Fast Times At The Zipp Speed Factory

By Zap


On a seasonably cold day in Indianapolis, Indiana, Zipp opened their factory doors for the media, many on their way to the Handmade Bike Show in nearby Kentucky. Of course, given the weather conditions, whether or not we made it to the neighboring state was unknown at the time. Not only did the morning visit allow for a tour inside the five year old factory, but it also acted as platform to talk about some new wheels being unveiled: the Zipp Firecrest 202 and 303 Disc.

Just one of many back-in-day displays found at Zipp.
Another Zipp tri-bike alongside a Lotto/GT team bike which first brought Zipp into the Euro peloton back in 1999.

Originally founded back in in 1988 by Leigh Sargent for the manufacture of disc wheels, Zipp also dabbled with Tri frames and cranks for a short while before focusing back on its core products of wheels and cockpit components. Following its purchase by SRAM, Zipp has grown exponentially, and literally too big for the old digs which sat in the shadow of the Indianapolis Speedway. About five years ago a new 80,000 sq. ft. building was built to house the Zipp headquarters and the almost 300 employees that keep the place running on a 24/5 schedule.


The big news from Zipp, which really wasn’t all that big, was the introduction of new 202 and 303 Firecrest disc compatible wheels. Actually, the bigger news of that big news was that they have a new hub (see specs below).  The 77/177D Hub has a host of new design points, including thru-axle compatibility and the loss of the pre-load set screws. Probably the best news was that there have been price reductions across the board – the 202 “climbing” wheels a have been reduced by $400 to $2200.

Once the wheel specs were explained and the word “gravel” used to speak to their diverse application, there was a subtle sense of disappointment to find that the wheels: A. have a 17.25mm internal width and B. are not tubeless ready.  Ouch. While neither of those two facts disqualifies the new hoops from dual purpose use, it would seem that any disc road wheel launched these days would first and foremost embrace the needs of the cyclocross and gravel set. Zipp’s wheel product manager Jason Fowler reiterated there is still a growing popularity of disc road bikes (which is good news), but clearly (or cynically), in lacking those two attributes it would  seem to indicate that Zipp is either still buying time until more gravel standards get settled and/or they’re just buying some time until their more gravel/specific wheel is developed. The good news for ‘cross specific riders is that they have a tubular version of the 303 disc  – a pair which were used by Jeremy Powers to recently win the National Cyclocross Championships.


The Zipp test lab is full of multiple test rigs that put wheels through their paces – all in the shadow of the many who have come before.

To say that the new wheels aren’t impressive, would first and foremost, do a disservice to all that Zipp has going on in their factory. This was the place that brought the first carbon wheel victory at Paris Roubiax after all as well as countless other major victories. So many engineers, so much testing, so much carbon, and so much technology.  Zipp’s competitive streak is no doubt influenced by the atmospheric ethos that emanates from the Indianapolis Speedway. As with the cars that start arriving next month to try and qualify for the Indy 500, speed is what it’s all about at Zipp. That, to me, was the most impressive display of the day.

Sheet after sheet of uni-directional carbon gets laid out before a plotter cuts out all the individual pieces to make each wheel.
A cart of disc wheels sit ready for a trip into the big blue autoclave in the background.

While there were some limits on what could be photographed, everything made available to the naked eye made the case that this is a place where fast wheels are developed and made. One of the key elements of design that helped propel Zipp to its leadership position in the sport was originally brought from Leigh’s own background with Indy car development – “stability in traffic”.  Every carbon rim is handmade in Indy and a majority of them are hand built into wheels here as well (rims sent to Europe or Taiwan are hand built off site).

In terms of sales, Jason told me that Zipp popularity starts with the 404 and descends to the 202. Incredulous that the fabulous 202 wouldn’t be the most popular, Jason stated the obvious by reminding me, “if people buy a carbon wheel they want to take advantage of the aero shape and benefits,” he said. Yeah, whatever!

Jason also said that as there is every reason to hope that some of the technology put into the new limited edition 404 FireStrike wheel  (see our review here) could very well  find its way to both the non-disc 303 and 202 rims. As of now, Zipp’s new disc specific wheels optimize all the wheel know-how that’s made the brand a leader in the go-fast wheel market. Hand built speed made in American – Zipp.

Seldom do companies like to show anything that breaks, or is broken, the exception at Zipp is a rim that’s just undergone the UCI impact test. Despite the damage, this rim passed as it has maintained its structural integrity with the spokes intact.
Good product always counts, but it’s the pool of highly skilled people that make it possible to begin with that count most. This is Nic James – the one man wheel building machine for the Pro teams and just one of many passionate cyclists that call Zipp home.


202 Firecrest Disc-brake Carbon Clinchers
• 1,530g per Wheelset
• 32mm Wheel Depth
• 25.40mm Max Width
• 24 Rear Spoke Count
• 24 Front Spoke Count
• Sapim Brass Secure-lock nipples
• Sapim CX-Ray Spokes
• 77/177D hubs
• Available in 10/11-Speed Cassette Body
• Price: $ 2400

303 Firecrest Disc-brake Carbon Clinchers
1,645g per Wheelset
• 45mm Wheel Depth
• 28.50mm Max Width
• 24 Rear Spoke Count
• 24 Front Spoke Count
• Sapim Secure-lock nipples
• Sapim CX-Ray Spokes
• 77/177D hubs
• Available in 10/11-Speed cassette body
• Price: $ 2400

303 Firecrest Disc-brake Tubulars
• 1,400g per Wheelset
• 45mm Wheel Depth
• 28.50mm Max Width
• 24 Rear Spoke Count
• 24 Front Spoke Count
• Sapim Secure-lock nipples
• Sapim CX-Ray Spokes
• 77/177D hub
• Available in 10/11-Speed Cassette Body
• $ 2300

The 77/177D Hub

• Bearing preload precision set – that means no pre-load adjustment is needed.
• Improved bearing protection and sealant.
• Includes newly designed quick-release skewers with a wider more ergonomic handle to provide more leverage for opening and closing. When closed, lever contours neatly with the frame.
• Thru-axle compatible. Comes with thru-axle end caps that can be swapped by hand:
– Front: 12x100mm & 15x100mm
– Rear: 12x135mm & 12x142mm
• Proprietary flange geometry and spoke hole attachment pattern with Sapim CX-Ray spokes to optimize torsional and lateral stiffness without sacrificing weight or robustness.
• 17mm axle
• SRAM XD driver body for 177D available separately.

For More Info: Zipp  Speed Weaponry


No visit to Indianapolis is complete without a visit to the Indy 500 museum. Just pondering all the sweat, ingenuity, passion and dedication that made this history possible takes your breath away. Racing Rules!
The museum had one room dedicated solely for all the turbine powered cars that have visited the brickyard over the years.
Of course how could your heart strings not be tugged mightily at the sight of Cal Rayborn’s famous record setting Harley Davidson streamliner that was made famous in the movie On Any Sunday. Sitting next to Craig Breedlove’s massive Spirit of America Bonneville racer makes the HD look miniscule.


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