ZIPP 303 S – BEST VALUE FOR TUBELESS ROAD DISC RIDERS
If the Zipp 303 S Tubeless Disc-Brake wheelset I rode for this review didn’t have the Zipp logo on the side of its rims, I wouldn’t have guessed it was from Zipp.
The 303 S wheelset sells for US$1300, £985, €1110, a very un-Zipp-like price. That’s less than what you’d pay for just the front wheel of their top-of-the-line NSW wheels, US$900 below what was the price of their just replaced 303 Firecrest disc wheels, and US$200 less than the 302 disc wheelset that the Zipp 303 S is replacing.
Unlike any Zipp road wheelset before it, the 303 S rims have no bead hooks and can only be ridden with tubeless tires. And there is no rim brake version.
It has better than average lateral stiffness and average vertical compliance (aka comfort). That’s the opposite of most every Zipp wheelset I’ve ever ridden, and I’ve ridden quite a few in the 202, 303, and 404 series.
The high lateral stiffness is certainly welcome. Over the years, I’ve suggested to many larger or heavier than average readers that they go with a wheelset that is stiffer than those from Zipp. Lateral stiffness also translates to good handling in these wheels and effective climbing for a wheelset of its weight.
Less than Zipp-like comfort in the 303 S isn’t a knock per se and it’s certainly not an issue. These are more like the comfort of the average mid-depth carbon wheelset. I did many 50 mile rides on them without any compliance-induced fatigue. It’s just that I had just gotten used to Zipp wheels being supremely comfortable.
You can certainly make these ride more comfortably by using a 28C tire. But you’ll pay a speed penalty doing so, much as you do with nearly every other wheelset these days.
In my case, I first mounted 25C Zipp Tangente RT25 tubeless tires, ones I’ve found nearly or more comfortable than most, and did my first several rides with the tires inflated to 55psi. This is 7-10psi lower than the pressure suggested by Zipp’s new tire pressure guide for my weight.
I also rode the wheels at the guide’s suggested pressures with both the 25C Tangente and the latest model 25C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tires. All combinations of these tires and pressures provided average comfort.
With 28C Zipp Tangente RT28 tubeless tires mounted and inflated to the suggested levels, the 303 S rode very comfortably absorbing nearly every imperfection in the road without a bother.
Why not just go with 28C tires then? If you value comfort over speed, do that.
However, if speed is your top priority and you regularly ride above 18mph/29kph where aerodynamic benefits start to kick in, you ideally want your rims to be wider than your tires, enough so that the air coming off one will flow smoothly to the other and provide you some aerodynamic lift.
The 303 S’ 27.5mm outside width marginally exceeds that of the 25C Schwalbe Pro One (26.9 @60psi), is about the same as the 25C Zipp Tangente (27.4mm), and is considerably narrower than the 28C Zipp Tangente (30.5mm) and likely to be of any 28C labeled tubeless tire.
I would not put the highly-ranked Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL tires on these or any hookless rim. Continental says their road tubeless tires are incompatible and shouldn’t be used with hookless rims though Zipp says you can use any tubeless tire on their hooked rims but hasn’t shared any compatibility test results they may have done.
Despite their 45mm depth, I felt only a small amount of “free speed” with the narrower 25C Schwalbe tires mounted on the 303 S. The pedaling effort (aka “watts”) I put into creating forward momentum with the 25C and 28C Zipp tires didn’t feel any easier to maintain as it does with more aerodynamic wheel-tire combinations when my speed gets above 20mph.
It’s hard to know how much of this has to do with this Zipp wheelset’s aerodynamics or hubs or other factors. The 3 pawl Zipp 76/176 hubset is one of the few design aspects or components that carry over from the 302. It’s pretty basic and pleasantly quiet and there’s certainly nothing objectionable about it. But don’t expect to get the same performance and smooth-rolling of the Cognition hub Zipp puts on its NSW wheels just because they have the same logo.
The 303 S wheels did take notice of crosswinds but didn’t trouble me much about them. That was a very good thing as they climbed very well for a wheelset their depth and weight (1556 grams on my scale).
Also new for Zipp, the 303 S wheelset along with the new 303 Firecrest is the first in their new gravel wheelset category. While what qualifies as a gravel or a road or cyclocross wheelset or one that’s well suited for all those disciplines these days is debatable, the 303 S internal width helps to make the gravel argument.
From my testing, however, they ride on gravel more like most 21mm road disc wheels that are only slightly narrower than this one’s actual 22.5 mm internal width (per my measurement) and not the 25C rim width platform I’ve found is best for 35mm and wider gravel tires.
Many ride 21mm (and 19mm and even 17mm) road wheels on gravel these days and you can certainly ride these as I did for many miles on various types of dirt and gravel terrain. But, these and 21C wheels lack the comfort and handling of wider, dedicated gravel wheels.
Let me underline that these Zipp 303 S tubeless disc brake wheels have hookless rims that require you use tubeless tires. While most tubeless wheels these days have hooked rims that will lock in the flexible beads of tube-type clincher tires and give you the option to choose between going tubeless or tubed, you can only use tubeless tires on these wheels. If you aren’t on board with that, these wheels aren’t for you.
Because it’s a Zipp wheelset, I’ve reviewed it as critically as I would any wheelset that sells at historically Zipp-like prices. But this new Zipp wheelset sells for US$1300, £985, €1110, and should be compared to those from other brands that sell in the same price range.
Given its combination of stiffness, handling, climbing, and acceleration performance better than most others in this category along with Zipp’s broad dealer service network and lifetime warranty, this Zipp 303 S is a value-carbon wheelset Best Value pick for those already or willing to ride with tubeless tires on their disc brake bikes.
This wheelset is currently out of stock at all the US stores I recommend. You can pre-order it using this link to Planet Cyclery which tells me they are filling those orders as they get restocked by Zipp roughly once a month. If you live in the UK or one of the EU countries, you can order it through these links to Tweeks Cycles, Chain Reaction Cycles, and Wiggle.
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You can read my evaluation of other wheelsets in this category in the post The Best Carbon Wheelset for the Money – Part 2.