Where were you some six years ago this spring? We remember exactly where we were: glued to the couch on a Sunday morning with a sack full of fast food pommes frits and a six pack of Leffe Blonde, watching the ancestor of Zipp's 303 NSW Carbon Clincher Road Wheelset prove its mettle on the cobblestones of Flanders.
We'd seen carbon rims on the stones before, and the results were typically disappointing, to say the least. But in 2010, the 303 platform proved that it's more than equal to the bullying of the stones, and the 303 NSW represents an update in every key category. It's more aerodynamic, brakes better, and is even more reliable than before. And that's just the rim. For the first time in its lifespan, the 303's new hubs are every bit as impressive as its rims.
We admit that we haven't always associated Zipp with hub innovation, but the 303 NSW's Cognition rear hub may be the most exciting technology in factory wheels that we've seen since Zipp first introduced its bulging sidewalls. The freehub is centered on Zipp's Axial Clutch mechanism, which features two Metal Injection Molding (MIM) ratcheting rings — one mated to the freehub body and one mated to the hub body. The two rings are machined like a ratchet, so they ramp off of each other while freewheeling but engage each other during pedal input.
Compared to a standard pawl design, which actually resembles a drum brake, the Axial Clutch's MIM rings engage laterally to reduce friction while freewheeling, so coasting doesn't negate watts already spent. We're familiar with this model, as we've seen similar mechanisms on the designer hubs featured in top-end custom builds for years now, but Zipp is the first to replace the usual tensioning agent, steel springs, with magnets. This substitution further reduces friction between the ratcheting rings, making for what may be the smoothest freewheel on any mass-produced hub set. It's a design that we suspect will eventually be the norm, but — once again — Zipp is leading the charge.
Shiny new hubs aside, we now return to the subject you probably expected to be the headline for a new Zipp wheel. The brand's signature Aerodynamic Boundary Layer Control (ABLC) dimpling returns with a new designation. It's called SawTooth Technology, and it consists of ABLC dimples applied in a single pattern repeated in 12 discrete swathes (or "nodes") across the rim's surface, looking much like the strokes of a paint brush.
Zipp's description of SawTooth's effect is a bit, how shall we say, erudite, with the company claiming a 34% reduction in side wind forces compared previous models by "reducing the laminar bubble effect on the aerodynamically shielded side of the rim's profile." Translated into saddle speak, that means while rolling at a Cancellara-approved speed of 20mph and above, the rim's dimpling is designed to dispel the negative, drag-inducing force on the rim's non-wind side.
SawTooth's premise stems from 42 computational fluid dynamics studies and testing that spilled out of the wind tunnel onto — gasp! — actual roads. In actual wind. You know, the conditions that we actual cyclists face every time we throw a leg over the top tube either side of trainer season.
To help understand how SawTooth works, consider an aerodynamic NACA shape in the pristine wind tunnel conditions of zero-degrees yaw. When air resistance is perfectly head-on, drag only exists in a parallel plane with an object, so a teardrop NACA cross section reduces drag to its absolute minimum by reducing the wake. Turn the yaw angle upwards of 15 or 20 degrees, though, and a true NACA shape begins to experience drag from the side opposite cross wind pressure as well. This lateral drag is Zipp's "laminar bubble," and it's the phenomenon responsible for the violent instability that leaves our triceps and lats as sore as our legs after a workout on gusty days.
Though Zipp was one of the shape's early adopters, the industry is now replete with rounded, bullet-shaped rim designs that aim to lessen destabilizing drag from cross wind forces; however, if Zipp's numbers are any indication, the SawTooth nodes take that reduction to a whole new level by better controlling cross winds as they detach from the rim's opposite face. While deep rims will always be more vulnerable to lateral forces than shallow box clinchers, the Firecrest DSW's rim shape and SawTooth Technology contribute to a ride that requires less correction in windy conditions, and the corrections themselves are more subtle and intuitive than with yesterday's NACA profiles.
The rims are finished with Zipp's ImPress graphical treatment, which involves directly printing the aesthetic embellishments onto the rim rather than applying decals. This leaves the SawTooth nodes of ABLC dimpling uninterrupted and unimpeded. Finally, it's only appropriate that we end the way every good ride does: with the brakes. The rims are equipped with an updated version of Zipp's Showstopper brake tracks.
Showstopper enjoyed an impressive debut on Zipp's Firestrike 404, but it's already been improved for the NSW line. It's still imbued with the same silicon carbide particles, but the direction-specific grooves have increased in number and feature an altered depth. The original Showstopper netted some pretty impressive stopping across all conditions; while we haven't tested this new brake track, Zipp assures us that it's even better. The upshot is you can hold speed longer while approaching a corner, braking later and gaining tiny increments of time with each bend or switchback.
- The original carbon cobble conquerer gets updated
- Re-worked ABLC dimpling further reduces drag
- Rounded rim shape cross section stability in cross winds
- Second generation Showstopper brake track is even show-stoppier
- Ratcheting freehub resembles boutique hubs on custom wheels
- Magnetic tension reduces friction while freewheeling
- Zipp's carbon rims are Flanders-tested and Roubaix-approved
View more Clincher Wheels
Reviews & Community
Are the 303 NSW UCI legal?
- Familiarity: I've used it several times
Crosswind stability is excellent. Still get a little buffeting but quite little at 30+ mph downhill with variable strong crosswinds.
Superb dry braking. At least as good as my best aluminum rims. Better than 2015 Firesrike 404's. Excellent modulation and peak power. Huge improvement from the Firecrest 303's. Did not ride in the wet.
Weight was exactly as advertised ( a rarity in the biking equipment world...)
Aero is too subjective to comment.
Impossible to feel whether they coast better with the new hub.