Like Cervelo’s P3, the 404 race wheel has been a benchmark model for Zipp, and for its competitors to compare against and aspire to. The wheel went from an alloy rim clincher to its current iteration, the Firecrest carbon clincher design. And it hung its hat on its centerpiece feature: speed. With tons of tunnel and CFD data, it was able to prove it was one of the fastest mid-depth aero wheels in the industry.
Several years on, Zipp decided to give the 404 a facelift. But… how? It was already proven as one of the fast race wheels on the market, with the only limiter to the speed of the wheel being the confidence of the rider.
Bingo. There it was: rider confidence.
Today at PressCamp in Park City, Utah, Zipp introduces the new 404 Firestrike. It’s the same depth as the existing 404 Firecrest, but has a new shape and several new cues that aid in making it one of the most confidence-inspiring wheels on the market.
About for years ago, Zipp engineer Michael Hall was one of a team at Zipp that was instrumental in identifying the wheel’s pressure center; the point on a wheel where crosswind effect is experienced, and countered with rim shapes that help reduce the effect of the stall points on the wheel, dulling it (and its effects in creating steering instability) by shaping the wheel. Hall employed his findings in Firecrest, but really made it a centerpiece in the 404 Firestrike.
The idea is simple; with so many athletes coming into triathlon from other sports, there’s a level of fear about deep aero wheels, namely in stability. Combine that with athletes perched precariously atop steep-angled tri bikes, and it’s a concern. A timid triathlete is a twitchy triathlete, and ultimately, that twitchiness takes away from your goal on a tri bike; getting aero and going fast.
“For the last 20 years, our message has been aero, aero, aero. Drag efficiency, aerodynamics, and speed,” says Zipp marketing manager Dave Ripley. “ Now, we’re focusing on introducing of stability, beyond drag. We want our customer to be confident in a wheel they can use everyday.” While a dedicated race wheel, like the 808 or a disc lives in a race bag, the 404 can be a daily driver that’s race ready. And a wheel you ride every day makes for a race wheel you can ride with absolute confidence.
The 404 Firestrike is largely a product of Zipp’s engineering team, but also one of its pro athletes. Zipp says the Omega Pharma/QuickStep team was instrumental in the development, and Ironman World Champ Mirinda Carfrae has also been a key tester, quietly running the Firestrike 404s recently at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
Like the Firecrest 404, Firestrike 404 remains a 58mm rim both front and rear, and is a carbon clincher. But its similarities end there. These things will happen when you undergo 42 iterations, as Zipp did with the 404 Firestrike.
The 404 Firestrike rim width increases to 26.4mm at the brake track (versus 4.73mm on Firecrest) and correspondingly, has a wider inner clincher bead width, at 17.25mm.
At its widest point along the sidewall, the Firestrike rim has a width of 27.8mm, again wider than Firecrest which has a max width of 26.53mm. In total, Firestrike’s wider rim stance will obviously make for a more stable wheel.
Comparatively, Firestrike 404 is narrower at its widest point than the very blunt Firecrest 303, but that’s a function of aero data of the deeper 404 versus the much shallower 303.
Being wider, the tire undergoes less lateral deformation, again making for a less squirmy tire… for greater rider confidence.
The rim braking surface also undergoes a major advance, in a technology Zipp calls Showstopper. Zipp introduced hundreds of small scalloped arcs that circumnavigate the rim. The design is in fact a directional pattern with a purpose; as water builds up on a wheel, the scallops serve as “water bars” that channel water off the rim under braking, keeping the braking surface clear for more positive braking action.
Beyond that, Zipp introduces silicon carbide to the resin in the braking surface, which Zipp says provides a massive improvement in wet braking stopping power. Long the Achilles heel of any carbon clincher, Zipp is excited about this advance, saying it provides equal or better braking force to the industry benchmark: aluminum rims. In its own testing, Zipp’s Firestrike was significantly improved over a “leading carbon” rim, and, as they say, as good or better than aluminum rim braking.
Here, the Firestrike 404 undergoes a slight change versus Firecrest 404. Zipp decided to play with its signature sidewall dimples, and determined that by creating a “wave” design along the sidewall nearest to the spoke bed, Zipp could alter the vortex shedding which is the “shedding” of air off the tire as it passes over the rim, best illustrated with a flag rippling in the wind. The result of this wave design in Firestrike, Zipp says, is a sidewall that increases vortex shedding frequency, and decreases its amplitude. And in doing that, the wheel becomes more stable in crosswinds (a 34 percent reduction in side force, Zipp says)… again, for greater rider confidence. Ripley said the effect and benefits of the design change increase as a rider goes faster.
Also updated is the 88 front/188 rear hubset. Now in its 10th version, the 88/188 has a flange that is bored out more, cutting 20 grams. And with short, straight-pull lacing, stiffness comes up; Zipp says the 188 is 5 percent stiffer laterally than a DT Swiss 240 hub, with 25 percent greater torsional stiffness. The hubs will also come standard with ABEC 3, Grade 10 ceramic bearings (but not to be confused with Zipp’s CeramicSpeed bearing upgrade kit). It’s has bearing load pre-set, making it an easy hub for users to manage.
We had a chance to ride it from Deer Valley down into downtown Park City and back Thursday afternoon. While a short ride, winds were gusty enough and the descending and climbing punchy enough to get a sense of any improvements.
Not only is it an improvement, it’s a marked improvement. In terms of the wheel’s goal of inspiring confidence, I decided to test that imperative. So on the descent into town, I took a light grip on the bars at 35mph to see how much the bike wanted to wander amid the not-insignificant gusts moving across the valley. No dice; my test bike tracked just fine. It will take more riding in even windier conditions to really test the claim, but under a light trial, Zipp seemed true to its word.
The most notable improvement comes in the hubset, and Zipp’s stiffness claims also seem to be accurate. In fact, in unscientific terms of feel out of saddle, the new Firestrike now comes darned close to what has been my baseline stiff wheel benchmark, the ENVE SES 6.7. I can only attribute that to the new wider rim design in parlay with the new hubset.
Coming down toward the roundabouts entering Park City, I stomped on the brakes and was greeted with smooth, controlled deceleration.
Since the event avoided the snow and rain of a few days ago, I didn’t have a chance to test it in wet conditions. But in the dry, no major differences… but also no complaints. We plan on a longer-term test (and will test wet braking performance at that time) with the new 404 Firestrike in the near future.
Sure, the disc and 808 and have a proven and undeniable aero acumen, but from a day-to-day utility standpoint, this new 404 Firestrike has true, noticeable improvements on the road; it really is more stable, and it’s hella stiffer. For those asking why they’d go from one 404 to another, the answer is simple: it’s notably better.
“There are so many people coming into triathlon from running or swimming that have never ridden a skinny tire bike,” Ripley said. “And they’re riding a bike that you steer largely with your body. The more we can make them comfortable and confident and provide a predictable sensation—while being fast—the better it is for that athlete.”
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
The 404 Firestrike wheelset will come with a set of titanium quick releases, Zipp rim tape, a pair of Tangente tubes with removeable cores, a set of Tangente Platinum Pro Evo brake pads, and a set of Zipp wheel bags. Instead of using decals, Zipp uses a direct printing process that effectively “sprays” the decal onto the wheel. The advantage? The thin layer of spray conforms perfectly to the dimples, ensuring perfect aero effect. The wheelset in total will weigh in at 1,620 grams.
As the new flagship, the new 404 Firestrike will price at a premium at $3,600 a pair, and at this point in 700c option only. Availability was timed with the debut; they are available now, but as an initial seed product, the first run will have limited availability. Those that want it will want to get to their local dealer and claim dibs or get an order in, as Zipp expects a lag before the next wave are available. And to be clear, Firestrike is not replacing Firecrest; Firecrest 404 will still be available to market, with Firestrike 404 existing as the new premium offering.