ZIPP 454 NSW AND 353 NSW – HORS CATEGORIE
The 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$4220/£3376/€3798 retail price make them almost hors comparison.
Is this good, bad, or otherwise?
Some enthusiasts will willingly pay the price to get the NSW’s performance. For others, the price of these wheels makes 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
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, group ride, road race, or crit, I recommend the latest Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset. It will be fast in all those situations and the fastest around in many of them.
At US$4220/£3376/€3798, 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 and 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 had great legs every day I rode them.
Nate, our A group Bullet Train ride leader who rode the 454 NSW on some 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 five 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 – ed). 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.
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 to 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 using these links to Competitive Cyclist, BTD (BikeTiresDirect), Tredz (10% off with code ITKTDZ10), and Tweeks Cycles, all stores I recommended and rate highly for their prices, customer satisfaction, and support. You can also find it and compare prices using this link to Know’s Shop, which shows all the stores I recommend that carry this product.
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ZIPP 353 NSW – VERSATILITY TO A FAULT
Despite a depth that suggests it is an all-around wheelset, the Zipp 353 NSW wheelset doesn’t carry the momentum that all-around wheels do and climbs nearly as well as the best climbing wheels. It also performs well on everything from smooth paved roads to rough gravel ones.
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 only about 100 grams heavier than the lightest, pure climbing wheelsets I’ve reviewed.
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 with 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 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 28mm Schwalbe Pro One TLE during our test rides between 55 and 60 psi. I measured these tires, and the 28mm Specialized S-Works Turbo and Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite all narrower than the rim. That will give you reduced aero drag at high speeds.
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 the 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-gram heavier wheelset, 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 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’ve now done a few gravel events on the 353 NSW. As expected, the comfort, handling, and climbing ability we’ve enjoyed on the road translates 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 works against it, especially when trying to justify the US$4220/£3376/€3798 price tag.