Zipp 808 Firecrest Wheelset

Zipp wheelsets are the choice of serious riders for a variety of disciplines, but when it comes to riding against the clock, triathletes and time trialists make the Zipp wheel rack their first stop. Of course, really powerful riders will be thinking about a disc rear wheel and what they can match that up with in the front, but they’re crazy if they overlook the Zipp 808 wheelset for the whoosh of a disc. The Zipp 808s rival any deep section-disc pairing for aerodynamics, and unlike discs, they can go in a bit of a crosswind (but only a bit), and they shave off valuable grams.

No need for a disc?

Are the Zipp 808 wheels really as fast as a disc combination? You bet. The 808s were always aerodynamic, and were always quick, but Zipp has made a few changes with the Firecrest 808 wheelset that make them even faster – faster than a disc. First of all, they made the wheel rim just a shade wider. It doesn’t sound like much, but that extra smoothness of the air flow means valuable seconds for riders going solo against the clock. Why? Because they add a bit of stiffness and stability to the deep section profile, giving rigidity to the 808. So, take off the grams, give up the disc, and lose nothing as a result.

The hub is your key to power transfer, and clock riding is all about power. Zipp worked with world beating sprinter Mark Cavendish to produce a stiff, responsive hub that make short work of getting a deep section wheelset up to rolling speed. Once you hit that sweet spot – the point where maintaining rolling speed takes minimal effort and the inertia and aerodynamics are in perfect harmony – put a little more power down and enjoy this perfect hub-spoke-rim combination’s response.

Of course, another important feature for time trialists is image. When you unpack your bike, everyone is looking at your set up. They want to see who’s riding what, who’s got the cash for ultralight, ultra-aero equipment – in other words, who is here to win.  The Zipp 808 wheelset looks the part. The 81mm rims carry super smooth decals and while you don’t have the noise of a disc to let your rival know you’re about to sweep them aside, you can bet they’ll be looking at your wheels as you go by.

Specialist wheels

The downside with a super-deep section wheelset like the 808s is that they really are only good for one thing – racing. These wheels are perfectly designed for race conditions, and solo racing even more, so don’t think the Zipp 808 make sense if you can only afford one wheelset. These are not for training – even Zipp recommends treating them with care. Getting a deep rim section with minimal weight does not make these wheels robust. Don’t even use them on your turbo trainer at home. Not only is it ridiculous (why be aero on a stationary trainer?) but if you drop your water bottle and it bounces off the rims you could find yourself out a lot of cash.

Likewise, these are not training road wheels. You don’t want to risk them in a pack riding situation unless winning really matters, which first to the coffee break doesn’t, and you don’t want to ride these in rough weather. A gust of crosswind can push you into the bushes, and these wheels are not designed to stop – the braking surface is smooth to say the least. The rigidity of the rim walls may be brilliant at power transfer, but it is unforgiving on corners, and while the rolling weight makes inertia your friend once you are up to speed, it’s not easy to chase a breakaway on the Zipp808 wheelset.

So what makes them so special? Well, Zipp added the Firecrest technology designed for discs to the 81mmrim depth and got spectacular results. So spectacular that they’ve replaced the deeper 1080 rims, and independent tests run the 808s as faster than most discs. And you get the convenience factor – unlike discs, the Zipp 808 wheelset has a clincher model and doesn’t need the awkward valve adapters of discs.

But I want these wheels…

Well, if solo racing against the clock is your thing, either as a stage in road event or as a time trialist or triathlete, then sooner or later you’re going to be casting an eye in the direction of the Zipp 808 wheelset. At $ 2700 for the pair, and given their lack of versatility, you need to be serious about riding fast. That said, if you want a taste of what the Zipp 808 can do, but you can’t afford a specialist set like these, then consider getting yourself a set of Zipp 303s or 404s, which can do a bit more, and then adding an 808 rear wheel (for a more affordable $1425) when the conditions are just right. That makes a powerful – and fast – combination.

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