answer.
        I’m just waiting for my local dealer’s offer on the aeolus XXX 4’s and then I’ll just have to make up my mind. So far, I’m more into the 303’s (I just love the way they look lol) but if I can get a good price for the aeolus, it will be hard to choose.

        • Matthias GUTHARDT

          Update : the aeolus 4’s cost 2400 euros in France (about 2700 USD) and the local dealer wants only to make 10% off wich makes about 2150 euros. Now I’m sure I won’t go for the aeolus. Too bad !

  • Hi Steve, it’s an awesome review. I’m after a new wheelset. It maybe the new 303 Firecrest or the new 303 NSW. Which one do you think that is stiffer?

    James

    • James, they are pretty much the same stiffness. I couldn’t tell any difference. For something stiffer, check out my review of the whole category here. Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    I’ve been looking for a replacement wheelset for my Mavic R-Sys SLR pro tubs and go carbon.
    I am 6’4 and 15 stone I ride 150 mils 11.000ft in most weeks . I’ve looked at the Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST and the 303 firecrest. I like 303 Nsw rim brake I do like the option of the tubeless ready ,but my budget will not allow .
    I’ve had a good look at the Roval CLX 50 but I’m not sure about the stopping ability and the flexing.
    Could you advise what wheelset to look at taking my size in to consideration?
    Peter

    • Peter, Take a look at my post on carbon all around rim brake wheels which include the three you mention and others. Steve

      • Hi Steve
        Thanks for your reply.
        I found your site very informative and helpful.
        I had already read all of the carbon wheel posts on your site that are in my price range.
        And some of the other comments on your site, one in particular Patrick’s on March 9 with a similar problem as mine where you commented that you and your colleagues found the Zipp 302 (or any of the Zipp wheels) not to be among the stiffest. So can I conclude from that the carbon wheels would flex too much for me?
        I also sent a email to Zipp USA to ask for their recommendations given my height and weight and they wouldn’t recommend 202 as they think I’ll have too much flex under load.
        Possibly I need to look for a carbon wheel set that is uncomfortably stiff.
        Although I do think that I would benefit from the benefits of the aerodynamics of a set of carbon wheels. I am no longer sure what to buy.
        Whether or not to go for a set of carbon wheels or to replace the mavic R-SYS SLR with the same.
        I would benefit from a bit of guidance.

        • Steve Goldstein

          Peter, I’d suggest you take a look at the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 or the Reynolds EC90 SL if the Aeolus is outside your budget. Both are stiff and I would suspect they are fine for riders your size though you might check with the manufacturers. Most carbon wheels have max rider weight recommendations of 100kg. Steve

  • Steve,
    I’ve had a serious look at the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4. I’m still not sure what to purchase.
    They are at the top end of my budget. l take it that your other suggestion was Easton EC90 SL?
    I’ve also had a look at Reynolds aero 46.
    Have you got an opinion on Reynolds wheels ?
    Peter,

    • Peter, feel free to use the search bar at the top of the site to find my review on the Reynolds Aero 46 and other Reynolds wheels or any wheels for that matter to see if I’ve reviewed them and what my take is on them. If you haven’t already, I’d also suggest you take a step back and look at my post on how to find the best wheels for you here https://intheknowcycling.com/2018/01/08/best-road-bike-wheels/. That’s the best I can offer. Steve

  • Steve, Thank you for your time & efforts in producing this website. It’s very informative. I just recently purchased my dream bike, a Colnago C64 With Zipp 303 Firecrest wheels, SRAM AXS wireless shifters, and ee Cane Creek brakes for a 64th birthday present to myself. I’m 6’ 0” and 185 lbs and do 50 mile rides at 14 to 15 mph on average in small roller terrain. At my age I’m more into comfort than speed, but I find that when I’m out of the saddle and climbing if I do any side to side with the bike I’ll get brake rub on the drive side downstroke. I’ve opened up the brake calipers to where I’m almost bottoming out the brake lever against the handle bars to eliminate this, but it still persists. I checked with my LBS where I bought the bike, and he suggested that this is normal for these wheels to flex like this. Is this something I should expect with the Zipp 303 firecrests and learn to live with?

  • Christian, Happy Birthday and congrats on the new bike. As I wrote in my review above:

    “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.”

    You fall in that latter category at least on a weight basis. Getting the rub on one side only suggests to me that you might not have the calipers centered. I’d suggest you try that first. If the rub doesn’t go away, it may be that they just aren’t stiff enough for your weight and strength. If you speced the bike custom at your LBS, tell them you want to replace the wheels. They should have told you they might be too flexy for you before rather than after you bought them. You can read my reviews of other, stiffer and even more comfortable wheelsets that might suit you better. Steve

  • (Apologies for my English, I am Finnish.)

    Hi Steve,

    I am currently looking for a carbon clincher wheelset for my CX bike. The bike has cantilever brakes (yes, I am somewhat old-fashioned…) so this is about rim brake wheels only.

    I´d like to go for Zipp 303 Firecrest but I am concerned about flexing and brake rub. Especially thing like this got me very scared: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpoiCyXkryA

    I weigh about 85kg/187lbs and as cyclist, I consider myself pretty strong (gym background). To get decent stopping power with cantis, you have to make most of the mechanical advantage and have the cable yoke set quite low, which increases power but shortens the distance the pads move per every mm of lever stroke. As a result, I´d like to run my pads quite close to the rim and therefore, lateral wheel flexing concerns me.

    Because it is CX bike, I´d naturally go for wider tires and lower pressure than on a road bike. I think I would run 33-38mm clinchers with 30-50PSI. Does this have impact on wheel flexing? I mean, when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle, do those high volume tyres “cushion” the load and deform before the wheel itself starts to bend?

    Some reviews say that 302´s are stiffer than 303´s. Do you have any experience on this? If there is a difference, is it likely to be noticeable in my case? I´d rather go for the 303 because they are lighter but more importantly because of the grooved braking surface. I don´t think I´d be riding my bike in biblical rain, but most likely they would see their fair share of muddy and snowy rides. Showstopper is said to offer significant advantage in adverse conditions, so it is hard to look past that, especially when riding cantis that are inherently quite weak.

    Zipp wheels are often accused of flexing under load but most of these comments are many years old. Do you think Zipp wheels have improved in recent years in terms of lateral stiffness? Has the flexing something to do with crappy hubs and preload problems that Zipp was having some years ago?

    Would you recommend 303 or 302 for CX bike when priorities are lateral stiffness and braking performance?

    I understand that ENVE or Bontrager might be a better choice but I absolutely love Zipp´s aesthetics and they would go nicely with the rest of the bike (Crux with SRAM components).

    Thank you so much!

    Best regards,
    Jukka Aalto, Finland

    • Jukka, Your English is better than my Finnish! Welcome to the comment section.

      A few answers about your questions.
      -I can’t conclude anything from the video you sent me. Many things could account for the movement you see. QR tightness, spoke tension, hub condition, lateral stiffness, even how well the axle is seated in the drop-outs.
      -Look at the chart in my review of carbon clincher wheels to see how they compare on stiffness https://intheknowcycling.com/2018/10/14/carbon-road-bike-wheels/
      -I’ve ridden the 302 and don’t recall them being any stiffer than the current (or last-gen) 303FC.
      -Showstopper is good but there are other wheels that brake equally well. Again, see the chart for comparison
      -Wider tires, lower pressure will affect the handling but not the stiffness.
      -With your weight, power, canti brakes, and given the frequent accelerations/decelerations in CX, I’d recommend you get a stiffer wheelset than the 303 FC. ENVE and Bontrager would be good options.
      -Performance is universal; aesthetics are personal. Do you care more about how you look being on the podium or the way your bike looks off of it? 🙂
      Cheers,
      Steve

      • Hi,

        Thanks for the answer!

        Since a noticeable performance difference between Zipp and Enve/Bontrager is expected, I need to re-consider my situation. I am not ready to sacrifice too much performance for aesthetics. If the expected difference between Zipp and other high quality would be small in my use, I think I´d go for Zipps since they are cheaper and more readily available in Europe.

        Enves would undoubtedly be extremely good but they go over my budget, unless I manage to find a good bargain for some good-condition second hand wheels.

        I don´t race myself but some of my friends have contacts in local road racing teams so I think I´ll try to borrow different wheels for testing so I can get first hand experience on how they perform when I pedal with full power. My road bike build will be finished very soon so it can be used as a testing platform and I can use my Easton EC90 wheels as a benchmark.

        I´ll report back if I find out something interesting 🙂

        -Jukka

        PS. I might also go for some wheels that don´t have textured braking surface and use the canti-Crux in dry weather only. I think I´ll eventually buy a disc-equipped CX bike anyway, so rather than investing in Enve wheels, it might be better off saving the money for completely new bike that doesn´t necessarily require that stiff wheel + good rim braking combo.

        • Jukka, Ah, you didn’t mention you already had the EC90 SLs. They and the Bontrager and ENVEs are similarly stiff though they don’t brake as well. I’d stay with the wheels you have, upgrade your brakes and save up for your disc brake bike. Cheers, Steve

          • Yes, it is possible that I use those Eastons with Crux but then again, I do need some wheels for my road bike too. So anyway, one pair of stiff wheels is needed 🙂

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