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First Rides: The New Zipp 404

by Anthony Little |

The new-new, as we call it. The endless cycle of new and improved product from year to year and the anxiety we get during the anticipation of its arrival. I’ve felt this a few times this year, most recently with the arrival of the Pinarello Dogma F8. There are a few other items I’m personally looking forward to, like Yeti’s improved Carbon Switch Infinity line that takes the place of their old eccentric link, as well as Campagnolo’s redesigned mechanical group. The latter two I’ll have to wait a bit longer for, but on Monday I finally was able to mount my Dogma F8 with a set of the new, limited-edition Zipp 404 Firestrike Carbon Clinchers.

Zipp certainly had a tough feat in front of them; the 2014 Firecrest 404’s are a fantastic wheel, so much so that they decided to keep them in their lineup for the coming year.

First things first: what’s changed? When I heard that there was a new 404 coming to market it had the usual hoopla behind it. Lighter, stiffer, stronger… the typical conjecture you’d expect to hear about a new road product. Lighter, stiffer and stronger can all be good attributes, but I think everyone knows that too much light, strong and stiff translates into one harsh and unenjoyable ride. Personally, I was more interested in features like braking performance, durability, reliability and, of course, performance. However, it seems as though Zipp was able to improve their wheels in most of those respects, although only after 2 long rides on the wheels, durability is something I’ll have to come back to.

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Zipp certainly had a tough feat in front of them; the 2014 Firecrest 404’s are a fantastic wheel, so much so that they decided to keep them in their lineup for the coming year.

In an effort to get the entire gamut of changes nailed down, I called Ernesto, our local rep, to see exactly what set these new Firestrike 404’s apart from my current set that I’ve been riding almost every day for over a year. We’ll start with the rim itself. While the rim looks similar to what Zipp has produced in the past, this was a ground up redesign. The similarities come from re-proving Zipp’s legacy designs, like their golf ball like dimpling. However, when you get into the details, a lot has actually changed.

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If you’ve ever read about Bob Parlee’s adverseness to aero designs, he states that while a 0º aero wind profile may work well, you start to actually create more drag once your wind angle has shifted. Zipp was able to refine this aspect with computational fluid dynamics to reduce side wind force by a whopping 34% while keeping its straight-line performance in tact. Zipp was already the ‘class leader’ in aerodynamics at this depth, and now they’ve furthered themselves from the competition again.

Another refinement for the rim comes in its width. At 17.25mm, which is damn wide, the rim creates even less deformation of the tire, resulting in more comfort and better handling. Sure, it’s not a tubular, but for those that appreciate the easy flat changing characteristics of a clincher, the ride quality between the two keeps inching closer every year.

As carbon wheels have become a daily ridden item instead of a race day only exception, Zipp set out to level the performance between Aluminum and Carbon surfaces.

Probably the most important and significant change for me is the Silicon Carbide treatment on the braking surface. I’ve long loathed the braking performance of some carbon wheels, especially in the wet. As carbon wheels have become a daily ridden item instead of a race day only exception, Zipp set out to level the performance between Aluminum and Carbon surfaces. I’d go into the complexity of how they achieved this, but I’ll leave you to read the details here. If you wonder what all this means and if it actually works, read below.

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Zipp made some fantastic improvements to their hubsets in 2014 which have been carried through their 2015 line of wheels…while the Firestrike 404’s take this development even further. The Firestrike 404’s design is said to increase torsional stiffness and utilize top of the line Sapim CX-Ray spokes and Ceramic bearings right from the factory. Zipp is also including Titanium quick releases and wheel bags with their ’15 wheelsets. Rad.

First Impressions

So, do the improvements that Zipp made translate into a better ride? Some of those questions will have to wait until I have a few months of riding on these things, but my initial impressions after about 150 miles is simply, yes. I’ve been riding the Dogma F8 for a couple months now and while I love the bike, it’s admittedly a very stiff ride. I’ve ridden it with Reflex tubulars that smooth it out, but I appreciate a beefier, stiffer wheel like the 404.

I set up the new Firestrike 404’s with Vittoria Open Corsa CX 25c tires, a departure from the narrower 23c Conti’s that I’ve been riding previously. At first I wasn’t so sure of this setup, but Chad insisted that the new rim width coupled with he increased torsional stiffness would offer a ride that handled better, would ride smoother and was just as quick to roll as the Firecrest version. As I rolled away from the shop, the smoothness was immediately apparent. Thinking that I’d be sacrificing climbing ability or handling for wider, more comfy tire, I headed for Mt. Tam and joined up with the Col Du Pantoll group to see how they’d handle some fast descending and the constant surging and braking that comes with a group ride.
While I tried to focus on the braking performance I was quickly caught up riding with the group: individual reactions go unnoticed and your movements become more of a response from your body from experience spent riding in packs. It wasn’t until I’d been dropped by the lead group along the coast that I remembered I was supposed to be evaluating the wheels performance, which is when I realized something apparent – the wheels had been so smooth and excellent at braking, I didn’t even have to put much thought into it. I spent my next 25 minutes climbing up from Stinson beach to Rock Springs, paying attention to the wheels and how they reacted to seated efforts, climbing, sprinting, etc. The entire time they felt stiff, fast, and planted – everything I look for in a set of wheels. Descending was equally impressive. Though it’s hard to feel the difference in cross winds, or the shift in dimpling patters to reduce wind vibration, it’s nice to know that the wheels are doing their job when you’re putting in a hard effort.

My Thoughts On Braking

After descending Tam the first day I was impressed with the braking. Hoping it wasn’t just endorphins coursing though me that gave me a perception of bliss, I set out on my next days ride with the intent on picking descents in bad condition that required hard braking in hopes I could accurately evaluate the ‘showstopper’ treatment.
The first that came to mind was one we call Bo-Fax. While it’s awesome to ride up, Bo-Fax isn’t so good riding down. It’s bumpy, cracked and has been chip sealed a few times over. The performance was nothing short of awesome and well improved. While I wouldn’t say that it feels like a set of Aluminum rims, it’s pretty damn close, and I experienced no fading or noise that is sometimes associated with harsh loading of your brakes. When I got to the bottom of the descent I was impressed, though I had yet to evaluate the performance in the wet – something I figured I’d have to wait until the rainy season to experience.

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The next hour was spent on windy flats and another 35 minute climb followed by and fast descent. Still smooth, still fast and still fantastic under braking. Not necessarily a huge departure from the Firecrest 404’s just nicely refined in all the right spots.

Something I’d hardly noticed on my climb up was that the fog had hit my route home really hard. When this happens the condensation builds up in the trees and it effectively rains to the point of soaking roads. SHIT! It’s already cold and after 3:30 on the bike I wanted to be home, but then I remembered about that new braking surface. The roads were considerably wet and while it wasn’t a pouring rain, it was more than enough to soak my braking surface. As soon as I led into the first big left hand turn, it was apparent that whatever concoction Zipp had come up with to improve wet weather braking, it worked. That scary, frictionless feeling when you first apply the brakes in wet weather wasn’t there and was instead replaced with predictable, easily modulated braking not far off from dry conditions. I got home, texted Chad and just said “PHENOMENAL!!”

While a first impression is important, durability is yet to be determined. I’ll be following up this post with another (shorter) version in the coming months with how well these held up. But, if these are anything like the Firecrest versions I’ve ridden for the last year, I’ll expect nothing short of reliable performance.

Thanks for reading.
-Palicci

Ed’s note: if you’d like to demo a new pair Zipp’s for yourself, be sure to come to Above Category’s Demo Day on Friday 19th September 2014 from 12noon to 6pm. We’ll have the Zipp 30, 60, 202, 303, 404, 808, 808/Super 9 and Firecrest 404 carbon clinchers for you to demo along with the new Pinarello Dogma F8 as ridden by Palicci. Click here for all the details and remember to book soon as spots are limited.

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