Road Test: Zipp 454 NSW Carbon Clincher

Zipp is not really a brand that needs any introduction in the world of triathlon. In fact, to say Zipp is the most recognisable brand to a triathlete would not be an exaggeration. They are considered by most to be the market leader in wheel technology and are usually the first to introduce new ideas to the wheel market.

Zipp has grown up with triathlon and used triathlon as a playground to develop and advance their vast array of products. And for most of its lifespan triathlon has been the beneficiary of these advancements in technology.

Zipp was founded back in 1988 and was in fact born out of the motorsports industry in Speedway, Indiana. Fiercely proud of their American heritage, they began with a simple disc wheel and are generally accredited with having introduced the use of carbon fibre in wheels production for bikes. They soon followed the disc wheel with deep rim wheels, tri spoke wheels and even the fabled Zipp 2001 tri bike. Stems, cranks, handlebar systems, tri bars, bar tape, tyres and multiple amounts of wheels have all followed. They were at the forefront of the change to wide rims and are known worldwide for the distinctive dimples on all their wheels, which is designed to induce boundary layer turbulence and prevent detached airflow in crosswinds. To our knowledge, they are still the only company using such a design.

We would have to say that the 454 NSW’s are a faster wheel than most wheels out there. — The Test Lab

For over a decade now, when it comes to race specific wheels, Zipp have offered the 404, 808 and Discs (900 and Super 9) albeit in continually evolving designs. All of these wheels are available in Firecrest Clincher, Tubular, Clincher disc brake, Tubular disc brake and NSW versions, which brings us to the new Zipp 454 NSW Carbon Clincher. This is the biggest change to the Zipp lineup in over 10 years and has resulted in a completely redesigned rim and wheel.

Like most triathletes, we had seen photos of the new 454 NSW wheelset, but it’s not until you pull them out of the wheels bag and see them for the first time that the shape really hits you. To say it’s unique would be an understatement. The saw tooth profile is very pronounced and at first is quite strange. It gets even more odd when you read about why Zipp chose this new shape.

For the 454 NSW Zipp have utilised biomimicry, an emerging science where engineers and scientists study nature to see how it solved problems, through evolution, that they are trying to solve now. In the case of Zipp, they are trying to improve the speed, control and efficiency of their new generation wheels. So, where in nature did Zipp look? Well, sea life of course, and more specifically the Humpback whale and the leading edge of its pectoral fin, and the textured skin of a shark, which helps it glide effortlessly through the water. So why the need to go in this new direction? Well, as stated before Zipp wanted to improve on the speed, control and efficiency of their wheels. In simple terms, deeper improves the aerodynamics but reduces handling from side winds, while shallower improves handling from side winds but reduces the aerodynamics. Zipp realised that if they were to have any chance of improving both aerodynamics and handling, they would have to think outside the box.

Enter biomimicry. From here we end up with a Sawtooth shaped rim, inspired by the tubercles (the shaped bumps) on the pectoral fins of the humpback whale, and the Hyperfoils and HexFins, which replaced the usual dimples. The Sawtooth rim rolls from 53 to 58mm in depth while the Hyperfoils are fin shaped and the HexFins are basically the ‘new’ dimple but in the shape of a hexagon. All of this is designed to reduce aerodynamic drag and side forces while improving airflow.

One of the supposed benefits of the foils and fins is that put simply they wash off the pressure build up of air on the rims more frequently, creating a greater number of smaller, less powerful and more predictable vortices, which leads to more stability.

Now, this all makes for a great story, and Zipp actually has a very slick little video to market these new features to you and try to convince you of their virtue. But are they any better and are they worth the $6000+ price tag?

Because it’s so hard to write about a wheelset without something to compare it to we grabbed a set of 404 Firecrests from a mate. While they weren’t the NSW version, they gave us a good comparison. The 454’s had a notably more rigid feel to them, which helped to instil a bit more confidence in them, and the Cognition hubs were a huge step up from the standard 404 hubs – they spin a lot longer than the regular hubs found in the 404’s. This may have something to do with the new design of the ‘Cognition’ hub. Those of you who have the 404 NSW’s will already know about these hubs, but for everyone else, they essentially disengage the ratchet system when free wheeling, thus creating almost friction-free rolling in the hub. While this doesn’t mean the wheels are faster in an all-out effort, it did allow us to hold speed longer when coasting on downhills or in a group, which was pretty cool. There are a couple of other cool features to the hubs such as the need for no maintenance or lubrication due to the use of magnets to operate the system. They also feature factory set preload bearings that need no adjustment.

Other than a feeling more ridged and spinning better, how did the 454’s perform? Well initially, on our normal test loop, they didn’t present much faster, if at all. It was within seconds at approximately the same power, with both of us experiencing the same. They certainly felt more responsive and somehow felt more stable, but that was it. Our initial rides were however on fairly calm days, and it wasn’t until the week leading up to Challenge Melbourne that we really noticed a difference in the 454 NSW’s versus the standard 404’s. Now there were some seriously windy days around this time, and it was then that we really noticed a difference. These wheels just don’t move. In areas of heavy cross winds where whoever was on the 404’s had to sit up to control the bike, whoever was on the 454’s just rolled on in the aero position. It was almost comical as whoever was on the 454’s looked like they were taking the mickey out of the other. Just the ability to stay in the aero position longer helps to make these wheels a fast option, but the wind wasn’t the only place that these wheels felt fast. Heading to the hills, it was impressive just how well the 454’s handle descending. Cornering felt tighter, more like a shallower wheel, which we guess is due to the varying depths, and the wheels seemed to hold the road better. A lot of confidence in the wheels was drawn from the braking track. The NSW range of wheels all feature Zipp’s new silicon carbide ‘Showstopper’ brake track. Improved grip and little ridges in the track allow much quicker braking in all conditions. This means you can brake much later into corners and feel really confident that you still have control. Even on my 2011 Giant Trinity, which had a reputation for bad braking, I had no issues, and PB’d my decent of Melbourne’s legendary 1in20 by 35 sec.

While we can’t get into a wind tunnel to test these wheels out, when you put all the things we experienced, together – increased rigidity, better handling in cross winds, later breaking and improved cornering – we would have to say that the 454 NSW’s are a faster wheel than most wheels out there. In fact, they are probably our favourite wheels to have ridden.

What’s exciting for us is the trickle down effect for the future. Things like the Showstopper breaking and Cognition hubs will hopefully make their way into future wheelsets across the board. And hopefully, we will see deeper versions of the Sawtooth design, whether that’s an 808 depth or even a 75mm depth you would have to think they are coming.

At the moment the rather hefty price tag of the 454 NSW’s would be their biggest drawback. At around $6000AUD for the set, the market for them are either people with deep pockets who are after a bit of bling or the high-end age grouper, or pro, who is looking for that little bit of extra time to win or place in their division at a big race like Hawaii. Hopefully soon Zipp will be able to shorten the build time, from the current 12 hours per wheel and in the process bring down the price so we can all enjoy the benefits of this exciting new wheel.




Craig McKenzie and Patrick Legge are The Test Lab. Two guys with an obsession for trialling all things related to swimming, riding and running and telling anyone who will listen what they think. Having 20 years each in the sport, they’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly, but always loved the innovation triathlon brings to the world stage. Craig raced as a professional triathlete, winning 4 National Duathlon titles, and has worked as an exercise physiologist, osteopath and coach, while Pat has built a career running a personal training, massage and coaching business, working with State, Australian and World Champions, including Australian Olympic and Commonwealth squads whilst competing himself.

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