ZIPP 454 NSW AND 353 NSW – HORS CATEGORIE

The latest Zipp 454 NSW and Zipp 353 NSW wheelset performance and prices are truly hors categorie or beyond categorization, the term reserved to describe climbs that are like no others.

Despite what its rim depth would suggest, the performance of the 454 NSW makes it hard to place in the aero category alone. It also has a very different riding character than the prior generation 454 NSW.

The same goes for the Zipp 353 NSW. Its range reaches well beyond most all-around category wheelsets and has mostly numbers and letters in common with the 303 NSW it replaces.

The unique performance of these new Zipp NSW wheels and their US$4000/£3200/3600 retail price make them almost hors comparison.

Is this good, bad, or otherwise?

Some enthusiasts will willingly pay the price to get their performance. For others, their price will make them hors budget regardless of that performance.

For the rest of us, I suspect we’ll find ourselves wondering how much would I be willing to pay for what these wheelsets can do for me? 

If that’s you or you just want to have fun imagining what it might be like riding one of these wheelsets, here are our reviews.

ZIPP 454 NSW – FAST WHEELS ANYWHERE YOU RIDE

Zipp 454 NSW

If you don’t want to pick between wheels that would be fast on flats vs. on rolling hills vs. on climbs or in a training ride vs. a group ride, road race, or crit, get the latest Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset. It will be fast on all those and the fastest on many of them.

At US$4000/£3200/3600, it better be. But if top performance in a single wheelset in nearly every situation and against nearly every criterion is important to you, it just may be worth it.

That’s the conclusion that fellow testers Nate, Miles, and I reached after riding the Zipp 454 NSW.

At its core, it’s a stiff, deep, and light wheelset. Those three attributes along with the 454 NSW’s quick engaging rear hub make it so responsive that it redefines the term “snappy.”

Practically, the 454 NSW’s superior ability to accelerate made it an ideal partner for 20-30 second break-away efforts and sprint finishes. Except for on the steepest of slopes, Miles said this wheelset “made me faster on nearly any effort I tried”.

And Miles is already a fast dude, regularly winning P/1/2 masters crits, road, and stage races in the Northeast and finishing top 10 at US Nationals.

Even for me, a more average B group level roadie, the sensation of riding this highly responsive 454 NSW wheelset was energizing almost from the first pedal stroke. Once into my rides, I felt like I was having great legs every day I rode them.

Nate, our A group Bullet Train ride leader who rode the 454 NSW on a couple of those early morning hammerfests and out front of 100 and 140 mile one day rides with 8,000 to 10,000 feet of climbing initially resisted giving them up for others to test. Despite being a peace-loving guy, he paraphrased Charleton Heston’s line about prying them out of his “cold dead hands”.

Nate has been testing all sorts of wheels along with me for at least the last 5 years including the prior generation 454 NSW rim brake wheels. His feedback started with a most definitive statement.

These are the first wheels where I haven’t felt like I was making a tradeoff between aero and climbing performance.

I don’t know what they cost (I’ve trained him not to look at price or specs and just judge performance). I’m sure it will be high. But, I would put them in the category where it just MIGHT be worth paying $1,000 more for these than others which are ALMOST as good but not on all characteristics. (Nate’s capitalization.)

Unlike Nate’s experience with the earlier 454 NSW where that wheelset wobbled in crosswinds to the point where he slowed on each fast downhill section of a looping road race, he felt confident on similarly fast, windy descents riding this new 454 NSW.

Miles felt far less comfortable in some windy situations. When the breezes picked up to about 20 mph and came directly from the side, it felt like he was getting a slight body check and was pushed around far more than with any wheelset he’s ever ridden.

It may be that the 454 NSW’s sawtooth rim profile is best at reducing crosswinds at lesser yaw angles than what Miles experienced and perhaps more similar to those Nate did. For me, I always seem to be riding into headwinds no matter what course I’m on and it was no different riding the 454 NSW.

The only other slight knock we had on this wheelset was its ability to hold its momentum on the flats at speeds north of 25mph. While the 454 NSW rolled just fine at that speed, it felt like we needed a bit more effort to keep pace with the average aero wheelset that is often 5-10mm deeper and 200-300 grams heavier. It’s simply a matter of physics and a tradeoff the speediest of enthusiasts might want to keep in mind.

Zipp 454 NSW

When you aren’t on a breakaway, going over rolling terrain, heading up climbs, or sprinting for the line, you are likely doing a lot of handling. And the good news is that this is another area where the 454 NSW outperforms most wheelsets.

We experienced precise, confident, high-speed cornering. These wheels do exactly what you want them to do in big arc turns, 50+mph downhills, slower switchbacks, and even quick, last-second movements.

With the right tires and at the right pressures, the ride is also very comfortable no matter how good the pavement is. While many wheels are similarly compliant nowadays, some deeper wheels tend to give up comfort by using a narrower rim to keep weight down. You make no such trade-off with this wheelset.

Add to all of this a very smooth rolling hubset and almost silent, fast engaging freehub. That makes it even more tempting to start a breakaway and easier crank up a sprint.

The 454 NSW defies categorization. It’s the wheelset equivalent of a hors categorie climb, one that is beyond categorization.

Based on its 55 to 59 mm deep rims, you might think the Zipp 454 NSW is an aero wheelset. You wouldn’t be wrong. Judging from its 1388 gram weight, you might guess it climbs well. Indeed it does. Hookless, 23mm inside rim width will make for a very comfortable ride, right? Yes and perhaps worthy of riding gravel, though we didn’t test it off-road.

So is it an all-around wheelset? Yes, that may be the most encompassing definition though it is faster and better than any all-arounder we’ve tested on terrain that never exceeds 5-6% up or down and faster than many aero wheels on the flats and climbing wheels on steeper pitches.

Perhaps it’s best to call it an all-everything wheelset. Or just fast anywhere you want to ride.

You can buy the Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset at stores I recommend using these links to Competitive Cyclist, Planet Cyclery, Tredz 10% off with code ITKTDZ10, and Chain Reaction Cycles.

In The Know Cycling is ad-free, subscription-free, and reader-supported. If you want to help keep it rolling without any added cost to you, buy your gear and kit after clicking the store links on the site. When you do, we may earn an affiliate commission that will help me cover the expenses to create and publish our independent, comprehensive, and comparative reviews. Thank you, Steve. Learn more.

ZIPP 353 NSW – VERSATILITY TO A FAULT

The Zipp 353 NSW wheelset isn’t easily typecast as an all-arounder. It plays that role for sure but also climbs with the best and performs well on mixed surfaces.

Indeed, versatility is one of its greatest strengths.

At 1248 grams with an XDR freehub (20 grams more with an HG aka 11-speed Shimano/SRM freehub), the 353 NSW is almost freakishly light for a non-tubular wheelset. It’s 100 grams lighter than any climbing wheelset I’ve reviewed.

Zipp 353 NSW

And boy, does it climb! I almost had to check that I hadn’t left my water bottle or saddle bag at home when I hit the hill a quarter-mile mile from my house the first time out.

Miles blew away the competition when he rode the 353 NSW in the Crank the Kanc race that has a 5 mile, 7% uphill finish. Since the race starts with a 10 mile 1-2% grade, he put these Zipps on his Giant Propel aero bike. It turned that bike into a legitimate climber. That’s versatility for you.

We didn’t experience any effects of crosswinds riding the Zipp 353 NSW both on flat and downhill terrain. While its rims have the sawtooth pattern that is designed to neutralize them on their deeper 454, crosswinds haven’t been an issue with the last couple of generations of Zipp mid-depth wheelsets we’ve tested. Even Zipp told me they used the sawtooth design on the 353 NSW principally to reduce weight.

Tracking in turns, making quick direction changes, and doing other handling maneuvers on both good and rough roads with these Zipps produces a confident thrill unmatched by most wheelsets.

And comfortable? You bet. Nate described them as “plush over bumps at high speeds.” Miles called them “fantastic, so comfortable cruising over imperfections.” I concur.

With its inside hookless rim width I measured at 25.5mm, we rode the 353 NSW with 28c Schwalbe Pro One TLE during our test rides between 55 and 60 psi. I measured these tires as well as the 28c Specialized S-Works Turbo and Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite all within the Rule of 105 modified a few percent for the straighter tire sidewall shape you get when mounted on a hookless rim.

Zipp 353 NSW

Yet, these Zipp 353 NSWs aren’t aero stars. All of us noted that you’ve got to keep the pressure on the pedals to keep your speeds up.

I rode the 353 NSW back to back on the same day and same route against the Zipp 303 NSW that it replaced. The 303 NSW was clearly superior in my ability to hold speed or momentum. I’m not sure why – likely because the 303 NSW is a 250 grams heavier wheelset while only a touch deeper than the undulating 42-46 mm deep 353 NSW and with an earlier generation of the smooth flowing Cognition hub – but I sure noticed a big difference.

We had split opinions on the stiffness of the 353 NSW. Nate, one of the strongest age-group climbers in the region was “underwhelmed by their stiffness”. He found them sluggish on short, punchy climbs. On the other hand, he thought the rear hub engaged more rapidly than the many other wheelsets he’s tested.

Miles, no slouch when it comes to climbing and only a few kgs lighter than Nate thought these Zipps were “incredibly stiff” but engagement felt average especially when he accelerated on the steepest gradients during his hill training. Once engaged, however, he loved the way they accelerated.

To-mA-to, To-mAH-to? Hard to know.

I didn’t dare ride these expensive beauties on dirt and gravel. But, I’ve every indication that the comfort, handling, and climbing ability we enjoyed on the road would translate well off of it.

While the Zipp 353 NSW is clearly a standout climber and would likely perform with the best of them on gravel, it’s not as fast against other all-arounders. It’s almost as if its versatility is working against it, especially when trying to justify the US$4000 price tag.

But if what it does well is the combination of things you are looking for, you can pick it up at Planet CycleryTredz 10% off with code ITKTDZ10.

10 comments

  • Hi Steve, how do you feel the 353’s and 454’s stack up against the Enve 3.4 AR and your current best all-round wheelset 4.5 AR’s? Thanks in advance.

    • Joe, they stack up well. I’m working on a post that compares the best of the best but have additional wheelset reviews to get through first before I can get that one out. Steve

  • Also, what tyres were you running in the 454’s, in particular what width tyres would you recommend with these wheels?

    • I would like to see these wheelsets compared to the Roval rapide slx 51-60 wheelset. I bet they perform similarly to the zipp 454’s.

      • Ed, I’d like to compare them too but as I mentioned when you left the same comment recently in my Best Carbon Disc Wheelset review, I haven’t been able to get a hold of the Rovals. Steve

    • Joe, the 454s are best with 25c tires as they’ll provide the best aero profile. We tested them with the Zipp Tangente Speed Road Tubeless tires that Zipp also used in their development. Unfortuntely, those are now discontinued. I mounted and measured others on them that also work with hookless rims as well. You can read more about your options in my tubeless tire review. Steve

  • Great reviews Steve! I have to say I was a little disappointed with the new 303 Firecrest and 353 NSW prioritising other areas at the expense of aero compared to the older versions since I always felt (having owned a set of 1st gen 303 NSWs) that the 45mm depth was really where perceptible aero gains are felt for me. From what I’ve read, those two new models seem to be less impressive in the “holding higher speeds easily” department than the ones they replaced.

    It’s also disappointing, if somewhat understandable, that even the latest aero wheels are mostly sticking with 25c tire optimization (where 28c would exceed the 105 rule). I’m one of those much more comfortable on 28s on my local roads but also avg 30-32 km/h and appreciate the aero gains of deeper wheels. The new Roval Rapides with a 35mm max external width are an exception.

  • Grant, Thanks for your kind feedback. Regarding the 25c vs. 28c tires, recognize that in the case of the 454 NSW, the rim is already 23mm internally so that you’ve added volume to make the ride comfortable with a 25c tire the way you might on a 21mm internal rim with a 28c tire. We found the 454 NSW very comfortable with 25c tires and it’s clearly more aero than 28c tires.

    More generally, I find 28c tires aren’t always necessary to make for a comfortable ride or one that reduces energy or impedance losses from road surface imperfections. Some riders, especially those of us who have been riding for a while and are used to inflating tires to between 85 and 110psi on rims with 15 to 17mm inside widths and 21c and 23c tires we used to ride often have a hard time reducing pressure to the 60-80 psi level that is more appropriate for modern day, wider rims and 25c tires to get better handling, more comfort, and less impedence losses.

    And then there’s the reality that 25c tires used to measure closer to 27mm wide once inflated and installed on most rims until the latest round of new tires brought on by current standards. Now, some current 28c tires measure less than 28mm once installed. And tires from different brands of different construction that measure exactly the same once mounted and inflated can be wildly different in their level of comfort and handling. Same goes for the rims and wheels. So talking about a 28c or 28mm tire is almost meaningless without knowing the tire model, age, rim you are mounting it on, and pressure you are inflating it to. The whole wider tire thing has been overhyped and misunderstood. The focus needs to be on the rim-tire combination for whatever mix of aero, handling, and comfort/impedence performance you prioritize and not just 28C tires for their own sake. Steve

    • Agreed re confusion in the industry with sizes, psi, etc. I run 28c tires (29.3 actual) on 21mm internal width and 29.4 max external width rims, 70psi rear 65psi front. I tried 25c tires (27.3 actual) on the same rims and was getting pinch flats at the max psi I was comfortable riding, that’s why I switched to 28c…

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