A word of warning: Don’t test ride Zipp’s 303 tubular wheels. If you do, you’ll be compelled to buy them.
Especially don’t ride them if you’ve done a fine job gluing Vittoria Pavé Evo CG tubular tires to them, inflated them to 90 or 100 psi, and mounted them to your bicycle with the intention of riding everything from mountain roads to your local “Roubaix” style road race.
If you do, you will be spoiled for life, and you will you will just have to have them. You’ll be angry over this uncontrollable urge toward fiscal irresponsibility, and you’ll blame me for your rash, $2500 expenditure. You’ll go on to neglect your familial responsibilities and your regular riding routes alike, in search of ever more remote tarmac to ride at faster speeds than you ever thought possible.
But if the price doesn’t give you the willies, and if you want a light, stiff, durable, versatile, and extremely comfortable setup, keep reading. There’s a reason why the Zipp 303/Vittoria Pavé Evo CG setup was popular (and ridden to multiple podiums) during the spring classics. The 303s also often landed in the winner’s circle at last season’s cyclocross races. They are capable for everything you might possibly throw at them, including climbs, cobbles, `cross and everything in between.
Obviously, it’s easy to write glowing reviews about gear that’s priced in the thousands of dollars. Of course the thing works great. It costs as much – if not more – than a mortgage payment. In many cases, you could argue that greater value can be found in less expensive products. For example, a cyclocrosser could buy three pairs of Neuvation wheels for the price of one pair of 303s, and thus have enough wheels for two bikes plus a spare set.
And in fact the Zipp 303s aren’t totally perfect. One drawback to the 303s is that their rim width and brake track angle necessitate brake cable and pad readjustment. It’s a big deal if you’re a racer, because taking a standard spare wheel will be problematic if your brakes are dialed to fit the fat 303 rims. Also, we’d like to see better grease fill and seals for the hub bearings.
But the 303s are incredibly fine. They’re light, snappy, and super comfortable. They’d make an outstanding one-wheelset solution for someone doing both road races in summer and cyclocross in the fall. For the (admittedly high) price, they have fantastic all-around characteristics and are impressively versatile. If I had the chance to buy just one super nice tubular wheelset for all the types of riding I do, this would be one of my top two or three choices, if not the only choice.
Last spring at the 2009 Sea Otter Classic, Zipp unveiled its new 303 wheelset. It had been redesigned from the ground up after riders and Zipp engineers got the sense that the original 303 didn’t fill much of a need between the lighter 202 climbing wheelset and the deeper, more aerodynamic 404. So the new 303s were built with cyclocross and spring classics in mind. As it turned out, they fit the bill for all kinds of riding, from cobbles to mountain climbs.
The new 303s got fatter in form but grew not a gram in weight. The new rim is wider by 5.2mm (up from 22.3mm to 27.5mm) and deeper by 1mm (now 45mm instead of 44mm) than its predecessor. The rim profile is much rounder, which Zipp says improves aerodynamics when used in concert with fatter, 25c tubulars. It also permits more radial compliance, as the sidewalls can flex and bow outward to absorb impacts. The tire bed is wider and has a more rounded edge, features which improve tire gluing and impact protection, respectively. Finally, Zipp says the angled brake track improves brake performance, especially in wet conditions.
Other 303 features are similar to the rest of Zipp’s lineup. They’re laced with 18 radial front and 24 radial/1-cross rear SAPIM CX-Ray bladed spokes (or 24 spokes both front and rear for the cyclocross-specific version). External nipples make truing easy. The hubset is Zipp’s 88/188 combo, which features fat, 17mm aluminum axles and threaded endcaps for easy bearing interface adjustment. Our test set weighed 1198 grams for the pair.
As for the Vittoria Pavé Evo CG tubulars, we used the 24mm, 290tpi version available last year. They’ve since been upgraded to a 320tpi casing. They feature a removable valve core, which is fantastic as it makes adding Stan’s sealant a breeze. Stan’s, Caffé Latex, or other tire sealants are a great preventative measure against flats and actually saved me from a mid-ride repair on one occasion.
Our test 303 wheels are laced with the cyclocross pattern of 24 spokes front and rear, and they first saw field duty in `cross races under our former test editor Matt Pacocha. He gave them great reviews, but was aggravated by the need to make a significant brake readjustment to fit them. Pacocha felt that a committed `cross rider would have to buy two or three pairs of 303s if they were going to be serious about having different tire options and spares glued and ready to race.
Another VN test rider, Michael Robson, also used a pair of 303s for `cross. He too loved their stiffness, light weight, and bomber bump absorption. But he did run into problems with the hub bearings becoming contaminated partway through a wet `cross season. He said, “On my personal set of 303’s(yes, they are that good I bought a pair) I seized all four of the bearings in the rear wheel in 4 cross races and subsequent washings. I would recommend checking and maintaining the bearings regularly and keep them packed. If you wash your gear a lot keep a closer eye on them.”
Zipp marketing manager Andy Paskins noted, “Cross and bad weather will require more hub maintenance as will more washing that comes with racing `cross and bad weather. We have been recommending a grease called RSP – a lot of the pro teams are using it and it does a good job of providing protection from water and dirt. It’s not so viscous that it causes excess drag.”
Now that the cyclocross season is over and it’s spring classics season, we peeled the Dugast `cross tires and glued our test 303s with Vittoria’s Pavé Evo CG tubulars for a month of rolling around on local gravel roads. Robson even raced them in a pair of our own local spring “classics,” both of which include significant stretches of dirt roads.
Robson said he was impressed.
“They were stellar,” he said. “Stiff, rock solid, wicked fast and smooth. I couldn’t gush enough. I was gapped one time and they (the wheels) seemed more determined to get back on than I was. I ran the Pave’s at 90 psi and they were fast, supple and really helped smooth out what were really rough roads. I felt a rock press through to my rim one time. At the end of it all I lit ’em up to win the sprint out of what was left of the group. Sprinting was good, the wheels are stiff and spin up very quickly.”
And after another race, he said, “I again noticed they were really stable in crosswinds. For medium depth aero rims they don’t get buffeted around any more than any other wheels. They were effortless on the pavement and accelerated like mad.”
When he turned the wheels in to me, I noted that the rear hub was slightly loose and the front was creaking a little. Disassembly was super easy. I then just added a little grease to both the bearings and axle ends. The result was a little more grease and seal friction than stock, but it yielded silent, reliable performance for the remainder of our testing. Paskins agreed, saying, “You are right, they are easy to clean and maintain,” Next time, I would try the RSP grease recommended by Zipp.
My own verdict is the same as Robson’s. The 303s are truly impressive. Aside from the need for brake readjustment and hub overhaul, Zipp’s 303s with Pavé Evo CGs might be one of the most comfortable and versatile combos available. The tires offer so much suppleness that it’s hard to pin down rim compliance on the 303s themselves. But in any case, the combination is absolutely buttery on both rough pavement and the washboard chop of dirt roads.
I took them into the mountains and found that for climbing, Zipp’s 303s are plenty stiff, accelerate quickly, corner accurately, and feel totally solid underfoot. They also feel fast – not as super-slippery as a deeper aero wheel, but very easy to keep at speed and not prone to buffet in crosswinds. They’re light enough to blaze climbs and braking is good enough to get you down safely, both with Zipp’s Tangente pads and Swissstop yellow pads.
As I said before – don’t test ride them, or you might be spoiled for life.
Michael Robson contributed to this report