ZIPP 404 FIRECREST – PERFORMANCE FOR LESS
While you can find better-performing wheels and lower-priced ones than the new Zipp 404 Firecrest Tubeless Disc Brake, it’s the performance-price combination that makes this wheelset stand out.
As road disc wheels move into what I’ve identified as their 4th generation, it’s become harder to apply the traditional climber, aero, all-around, etc. labels to describe what type of terrain a wheelset performs best on or what type of rider it would be best suited for.
The latest generation Zipp 404 Firecrest is fast on the flats like its predecessors and as you would expect any wheelset with its 58mm rim depth should.
But, it also climbs and rides across rolling terrain better than most wheelsets this deep and as good as many 10mm to 15mm shallower. Add to that its ability to hold its line well in crosswinds, a welcome performance characteristic whether going all out on an exposed flat road or a fast downhill after a good mountain climb.
No, the Zipp 404 Firecrest is not the all-everything wheelset that I and my fellow testers fell madly in love with riding the Zipp 454 NSW. But the 404 is less than half the price of its US$4000/£3200/€3600 upper-crust, heart-throb sibling.
Nor is it quite the performer or as expensive as the snappier, smoother riding ENVE SES 5.6, a US$2550/£2800/€3300 beauty that is also one of the best on flats, rollers, and shorter climbs.
But if you want a wheelset that performs as well or better than most on a wide range of road terrain at a price less than many that are best over a narrower range, the Zipp 404 Firecrest is there for you.
As with any wheelset with a deep rim that’s intended for speed, you don’t want to go out and wreck your aero performance by putting a 28mm wide tire on the Zipp 404 Firecrest’s front wheel instead of a 25mm one if you don’t have to. You already get improved comfort and handling thanks to the 404’s added volume and straighter tire sidewalls coming from its 23mm inside width, hookless rims.
Note: If you weigh more than 175 lbs, you are better off going with a 28C tire. The recommended inflation pressure for your weight and a 25C tire would put you above the recommended inflation pressure for this rim (74psi).
While not the plushest or best handling wheels on the block, my fellow tester Miles and I found it’s plenty comfortable enough and handles just fine with our top-rated 25mm wide Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite and Schwalbe Pro One TLE tires that we tested on this wheelset. (The discontinued Zipp tires you see in the photos were used only to soothe my aesthetic sensibilities.)
For the Zipp 404 Firecrest, your tires need to be both tubeless and hookless compatible. And if you are partial to riding 28mm rubber, you can be both aero and comfortable if you are willing to work with me. Put a 25mm tire on the front wheel where aero performance is crucial and a wider tire adds little extra comfort. Then mount up a 28mm on the rear where aero is less decisive and you’ll feel the comfort of a wider tire more.
Unlike the hubs used on the Zipp 454 NSW or ENVE SES 5.6 and many other performance-carbon wheelsets these days, the ZR1 freehubs used on the Zipp 303 and 404 Firecrest wheels are loud. They’re just as audible but not as rich sounding as the Chris King or even the Industry Nine hubs you can select or build into some wheelsets.
The freehub noise Miles and I heard may be beautiful music to your ears. Just know that you can’t coast in the wheels of your group ride mates or a competitive race peloton with 404s rolling underneath you without being noticed and likely encouraged to take more than your share of pulls or be more easily marked if you try a breakaway.
But the way this US$1900/£1600/€1800 wheelset performs, your buds may think you’re riding a more expensive set. And with how well you move across all pitches of paved roads, they may think you are fitter than you may actually be.
With the Zipp 404 Firecrest’s performance and its 1521 gram weight per my scale, it’s hard to see a reason to buy a 10-15mm shallower, more typical 40-50mm deep wheelset for so-called all-around riding. The latest Zipp 303 Firecrest falls in that depth range but my experience suggests it’s better for very hilly terrain and mountain road climbs as an all-arounder.
Certainly, US$1900/£1600/€1800 is not a value-price. There are many wheelsets available from established and new brands that sell for US$1300 to $1600. But the Zipp 404 Firecrest clearly outperforms all of those we’ve tested in that price range and, my dear fellow road cycling enthusiast on a budget, it easily justifies the added spend.
In our experience, this is a wheelset that performs comparably to or better than many aero or all-around ones that cost more and can do so across a mix of terrain that few more expensive wheelsets can.
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