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.

Zipp 303 S

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).

Zipp 303 S

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.

Zipp 303 S

The hookless Zipp 303 S rim tape should say Tubeless “ONLY” instead of “Compatible”

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 CyclesChain 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.

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28 comments

  • How does the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR compare to the Zipp 303S? Separately, and I realize this is a category above, but have you ridden or do you ever plan a review for the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 6 TLR disc wheel?

    • Kevin, I reviewed the Aeolus Pro 5 TLR and the new Aeolus Pro 37 in this review of the best carbon wheelsets for the money – part 2. I recommend the 303 S and Pro 37. As to the Aeolus XXX 6, we are testing it now along with a handful of other aero road disc wheels listed in this Know’s Notes post. I expect we’ll have those reviews up late July or so.

      You can always enter in a wheelset you’re interested in by using the search bar at the top of the page to see if we’ve reviewed it. You can also sign up to get new posts emailed to you or follow our social media to keep up with what we’re reviewing. Cheers, Steve

  • Hey Steve,
    What’s the point of $1300US wheels that don’t feel like more than “a small amount of “free speed”” even with the most aero tires. You’re recommending them, but isn’t the point to go faster. If they aren’t particularly go-faster…? $1300US is less than the best wheels, but it ain’t cheap. Read to me like they’re in ‘no-man’s-land’. Am I reading you wrong?

    • Same question as Cam, I understand the price point is lower but how do they stack up compared to the others if you were to apply the same + / o / – rating has you have to some of the other wheels?

      • Cam, Shawn,

        There’s a handful of performance considerations that go into my evaluations. Aero performance is just one. While we’d all prefer to pay as little as possible for carbon wheels, my experience testing a lot of “value-carbon” wheelsets in the $1000-$1500 range is that they just don’t perform as well or across the range of performance criteria I use as do the “performance-carbon” wheels that sell for $2000 and up. I did a comparison of wheelset performance of these two categories (and the alloy wheelset category) in my review of value-carbon wheelsets here that you might want to take a look through.

        Summarizing, performance-carbon wheelsets are generally going to be more versatile, aero, responsive, and comfortable than value-carbon or alloy-upgrade wheels. Many will also be stiffer, handle better and climb better too but I’ve found that depends more on the specific wheelset than its price.

        Some value-carbon wheelsets, like the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 will give you good free speed with the right width tires but aren’t as good in crosswinds or as responsive or accelerate or climb as well, etc. If speed is what you are focused on and you ride the flatlands without much wind, that could be a good choice for your situation at this price. Nearly all the value-carbon wheels have multiple weaknesses rather than the balance of equal or better performance the higher-priced performance-carbon wheelsets do.

        Compared to other value-carbon wheelsets in the $1000-$1500 price range though, I’ve found the Zipp 303 S and the Bontrager Pro 37 have the best combination of performance and that’s why I recommend them. In this value-carbon range, the Zipp 303 S is a + for versatility, stiffness, handling, climbing, and acceleration and on par with the average value-carbon wheelset for aero speed, crosswind management, and comfort. All those plusses with no negatives are about as good as you can find for this price. Steve

  • Hi Steve.
    What in your opinion after riding both is the better Wheelset – Zipp 302 or Zipp 303s? I could pick some 302 up for £850 – or is it worth the extra £ for 303s.

    • Mark, Very different wheelsets. Your choice would depend on what performance attributes you are looking for, what kind of tires you are willing to use, whether you need rim or disc brake wheels, and what kind of terrain you want to ride. Would suggest you read the review of the 302 and other value-carbon wheels in my review here. Steve

  • Excellent articles and glad I found your website!
    Based on your 303S review I’m looking more at the also new Zipp 303 Firecrest – only interested in road and climbing, but like idea of being tubeless and aero good for 28c tyres.
    Any plans to review these anytime soon or any thoughts?

  • Thx for all you reviews.
    I have read that Zipp purports that their tubeless tires can be put on these wheels without using a tire lever and a floor pump will suffice. Did you find that to be accurate?

    • Danny, Yes, the Zipp Tangente RT tires I tested went on, inflated, sealed (and came off) rather easily. Steve

  • Just curious why your review says the 303s is faster with a 25mm tire and Zipp says 28mm is faster on these wheels? Also, I know that Zipp says all tubeless or tubeless ready unless a tire company says no hookless tires. I know that the continental 5000 tl say no hookless rims but what are your thoughts. I’m guessing no way but man I love the continentals and I’m considering the Zipps. Thank you Max

    • Max, Zipp’s new approach to speed looks at how fast you go for a given amount of power expended and is based on four factors – aero drag, rolling resistance, wheelset weight, and road conditions. For me, that’s too many variables that aren’t all in play to the same degree at different speeds and road conditions.

      For example, aero drag affects your speed far more the faster you go (it’s logarithmic) while rolling resistance has the same effect at whatever speed (it’s linear). After exceeding about 15 mph the importance of aero drag outweighs rolling resistance and as you get faster it can be more important by a factor of 2 to 4x. Wheelset weight only matters under acceleration, and then no more than aero drag, and when you do long, steady climbs in excess of about 7%. Road conditions are also variable but on most decently paved roads, there’s little difference in their effect compared to aero drag. Zipp’s new way of measuring speed (called Total System Efficiency) is a hash of considerations that perhaps applies to a wheelset like the new 303 Firecrest that you’ll ride on the road and gravel but doesn’t work well in my view on the road. On gravel, you are doing most of your riding either side of that 15mph range, doing a lot of often steep climbing and the surfaces can be rather rough. So yeah, in those conditions, you’re better off with a 28C tire if you are riding on a dirt road or course and wider still (up to 40mm) if you are riding actual gravel.

      For road riding where I think the 303 S performs best and for any wheelset including the 303 Firecrest, I’m looking principally at aero drag when it comes to speed. From that perspective, a 28C tire that is wider than the rim is not going to keep the air flowing from it to the rim (and vice versa) in a smooth (laminar) way while a 25C that is narrower than the rim is going to get that aero effect and benefit. You’ll see the claim that a 28C tire also has better rolling resistance than a 25C, but that statement is only true when you add “at the same pressure”. Of course you put a wider tire on your wheels so you can lower the pressure and ride more comfortably. At 5-10 psi lower pressures, the rolling resistance for a 28C tire is much the same as a 25C. And again, rolling resistance is far less important when you are riding at road speeds.

      As to tires, I found the Schwalbe mentioned in the post above to be slightly more aero than the Zipp. And if Conti and ENVE say no to using the Conti GP5KTL on hookless rims, I’m not going to do it. They’ve both done the testing. If they’ve done any, I’ve not seen Zipp publish any testing. Steve

      • Steve,
        Thank you, I appreciate the information and clarification. This is tough one for me. I ride everything, gravel and road. I still love to road race but those races are only 4 or 5 times a year. Maybe the solution is to just put on 25’s during road race season. Again, thank you Steve, you’re site is excellent.

  • Steve,
    Great article, spot on!!!!
    (Sorry its a bit long…)
    So first thank you for making some “order” for me, with all that new wheelsets information out there coming from all the manufacturers this year, I think it’s a big change that major brands start to come out with decent carbon Aero sets in reasonable (sub 1.4k) prices, still way to go there but its a good direction.
    For me as I am new to road cycling, it’s nice to see that the tubeless concept is starting to get momentum, as an MTB hard XC rider for the past 14 years I truly don’t understand why the road category is so conservative to great ideas from other fields….it works perfect off road, lots of advantages (IMHO) and not as risky as tubular…in my local bike shop they still insist tubes are the best…go figure.
    Now, as I recently moved to road from MTB and now training for an Olympic distance triathlon, I chose to ride a 2020 Trek Madone SL6 Disc and I can say the that although the bike is overall a superb bike for me (tested quite a few) I totally don’t like the wheels…
    I am seriously considering replacing them after only 3 months of use, and currently the best candidates are the Bontrager 37 pro, Zipp 303S, JRA Mahi Mahi, and maybe the HUNT 44 AERODYNAMICIST CARBON DISC…
    So my main use is road and Tri on the Madone.
    A typical volume weekend training session is 80-100 Km , on an average 30 Kph speed on a 900 meter average climbing per ride.
    Which of the set would you recommend for my purpose? (I weight around 64 kilos – no issue there).
    Would highly appreciate you advise!
    Cheers!

  • Hey Steve, thanks for the thorough review – it’s great having this out in the wild on such a new product.

    While your spreadsheets and reviews are great comparing top tier and budget wheels amongst their respective categories, it’s tough comparing across the two. With that said, I’m wondering how you’d size the 303S’s against Reynolds 46s?

    • Shawn, Depends what you’re looking for from a wheelset. My reviews of each try to give you their essence. Steve

  • I love the thoroughness and depth of your reviews, yet you communicate it clearly enough that a layman such as myself can understand it.

    Will be looking for 50-60mm disc wheels soon, as the stock ones on the Domane SL6 are, well, stock. I’m moving from a rim-brake cervelo S3 with D-A C50 wheels, which was super responsive. I know the Domane is a different beast, though I’m sure I can find wheels that will energize the ride.

    The question is: should I even be looking at “value carbon”?

    At 6’2″ x 225 lbs, I pay close attention to stiffness and reliability. Reliability, for me, means super low maintenance. I had the D-A C50s trued maybe once every 2 or 3 years (Not neglect, I had them looked at as soon as I saw or felt a wobble – those things are built to last).

    I’m hoping Tubeless lives up to its promise.

    Thanks mate, and again, cheers on the quality and consistency of your content.

    • Bernard, thanks for your feedback. Stiffness depends more on the wheelset than whether it’s a “value carbon” or “performance carbon” one. As the category name suggests, performance carbon wheelsets generally perform better on other performance criteria including aero and crosswind performance in the mid and aero depth range.

      I’ve not tested for reliability per set but performance carbon wheels generally come with better warranties and better service networks than value carbon ones. They often though not always have better, longer-lasting, more expensive hubs which is important to reliability.

      We’re about a few weeks away from posting a whole group of new reviews on aero depth (55-65mm) performance wheels for road disc bikes. There is also a regularly updated review of about 10 all-around depth (40-50mm) road disc wheels up on the site now. https://intheknowcycling.com/carbon-disc-wheelset/

      Steve

  • Hi Steve,

    Love your site. Great reviews, very informative and thorough.
    I’ve learned the 105% rule on your site but I’m curious about the speed penalty that one gets by breaking that rule. Say for instance a rider with your profile mounts 28mm tires on these Zipp 303S, rides ~30km/h on rolling terrain for a 100km ride with 600m D+.
    Wondering how significant the penalty is. In my mind at some point, if the ride is long enough, comfort becomes more important than losing a couple of second/km here and there.

    Thanks.

    • Eric, Thanks for your kind feedback. I’m actually polishing off research and testing on the effects of this rule that I’ll publish in about 10 days. Long story short, it really depends on your rim-tire combination, speed, and distance. Riding 28mm tires on all but the widest road rims including the 303 S, you essentially wipe out any aero benefit of having a deeper rim. The faster and shorter you go, the fewer seconds you’ll lose but the more important they’ll probably be to you. The slower and longer you go (while still riding at 18-20mph or better), the more time you’ll lose but the less you may care. It could be a matter of a few seconds for a TT length ride to several minutes for a 100-mile long ride. The most important thing is to pick the right inflation pressure with whatever tire you choose, albeit better with one that meets the 105% rule at that pressure. Doing so will also maximize your comfort and handling performance. Steve

  • Will you be reviewing the new Zipp 302 tubeless? Sorry if this has been asked.

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