Sitting in the shadow of the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway as they do, it makes sense that Zipp Speed Weaponry’s legacy in the cycling world would be one built on a quest for going fast. Zipp has been designing and building wheels in Indy since 1988, and over the years the company has evolved a variety of breakthrough technologies and designs with a singular purpose of enhancing the performance among cyclists of every stripe.
From top WorldTour road teams and Ironman competitors to the weekend warrior, Zipp fancies itself a one-stop shop for anyone looking to beat the wind. The latest in this pursuit would be their line of NSW (Nest Speed Weaponry) products that embody the most current knowledge and research the company has. The “Nest” is what they call the engineer’s lab where all their homespun magic happens. In addition to the countless hours of R&D development time, the NSW products are also limited in quantity, both qualities that add to their tall asking prices.
Although a caliper brake version of the 454 NSW wheel has been out for over a year, it took a while to get the disc brake versions rolling. As curious as we were as to how the radically shaped wheels performed, we were equally curious how they would compare to the standard bearer in Zipp’s wheel line, the venerable 404 Firecrest.
The tubeless-ready, 404 Firecrest, carbon clincher, disc brake wheelset has been in Zipp’s product line since 1999. While the wheel has had many makeovers, since then, the 58mm-deep profile has remained standard. The signature dimples were added in 2005, and in 2010 the Firecrest rim shape was introduced. The Firecrest shape is much wider throughout the whole profile, and the inside edge of the rim is more round, losing the V shape of the past.
The rim has an exterior width of 26.4mm and an internal width of 19mm. The 24-spoke wheels use 24 Sapim CX-Ray spokes and Secure Lock nipples in a two-cross pattern. The Zipp 77D (front) and 177D (rear) hubs use
a six-bolt pattern for mounting rotors. The 177D hub uses a three-pawl engagement design that can be interchanged from 10- to 11-speed to XDR (1x) without the need to re-dish the wheel. The front wheel weighs 800 grams, while the rear is 915 grams for a combined weight of 1715 grams with tubeless tape and valves installed.
The 454 NSW carbon clincher achieves what Zipp says is the delicate balance of stability and aero advantages. In the development of the 454, the engineers looked to a diverse subset of nature (from whales to leaves) to see how they engaged with outside elements. They took those findings and applied biomimicry to create a wheel with a unique sawtooth-shaped profile. The rim varies in depth from 53mm to 58mm in this sawtooth design while also implementing precisely located surface dimples and elongated indentions. These surface impressions have shown to help minimize drag and control airflow as it passes the surface.
The 454s use Sapim CX Ray J-Bend spokes and Sapim external aluminum Secure Lock nipples in a two-cross, 24-hole pattern. The rim has an external width of 27.72mm (26.4mm at the bead) with an internal width of 17mm. Surprisingly, the new hoops are not tubeless compatible. The front wheel weighs in at 765 grams, while the rear is 850 grams, for a total system weight of 1615 grams.
More than just a new rim design, Zipp also put renewed emphasis on the hubs. Zipp has continually evolved their hub designs to maximize stiffness, reliability and drag. The NSW hubs also get a magnetic freehub ratcheting mechanism that they claim lowers the mechanical drag when not pedaling by 50 percent over a traditional three-pawl system. The hubs use a center-lock rotor mount design to minimize weight.
The 404 Firecrest has been a regular in the RBA stable for its great all-around performance. The signature profile allows for minimal rolling resistance and maximum aero advantages. The disc brake and tubeless compatibility illustrate how relevant the “old” wheel is.
We installed a set of Zipp’s Tangente RT28 road tubeless tires to deliver one of the easiest and secure tubeless installs to date. We ran between 72–80 psi with an average rider weight of 150 pounds. The 19mm
internal width matched perfectly with the 28mm tires. The hubs delivered a familiar and distinct noise as we freewheeled and engagement of the freehub is secure. The option to use an XDR freehub provides additional compatibility options as 1x continue to grow in popularity.
For a 58mm-deep wheel, the Firecrest shape helps deflect cross-winds, but they can catch the rider out with sudden wind gusts. When cornering, the wheels are stiff and react quickly to rider input. Thanks to the larger contact patch of the tire the tubeless setup and wider rim was evident when pushing the boundaries in corners. This added traction combined with the disc brakes offers an elevated level of safety and confidence that
we think is nearly priceless.
The 454 wheelset comes with hub end caps for a few different types of dropouts. They will fit QR, 12×100 and 15×100 in the front. In the rear, you have the option of QR or 12×142. This made installation a breeze and able to fit nearly any disc road bike currently on the market.
The wheels are very smooth and surprisingly quiet with the NSW Cognition hubs and magnetic engagement. There is almost an instant connection as you go from free-coasting to pedaling. In the wind, the 454 is one of the most stable deep-section wheels we have tested. With that said, there is still a level of counter input needed with heavy crosswinds but less than we expected.
When up to speed, the wheels held the pace easily and never felt like we are fighting the elements or wind. During cornering, they remained stiff and allowed us to hold our line flawlessly. The 17mm internal width is an old-school number, but with the 28mm tires, we confidently ran tire pressures between 78–85 psi with an average rider weight of 150 pounds. We never encountered any pinch flats or tire roll at these pressures, but enjoyed the extra contact patch the lower pressures offered.
When we think of Zipp, the 404 is the first profile that comes to mind, and owing to its popularity, it’s no wonder Zipp looked to improve on it first with the eye-catching 454 NSW sawtooth design. The 454 is one of those wheels that even the less informed notice. But, the key question remains, is the 454 worth the $1500 upcharge? That all depends on what your priorities are.
Yes, the wheels sure do look sweet. The lower-friction hubs have quicker and quieter engagement, plus use center lock hubs that, besides being easier to maintain, look better in our opinion. The rim profile and shape are cutting-edge and deliver some of the best all-around performance no matter what Mother Nature throws your way. But lacking tubeless, XDR and big-tire compatibility are big marks against the wheelset.
The 404 Firecrest, on the other hand, has embraced all the current market trends. They are wide, stable, fast and, most important, tubeless-ready out of the box. The 404s can fit a 1x or 2x drivetrain without re-dishing the wheel and fit nearly every dropout road standard there is for $1500 less.
If you want the most innovative rim profile and shape but don’t mind running the recommended 23–25mm tires with tubes, the 454 is a lighter and faster wheelset. But, if you want to embrace tubeless and all of its glory while
saving $1500 and losing 1–2 percent of the aero performance that a 454 offers, then the 404 is the wheel for you. We love the look, performance and notoriety the 454 NSW brings, but we like the tubeless and bigger tire option more.
404 Firecrest Punch Lines
- Classic, time-proven shape and design
- Compatibility is its middle name
- Six-bolt disc mount and three-pawl hub design deserve an update
454 NSW Punch Lines
- Unique, undulating rim profile
- Low-friction, high-engagement hub set
- Premium price without tubeless compatibility
404 Firecrest Stats
Price: $1150, front; $1350, rear; $2500 total
Weight: 1715 grams
454 NSW Stats
Price: $1800, front; $2200, rear; $4000 total
Weight: 1615 grams