On the heels of its 303S budget-minded carbon wheels, Zipp has launched an entirely new Firecrest lineup today. The new 303 Firecrest is built around a new, tubeless-ready rim that’s shallower, wider and lighter. We’ve been riding the new wheelset for a few weeks, and have an in-review first look for you today.
First seen on the 303S, Zipp’s new, more subtle aesthetic is also featured on the Firecrest lineup which represents a major departure from the large white logos Zipp used through the 2010s. Interestingly, while the 303S uses a bake-on label under the clearcoat, the Firecrest decals are adhesive-backed. Following its own lead, Zipp also dropped the price, with a pair of 303 Firecrest wheels going for $1900, including Zipp’s new lifetime warranty for original owners of 2021 model year wheels.
The New Zipp 303 Firecrest Tubeless Disc Brake Carbon Rim
The 303 Firecrest wheel uses a new rim design that is the result of Zipp’s new TSE (Total System Efficiency) technology, a design process that balances the effects of aerodynamic drag, rolling resistance, weight, and vibration to create the fastest possible wheel.
New internal profiling is optimized for tubeless tires, which Zipp says allows for tool and compressor-free installation.
The new disc-brake-only rim gains width while losing depth. A 30mm external width paired with a shallower 40mm depth creates a profile that interfaces well with road tires, although the 25mm internal width is gravel-friendly. That’s 5mm shallower and 4mm wider than the previous 303 Firecrest. The company claims both aerodynamic benefits with wider road tires, due to a smoother tire-rim transition, and also reduced rolling resistance when riders use wider tires, lower pressure and take advantage of the added air volume due to the wider rim.
The new rim is hookless, which restricts tire choice. Zipp only recommends tubeless tires, even with an inner tube. The rim also has a wider minimum tire width, at 28mm, which is likely a non-issue for cyclocross and gravel, but is worth noting for road cyclists who still embrace narrower road tires.
The disc-brake-only nature of the rim allowed Zipp to redesign the rim without a brake track, which shed material and grams and contributed to the 300g weight savings.
A new ZR1 disc hub with Center Lock rotor attachments and 12mm axle compatibility is laced with CX-Sprint spokes to complete the build. Despite growing in width, the wheels lost 300g over their predecessor, weighing a claimed 1,355g.
A new, 24-hole CenterLock disc hub featuring 66 points of engagement completes the package with a six-pawl driver body available in SRAM XDR, Shimano Hyperglide and Campagnolo configurations.
With tape and valves in thru axle configuration and an XD-R driver, our set tipped the scales at 1421g, suggesting the wheels without valves or tape are pretty close to the 1355g mark.
The weight savings is important, because, despite their popularity and high price tag, the 303 line has been on the heavier side for a long time. Although not as ethereal as the sub-1300g Roval Terra CLX or Atomik Ultimate with Berd spokes that drops the weight as low as 1200g, the 303 Firecrest now plays in that space. People tend to justify a spendy upgrade to carbon hoops with hopes of weight savings, among other benefits, and now Zipp can make that claim over most OEM alloy wheels.
While the Firecrest is a flagship product and notably more expensive than value-focused wheels like Hunt 35 X-Wide or Easton’s EC70 AX, the sub-$2000 price tag does bring the lineup within reach of more riders. It also positions the Firecrest lineup at a $600 premium over the 303S, a penalty many may be willing to pay to own the top-of-the-line option.
The wheelset has a suggested rider weight limit of 250 pounds.
Zipp’s new hookless bead, wider internal width and center channel make for very easy tire installation. The walls of the center channel are gently sloped, allowing for floor-pump installation of most tubeless tires. The new Zipp Tangente Course G40 gravel tire inflated easily with a floor pump, without any audible snap. That’s a good sign for cyclists without a compressor or compressor pump, as you don’t need a massive blast of air to push the tire’s bead up a steep center channel wall to snap into place. The only downside is that there’s no satisfying audible cue that your tire is fully seated. You’ll have to visually inspect it, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
While the factory-installed tape obscures the rim’s full contours, the tire bead shelf offers a bit of an angle to keep the tire bead in place even under full inflation—pretty important when you’re out on the trail and trying to plug a hole with only a hand pump. There’s no pronounced lip—which seems unnecessary given how wide the shoulder is—and helps aid in easy floor pump installation.
The new wider width adds about 1mm of tire width to the average cyclocross tire, and 1-2mm for the gravel tire. That’s a blessing for most tires and conditions, unless you’re already facing tire clearance-limitations.
Hopeful to ride the new Zipp 303 Firecrest tubeless wheels and line up at a 2020 USA Cycling Cyclocross Nationals? Measure your tires before heading to the start, or hope that the official’s plastic tire-checker flexes just enough to let you through.
For the data geeks, the new Zipp 303 Firecrest boasts two main significant changes: gains in width, and a drop in weight.
The extra volume of the Zipp 303 Firecrest is certainly noticeable on wider tires. Paired with a Soma Cazadero 50mm tire, there’s less of a light bulb effect, which allows for even-lower pressures without cornering squirm. On the 25mm rim, the Cazadero measures 49mm wide. We rode this tire down to 14 psi (165-pound rider) without annoying squirm or burps. A Zipp Tangente Course G40 gravel tire pushes out to 41mm wide. Wider might be better, if you’ve got the clearance.
Saving two-thirds of a pound is hard not to notice when you pick up a bike, accelerate or climb a hill, but in today’s non-racing pandemic time, we’d be lying if we said we noticed immediate acceleration benefits or new KOM times on climbs. That’s more due to the fact that we’re exploring and riding for the sake of riding, and did not do A/B testing comparing the wheelset to the 2020 303 Firecrest option with the same tires and gearing.
Does that mean the 300g is insignificant? Not at all. For cyclocross racing, where we’ve got to pick up the bike and accelerate out of hundreds of corners, we’d jump at the chance to save 300g, even if some of the weight savings is at the hub, not the rim (Zipp does not publish separate rim weights). The weight savings was necessary for Zipp to be in the game with its competition. The weights and rim width makes Zipp competitive with modern carbon tubeless options.
As for aerodynamic advantages, when paired with a fat gravel tire, we’re guessing they won’t impact your ride much. In a high-speed windy cyclocross race with a 33mm tire? It might. We haven’t seen wind tunnel tests with cyclocross or gravel tires, and haven’t suffered through windy rides to notice a difference over the previous design.
If you’re a tubular loyalist, the new Firecrest 303 will leave you glued to the older model.
If you’re enjoying a pair of the older Firecrest wheels and debating as to whether the upgrade is worth it, it depends on your goals. If cruising and exploring are your main goals, you’re probably already content with your current hoops and may find it hard to justify another upgrade, even at the lower $1900 price point. If podiums, PRs and more air volume are your focus? The wider rim and corresponding lower air pressure should speak volumes to you.
The weight savings? Come cyclocross season, it’s the perfect answer for more cowbell.
Stay tuned for a long term test. Brandon Grant and Andrew Yee contributed to this In-Review spotlight.
Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Tubeless Wheel Specs:
Size (Wheels): 700c
Rim Construction: Carbon
Tire Compatibility: Clincher Tubeless Ready
Brake Compatibility: Disc (CenterLock)
Weight: 1,355g list (wheels only), 1421g actual with tape and valves
Width: 25mm internal, 30mm external
Rim Profile: Symmetrical
Rim Finish: Ud Fiber / Adhesive Labels / Matte Clear Coat
Nipple Material: Aluminum
Spoke Type: Cx-Sprint
Spoke Count: 24
Spoke Pattern: 2 Cross
Driver Body Type: N/A, Sram XDR, Sram/Shimano Road
Axle Type (Wheels): TA 12×100, TA 12×142
Bearings: Cartridge – Stainless Steel
Driver Mechanism: 6 Pawls Leaf Spring
MSRP: $925 front wheel 12x100mm, $975 rear wheel, XDR or SRAM/Shimano 11s
More info: zipp.com, or available at backcountry.com