For the past five years I've been riding Mavic Ksyrium SL wheels on many of my bicycles and have no complaints. Mavic makes a great wheelset and the Ksyriums are nearly bulletproof.
But I can't help but notice more and more pro pelotons riding deeper carbon rims -- even when faced with challenging climbs and wind.
I wanted to give some of these deeper rims a try and quash some of my concerns over handling characteristics in heavy crosswinds or climbing steeper hills.
Enter the Zipp 404s which come in clincher or tubular versions. For my purposes, I chose the clinchers as I could literally train and race on the same wheelset. I had ridden Zipp 303s before but decided to try the 404 clincher instead because I felt the aerodynamic advantage would outweigh the slight penalty (roughly 40 grams in the front and 70 in the rear) in weight.
Within the first few hundred yards on Zipp 404s, I felt like I was on a set of fast race wheels. The lateral stiffness is incredible. I have this sharp downhill turn in San Diego I've done hundreds of times and know exactly how fast I can lean into the turn without losing control. I can assure you that taking that tight turn on different kinds of wheels makes a huge difference. On older clinchers, I'm not comfortable going much over 30 mph. I've learned that with good solid wheels, such as the Ksyriums, 35 mph is about as fast as I like to lean into that turn.
The Zipp 404s held a 37mph turn like I was riding a rail. If I were 20 years younger and there was less potential traffic coming out of that turn, I'd consider pushing this limit to 40 mph. But anybody who's ridden a bike long enough knows once you drop into a hard lean at that speed, you're completely committed to holding that line and you better be confident there are no obstacles or cars pulling into your path.
The cool thing is these 404 clinchers are so stiff and responsive you feel like you're riding tubulars. The sound of the wheels getting up to speed as you accelerate is also very tubular-like. I'm truly amazed at times that I remind myself I'm riding clinchers.
One of the other advantages I noticed -- specifically because at 160 pounds I tend to be lighter than some of the guys I ride with -- is going down hill on the 404s was much faster. There are countless times I have to throw in some quick accelerations to stay on somebody's wheel on a long descent, especially in gusting crosswinds.
With the 404s I find myself constantly braking because I'm moving down the hills faster than bulkier riders in front of me. And my worries about handling these deeper rim wheels in crosswinds are for not. These wheels literally slice through the air.
Okay, I've convinced myself these 404s are scary fast; but what about maintenance and durability?
The one hassle I've always had with Zipp clinchers is getting new tires, specifically Michelin Pro Race, onto these rims. Because of the deeper rim, it makes it much harder to get an angle on mounting the tire. I've literally felt like I'm going to rip my thumbs apart trying to mount my favorite Michelins.
And the thought of getting a flat on the side of the road knowing I'd only have a couple tire irons and these near-impossible-to-mount tires is enough to steer me clear of Zipp's gorgeous wheels.
There must be an easier way to mount these tires.
There is. And it's pretty simple.
My solution comes from a not-as-well-known, but incredibly good German tire manufacturer named Schwalbe. They sponsor pro cycling teams such as Gerolsteiner (Levi Leipheimer's former team) internationally and Navigators here in the U.S.
Believe it or not, the Schwalbe Stelvio racing tire mounts onto the Zipp rims much easier and, after two months of riding these tires, I'm convinced they're just as durable and responsive as my Michelins.
Since I've only been riding the Zipp 404s for a couple months, I can't attest to their long-term durability nor how well they'll hold up after hitting serious potholes, railroad tracks or other road obstacles. As with any carbon fiber component, you're getting much lighter weight than aluminum but you give up the extra durability. The chances of your carbon fiber wheels surviving a tough crash are slim. And, at well over $500 a wheel, not many folks are inclined to train on these wheels.
I've hit some pretty good bumps with my 404s -- not purposely mind you -- and I've not had them go even slightly out of true. I actually hit one hole so hard I heard a loud clack and thought I'd screwed up the wheel. After getting off the bike and checking it out, no problem. The front 404 was as true as ever and I've gained confidence that these wheels will hold up for extended training.
So, for my purposes, I would not have a problem training and racing on this wheelset.
I won't bore you with technical details because anybody wanting that kind of information can simply cruise over to Zipp's Web site and get all the geek info they want. Though because most of us are weight weenies, it bears mentioning the front 404 weighs in at 788 grams while the rear is 884 grams. For comparison purposes, consider the Mavic Ksyrium SL clincher set weighs 680 in the front and 855 for the rear. That's not much of a penalty when you consider the decided aerodynamic advantage you get with the Zipps.
Plus, sorry Mavic, but the Zipps look way cooler and can dress up the look of any bicycle.
Suggested retail is $1,395 for the clincher wheelset and complete details are available at www.zipp.com.