ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC – VERSATILE VALUE

I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical of the new Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Tubeless Disc Brake wheelset before I rode it.

I’d learned to love the unique combination of comfort and speed of the 303 NSW disc road wheels that Zipp sadly dropped from their line-up after introducing this new Firecrest. And the also new, low-priced 303 S (reviewed here) I tested before the Firecrest didn’t ride like any Zipp wheelset I’ve ever known.

So while I wasn’t sure what to expect, I feared that Zipp and their new more jagged looking logo might still be finding their way with this successor to the Firecrest franchise.

After riding this 303 Firecrest disc wheelset on enough paved flats, rollers, and alpine climbs, and a full range of gravel surfaces to get a bead on its character, I can tell you it is blazing a new Firecrest path.

And, for what it costs and what it does, I like that path.

At USD$1900 for a Firecrest, that path starts at a low price. With the $3200 Zipp 303 NSW disc now out of production (the other Zipp NSW rim and disc wheelsets remain), that price is not only the lowest it’s been for a Firecrest in, I think, ever, but it’s also now the price of their top-of-the-all-around-line disc wheelset.

Add to that, the 303 Firecrest disc is far wider (24.9mm inside, 30.0mm outside per my measurements), far lighter (1383 grams including pre-taped rims), and somewhat shallower (40.4mm) than previous Firecrests. Oh, and it only takes tubeless tires and has hookless rims.

So all that’s part of the new path, one that Zipp claims “is designed for the real world… a world of imperfect conditions, road surfaces, and elements”. In simpler words, it’s intended to be ridden on both paved and gravel roads.

For the most part, the Zipp 303 Firecrest disc pulls it off.

As a gravel bike wheelset, the 303 Firecrest is the full package. It’s comfortable and confident, or at least makes me feel that way on any class of surface. Negotiating around rocks, ruts, branches, in and out of lines, this wheelset is nimble and responsive.

Zipp 303 Firecrest Disc on gravel

Stiffness is a plus on these 303 Firecrests. Notably, stiffness wasn’t always a characteristic strength on previous Firecrests and isn’t on other Zipp wheels if you are a heavy rider or putting a lot of watts into them. This greater stiffness also shows up on gravel climbs, where the new 303 Firecrest disc excels.

The hubs also perform well on unpaved roads. They engage relatively quickly and provide the acceleration you frequently depend on riding gravel roads with their regularly changing pitches and surfaces.

Zipp uses their own ZR1 hubset on this Firecrest, a 6-pawl, 6 degrees of engagement affair. This is also a new model for them, something they seem to regularly do with hubs every few years. Because of that, it’s frustratingly hard to know how they’ll hold up over time.

On paved alpine climbs, I found the 303 Firecrest Zipp to be nearly the equal of the best lightweight disc wheels like the ENVE 3.4 disc and 3.4 AR disc and the Bontrager 37 RSL (reviewed here). It wasn’t as snappy as the ENVEs or as quick as the Bontrager, but it was steady, strong, and felt like nearly every watt of power I put into the wheels went right to the road.

At a measured 1383 grams with the Shimano/SRAM 10/11-speed compatible freehub on the wheelset I tested, its light weight (about 30 grams heavier than the Bontrager and 40-50 grams lighter than the ENVEs) clearly makes it one you’d want to join you going up long, steep climbs.

On flatter paved roads and rollers, some of the differences between the Zipp 303 Firecrest disc and more expensive ENVE 3.4 AR disc and far more expensive Zipp 303 NSW road disc wheelset came out. The ENVE and NSW are more comfortable and roll smoother on paved roads. And the NSW is clearly faster and holds its momentum far better than the Firecrest (and ENVE).

On paved roads, I used Zipp’s Tangente Speed Road Tubeless tires, ones I’ve found to be among the best tubeless tires, I did A-B and A-B-C comparative testing of these three wheelsets. The Firecrest and ENVE with their 25mm internal width rims got 28mm Tangentes inflated to the same pressure while the 21mm internal rim width NSW was shod with 25mm Tangentes inflated to the appropriate pressure for their widths and my weight.

Each of these wheelsets uses different hubs and layups. That might explain the comfort differences.

ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC

The NSW and ENVE rim and Tangente Speed Tubeless combinations easily passed the 105% outside rim width to tire width ratio target for optimal aero performance while the narrower outside width of the Firecrest put it slightly under 100%.

While I don’t expect top-end aero performance from a 40mm deep wheelset, the 30mm outside width of the Firecrest vs. the 32mm measurement of the ENVE 3.4 AR front wheel might explain the speed difference I felt in its ability to hold speed. Unfortunately, none of the other 28mm tubeless tires suitable for hookless rims that I mounted and measured on the Firecrest – Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Light TLR, Schwalbe Pro One TL, Specialized S-Works Turbo RapidAir – got me past 102%.

But at $1900 and used primarily for gravel and alpine climbing, the Zipp Firecrest 303 disc wheelset is a great option for those riding purposes and a good value. And, for what that’s worth, I’m kind of partial to the new logo too.

You can order it through these links to recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Planet Cyclery, and Tredz.

You can see how the Zipp 303 Firecrest Disc compares to other gravel wheels here and to other lightweight, climbing wheels here.

This site is independent, ad-free, and reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission that helps us cover the costs to bring reviews and other free content to you. Read more about us.


 

Related reading:  

THE BEST GRAVEL WHEELS I’VE TESTED

BEST LIGHTWEIGHT WHEELS FOR CLIMBING

 


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First published on October 18, 2020. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.

24 comments

  • Would you recommend these or the 303s for 28mm tires on primarily rough paved roads with occasional gravel riding? Priorities are aerodynamics, weight, and longevity. Thanks!

    • Hi Graham, I’d recommend the 303 Firecrest over the 303 S for the kind of riding you are doing with 28mm tires. The Firecrest has a wider internal rim (25mm vs 22.5mm) which will give you more compliance on the rougher roads and gravel with the wider tires. It’s also a good deal lighter and has a more robust hubset. Steve

  • Hey Steve, great articles on carbon wheels. I’m going from a Dogma F8 rim brake with 303 NSWs to a Dogma F12 disc and I have selected the new 303 Firecrests but I have the chance to change. I.m a 215 guy that is strictly road and am a B rider 17.5 to 18 mph avg rider and loved the NSW,s that I had for long rides. I want fast a bulletproof and easy to maintain wheel set. The NSWs were great but required special oil and servicing by skilled techs. Are the new Firecrests the best choice because I’ve never used Envee wheels before. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • Steve, The F12, as with a lot of newer high-end bikes, is designed to be a lot more aero than the F8. I’d expect you’ll be going faster than you have before because of it. Just hope it’s stiff enough for you. The F8 rim brake bike Nate and I tested didn’t have a very stiff rear triangle and we only weigh around 150. In keeping with the aero design of the F12, you’d be better off with an aero wheelset (reviews here) or at least a deeper all-around one (here) than the Firecrest Disc. Aero isn’t the strong suit of the new Firecrest Disc. Steve

      • Thanks Steve. I have more question. My weekly/ daily routes are 2k to 3k but also I will be doing some more frequent 4K to 5k of climbing and need to be prepared. I enjoyed the 303 NSW wheels but maybe I was leaving some performance on the table. I saw your top pick was the 4.5 Enve, can please give a couple of suggestions can would be good for rolling sand climbing as well as flats? Like a said before I love riding 40 plus miles at a time and doing a lot of metrics but I am planning some climbing trips as well and will be running a bigger cassette for those trips. Once agin, great articles and thank you so much, Steve

  • Hi Steve! and hello readers!

    Thanks so much for what you do here with this website. The information you share, and the way you share it, has been an invaluable resource to me. I check this site often if there are new articles and am always excited to see a new one. Also great about your site are the comments and your interaction with everyone, super cool.

    A bit about me and my journey: I’m 6’4” and weigh in at around 200 to 210lbs. Finding bike components with adequate stiffness has been a very expensive challenge.

    Frames that are reviewed as stiff can end up like a wet noodle once in the 62 cm range and that can only be determined after assembly and testing.
    Most long stems feel like rubber, FYI the Easton EA90 stems solve that.
    Some rear wheels with high end spokes constantly came loose until the drive side were replaced with heavy duty spokes like the DT Aero Comp.
    For years I’ve stayed away from lightweight factory wheelsets but had some recent luck with stiffness, but not with their tiny bearings.
    As you can imagine tire size and pressure have a huge impact on me. 28mm is the smallest I will ride. So far 32mm at about 63psi has been fantastic.

    I’ve been thinking about an aero wheelset for a long time but have been afraid to pull the trigger. I ride for fun and have taken aero more and more seriously over the years. I’ve had a recent bike fit and found a slightly better position. I have a bike with aero features and can feel the difference compared to others. When comparing the various wheels in stock, the ones with 24 bladed spokes make a noticeable difference. The 32 spoke bladed roll with less effort than their similar rounded siblings. I typically hover around 32 to 35km/h without much issue on 32mm GP5000 paired to a 21mm deep aluminium rim. All my road rims are 20mm wide (internal), and about 21mm deep. I really notice and enjoy the forward reaction and confidence in steering/cornering that a stiff wheelset offers. If an aero wheelset will make the speed range I travel at a bit easier, then I’ll be happy.

    So all that said,
    Where do you rate the 303 Firecrest in your comparison table? Does it get a + for stiffness?
    Does it maintain momentum?
    Do you think it fits my profile? Or is the ENVE still the undisputed king, even for my use case?

    Thanks a lot,

    Bob

    • Bob, Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for what I try to do with the site. I welcome your support.

      As to your situation and questions, yes the 303 Firecrest disc is plenty stiff but isn’t an aero wheelset and won’t add anything to the aero improvements you’re trying to make. For that, I’d go to the deeper and wider ENVE 4.5 AR. It will be stiffer still and with the right 28mm tubeless tire that sizes slightly narrower than the front rim (see my tubeless chart for the 3.4 AR here) you’ll max out the aero performance. You could put a 32mm tire on the rear wheel to max out your comfort with little effect on aero performance. Compared to the narrower alloy rims you are riding now, you’ll find these far stiffer and more comfortable at your weight even with 28mm on both wheels. Steve

  • Very interesting and in-depth research provided on this site. When I bought wheels in early 2019 it helped clarify some of the differences in these wheels (Gen 1, 2, 3, etc.). The articles on the different ‘tiers’ of wheels manufacturer was interesting as well. As Steve notes, he considers quality an important attribute of wheel selection – obviously, this makes sense, and I don’t question his opinions on this. However, my comment relates more specifically to warranty and my experience trying to claim.

    After a fair bit of research I bought the Zipp 303 Firecrest golf ball dimples version. Good solid reliable wheels I thought, and I did take them off-road occasionally. Unfortunately, less than 18 months later I hit a pothole (as happens on UK roads) – thought nothing more of it until I got home, where I found significant cracks in the side of the rear rim. I tried a warranty claim with a well known UK web retailer and the retailer / Zipp declined the claim as it was caused by ‘impact’, and offered no discount or replacement options whatsoever.

    Sure you can argue rider error, but now I am looking much more closely at the manufacturer warranty policies and Zipp seems to stand alone in the premium brands with this approach. They are now lauding their new ‘lifetime warranty’ and crash replacement ‘discount’, but there are equivalent brands giving replacements even in circumstances as mine e.g. Bontrager (a friend had the same issue as me and got a new wheel, and even a courtesy wheel while he was waiting).

    In summary – look closely at warranty before you part with your cash! In particular, be very wary with Zipp – I of course will not be buying any SRAM/Zipp product ever again.

  • Hi Steve, first, sorry for my English.
    I write you because I want to ask you some questions about the Zipp 303 firecrest 2021. First of all I ride only on road, not gravel. A year ago I tested a pair of Zipp 454 NSW and the sensations were very good, but in addition of the price, I’m looking for wheels with less shallow than the 454, so the responsible of the shop where I buy the material, recommended me the Zipp 303 firecrest. I usually ride a minimum of 70 km and a maximum of 120 km, although I like to increase the distance, and always I climb one or two mountain’s port, its means between 10 or 30 km of climb in each ride.
    Now I have a pair of Syncros RP 2.0 Disc with 28 mm tyre, so with the new wheels I want to improve the aerodynamic, reduce the weight, and improve the sensation of security in the downhills, because the downhills are very bad for my.
    My principal doubt about the new zipp 303 firecrest is the low pressure, usually I ride nearly 101 psi (not tubeless) and this wheels are limited to 73 psi, with the low pressure It is possible that will I have the sensation of the wheels are flat? Could low pressure be a penalty in flat roads?
    Thank you very much in advance.

    • Gonzalo, The two wheelsets you are comparing – the Zipp 454 NSW and Zipp 303 Firecrest disc – are very, very different. The only things they have in common is they are both made by Zipp and they are both sold by your bike shop. Most bike shops will only recommend wheels they sell and those might not be the best wheels for you. That’s why I started and continue to post to this website. I encourage you to consider what wheelset would be best for you. For that purpose, I wrote this review.

      As to your questions, the answer to both is no. Wheels with a 25mm internal rim width have more volume than those like your Syncros with a 19mm width. Riding at a lower pressure in a higher volume wheel will give you the same amount of force opposing your weight as a wheel with lower volume at a higher pressure. Steve

  • How does the 2021 Zipp 303 Firecrest compare in crosswinds with the Enve 3.4 AR? I’ve been considering these two, but my spouse is quite a bit lighter than me and feels buffeted by crosswinds more, so I’d prefer the more stable set since they otherwise seem reasonably similar.

    • Hi Jim, I’m 145 lbs and didn’t sense any effect of crosswinds on either wheelset. Neither are very deep and most modern wheelsets from companies like Zipp and ENVE that have been designing and testing carbon rims for a few generations now don’t have crosswind issues anymore with even deeper rims. Steve

  • Hi Steve.

    Another great article. I’m an enthusiast cyclist, 85kg, who rides 3000-4000 miles a year (mix of flat and hills) average 18mph solo and my wilier is spec to take 28mm tires with my current wheels of DT Swiss RR22 dicut Schwalbe Pro One TLE 28mm. For this combination I measure the tire to be 28mm wide

    I was getting close to pulling the trigger on the 303 Firecrest when I was reading one of your articles “ZIPP 303 JOINS THE PARTY” which mentioned the space needed in the chainstays for 30mm rims. My Wilier forks and seatstay are 40mm+ but the chain stay narrows to 36mm at the leading edge of the wheel and to 34-35mm at the widest point of the tire which makes me think I close to the limits of what I can fit in the rear and the 303 Firecrest may push me beyond what the bike can fit.

    The reason for the upgrade was to gain little aero and maybe loose a little weight, gain bit of comfort and handling and if I’m being honest make the bike a bit cooler too. The firecrest was close to the upper end of what I’m willing to spend and if I’m correct and it’s to wide for the frame would you recommend the 303s or another wheelset to work with 28mm tubeless tires. One of the issue’s I’m a little concerned about with the 303s is that it uses the older hub and these hubs have a bad reputation in the UK because of the wet weather.

    Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    • Mark, Your goals and the gear you are thinking about may not be in sync. A 28mm tire is only going to be “aero” with a rim that’s at least 30mm and likely more like 32mm wide externally and at least 45mm deep. There aren’t many of those. The right 25mm tire can be comfortable and aero on the right 45mm+ wheelset but most are going to cost you at least what the 303 Firecrest Disc does. And while I know it’s hard to avoid the rain riding in the UK, it’d be a shame to buy an expensive wheelset that is going to require a lot of service if you plan to ride it often in the bad weather. I’d suggest you prioritize your riding objectives between comfort, aero, weather, etc. a bit, and knowing your budget and the limits of your frame, take another whack at your options. Check out my tubeless tires review for tire/rim width aero considerations and my review of how to choose the right wheels for you to prioritize and lead you to a wider range of options. Cheers, Steve

      • Thanks Steve

        After lots of reading on your informative site, thinking and measuring what will fit in my bike I think I nearly there and likely to go with the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 TLR Disc. I was initially looking for something nearer 45-50mm to give a bit more aero gain but as I will likely continue to use 28mm tires and it needs to be an all round wheel that’s as good at climbing as it is on the flats then this looks like a good option. There’s the added bonus I can buy if from my LBS that I have used since I was a child.

        There’s the outside chance that I could go with the Hunt 44 UD Carbon spokes as friends have recommended them and they have a some good reviews from the usual publications. You didn’t seem to be a fan of the Hunt 50 carbon wheels and I wonder if the newer 44 wheels are any better although I suspect the hubs will be just as loud which would not be to my liking.

        Thanks again, Mark

        • Mark, There’s not a whole lot of difference between the two in terms of their aero/flats performance or climbing characteristics. The Firecrest is a capable gravel wheelset; the Aeolus is not. There’d be other reasons to choose between them that I outline in the reviews and of course your preferred shop would be another reason.

          I’ve no experience with the Hunt 44 UD carbon. Steve

  • Hi Steve, great article and information that you are providing. I am looking at the Zipp 303 Firecrest as well as considering Enve 3.4 AR and Bontrager’s Aeolus RSL 37V. I plan on using a 36-40mm tubeless slick for road use and very light gravel riding. Since I am using 1x eTap AXS any advantage to staying within the SRAM family and just get the 303 Firecrest? The reason I am also considering the RSL 37V is that it is a hooked rim which allows for more tire choices, allows more tire pressure flexibility, and perhaps more safety. Enve is also attractive given its lifetime incident protection. What would you recommend? Thank you.

    • Mario, No functional or performance benefit of staying in the SRAM family. As to hooked vs. hookless, on wheels that wide, the tire pressures you’ll be running are well within what is safe for hookless, even if you were to put on a 28mm tire for the road. All gravel tires work with hookless and most tubeless road tires do as well. ENVE’s tire compatibility chart shows a myriad of tires that work with hookless, far more than those that don’t. I haven’t ridden the RSL 37V yet but I compare the ENVE 3.4AR, Zipp 303 Firecrest, and RSL 37 in this review of climbing wheels. Steve

  • It’s not possible to detect the impact on speed of the aero or rolling resistance differences between the 3.4 AR and Firecrest 303 based on human perception. The differences are too small, there are too many variables and perceptions are too influenced by sensory bias.

    Stiffness and comfort, on the other hand, are easily perceived. As are many of the other points in your review.

    So my question is, why make these statements about “carrying momentum”? It tends to undercut the really good points in your review. Why not just say, “they feel really fast, which is nice” and leave it at that?

    You’re not the only one who does this. If you read cyclingnews.com or cyclingtips, you’ll see some technical expert say you can’t tell in the same issue some reviewer writes “the sense of incremental speed was palpable….”

    The reason I’m commenting is I’m trying to decide if these new 303s are legit or marketing hype and I can’t test ride them, so I’m very dependent on the reviews. Yours is one of the most thorough, so I’d really like to rely on it…

    • Mitch, OK. I get your passion and frustration on this topic. As with all my reviews, I describe what I and my fellow testers experience with each product in comparison to others we’ve tested as best we can. Our perspective is that of a fellow cycling enthusiast trying to decide what gear we should get based on using the product and tuning out the marketing hype rather than a paid reviewer for an ad-supported cycling publication and all the potential conflicts that come from that. It may not make us any better or worse or more right or wrong, it’s just where we’re coming from.

      In addition to what I’ve written in the post and in response to your central question, yes, the new 303 Firecrests are legit in the sense that they perform the way I’ve described from our experience, regardless of whatever Zipp says in their marketing. Steve

  • Avid reader of your site; first time commenting. I just picked up this wheelset for my 2017 Roubaix, relegating my Mavic Kysriums for winter duty. Up until this point, my only carbon wheel experience was on a friend’s Madone SL7 with Bontrager’s mid-value hoops, so I didn’t have much of a conclusion to draw. After putting the 303 Firecrests on with Schwalbe Pro One tires, the difference between my alloy hoops and these were night and day. Like you, I found that they love to climb amd were very efficient, using what feels like all of my pedaling power to propel me forward. Compared to the Ksyriums, these felt effortless when the road points up and fast on flat roads. Also rode very comfortably on the pock-marked roads where I ride (SE MI). I can’t relate to deeper wheelsets or the Enve ARs, which I had also considered but they were outside of my budget. The other wheelset I considered were the Enve Foundation 45s, but after reading your review, I saved up a few more pennies and went with the Firecrest. Haven’t regretted the decision! Keep up the good work!

  • Hi Steve. Thanks for the review.
    I’m currently looking for an upgrade on my endurance/off season bike and I’ve settled on the 303 firecrest with a 28mm tyre. I average 18-19mph on this set up, riding mainly road routes.
    Which tyre got close to 105% – or should I not care based on minimal aero benefit?
    Also, Do you have experience of Pirelli P Zero Race TLR’s? Them seem to be a good all round tyre.
    Thanks for your views.
    James

    • James, I’m looking at some additional tires now to add to my tubeless tire review here. Not testing the Pirellis as independent testing of their rolling resistance came up a good deal higher than other everyday tires with a puncture belt. Aero less of a consideration for this width and hookless rims makes for better flow at the tire/rim intersection so hard to know definitively 105 applies. That said, 28c Schwalbe Pro One and Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite were best at about 102%. Steve

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