Friday, January 30, 2009

Product Review: Zipp 404 Tubulars--Light and Fast, But Not Very Durable

Note: I recently sold these wheels to make room for a set of Edge Composites 2-68's laced to DT240 hubs.  

Zipp's are fast. F***ing fast. These wheels are super light, the hubs roll smooth and the aerodynamic advantage of these wheels is noticeable. The torpedal shape and the dimples make a difference.

Even better, these wheels are stiff. They were noticeably stiffer in a sprint or in hard cornering than anything else that I have ever ridden (the Edge were set up for cross so I can't speak of their stiffness). I never noticed any flex.

The lightness and stiffness comes at the cost of durability. These wheels were basket cases from the getgo. When they were in good repair, they were the best wheels on the road, but they never got through an entire season without requiring some costly or time consuming service.

Price:  $2000 is about the price point for all out fast carbon tubular wheels.  You can spend less for wheels that will likely be heavier, less aero or less reliable.  You can spend much more and get wheels that trump Zipp 404's in all catagories.  In relation to the other options out there and the speed advantage that Zipp offers, the price is about right.  Also keep in mind that Zipp has proven itself to be at the forefront of aero technology again and again, while I am skeptical of most marketing claims, I am buy about half of what Zipp says.

As you may expect, with a deep section front wheel, these can be sketchy in a cross wind. Mostly, I found that you have to pay particular attention on fast windy descents. In two seasons, I have only had 3-4 occasions where I felt unsafe with these wheels. If you keep your hands on the bars and pay attention, everything should be alright. If you have the tendency to have both hands in your rear pockets on 50 mph descents, these wheels will be the death of you.

Over the 2 seasons that I owned these wheels, I had both wheels rebuilt on separate occasions because of cracks in the surface of the carbon rims. Each crack appeared to be shallow, but with carbon you can't really risk it. Each time I sent them back to Zipp for service. I will say that the first time was at someone else's expense and I was never told the cost), but the second time, Zipp performed a rebuild with a new rim for the cost of shipping ($40). Zipp performed the repairs quickly (less than 2 week turnaround).

I also had a cassette chew up a freehub body which eventually allowed the cassette to slip, which nearly cost me all of my front teeth when it failed during a field sprint at the Attleboro Crit in 2008. Honestly, it failed catastrophically and I came within centimeters of smashing my teeth into my stem. I know for a fact that the cassette was never ridden when loose.  
When I brought the wheel to Landry's for service, they told me that the light aluminum that Zipp uses in the freehub body has a tendency to fail. It cost me $140 to replace the freehub body.

This model year (2009) Zipp has updated their hub design so that they are more robust. Prior to this year, the hubs appear to be wide open with loose fitting carbon dust covers that are set on top of the bearings. While I never had a problem with the hubs, they appear to have lots of play and the dust covers do not even attempt to make a seal (there are 1-2 mm gaps all around the seal). When I first got these wheels with all of this play, I brought them to Landry's to figure out how to properly tune them and they assured me that they were already tuned properly. Strangely, I never felt any play when riding the wheels, so I guess that the design works.

Bottom line: These are perhaps the fastest wheels on the market. They are stiff, light and quick to accelerate. They make you feel fast. But the wheels will break under the rigors of weekly racing. Zipp is good about servicing the wheels. If reliability is a concern, there are better wheels out there. If pure weight savings and speed is your only concern, these may be the right wheels for you.  

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