Reviewed: Zipp 454 NSW Wheels
Zipp promises significant aerodynamic gains with unusually shaped 454 NSW wheels. They're great on the road, but are they worth the price?
690 grams front; 835 grams rear
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Spoke count: 18 front/24 rear
Rim width: 17mm inner/26.4mm external
Rim Depth: 53/58mm (differs due to rim shape)
Rim type: Clincher
Building on the aerodynamic concepts that made the 404 NSW one of our favorite wheelsets of 2016, Zipp created the 454 NSW wheels, notable as much for their unusual shape as the exorbitant price tag. Zipp says the concept came from biomimicry, basing the design on fluid dynamics observable in nature. The term is eternally mockable, and mock we did: “Whale Wheels,” “NarWheels.” Then the wheels landed on my desk. Are they better in crosswinds? Will they save you watts?
I’m sorry to disappoint, but I cannot objectively tell you yea or nay. I can say this: The 454 NSW wheels feel identical in real-world conditions to the 404 NSW wheels, which I love. As I was just barely kissing 50 miles per hour descending Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado in a slight crosswind, I tried to determine if the 454 NSW wheels were more stable than the 404 NSW wheels. Of course I can’t say for certain, and I didn’t send these to an independent wind tunnel to verify. I’m going off of feel alone.
Still, I maintain that the 404 NSW and 454 NSW wheels both fare better in crosswinds than most deep rims I’ve tested. And the Cognition hubs are a significant improvement over Zipp’s previous hubs, so there’s a lot to love about these wheels.
Like the 404 NSW wheels, the 454 NSWs are exceptional. The 17-millimeter inner rim width helps create a wide tire profile for better traction and lower rolling resistance, the rim depth seems ideal for an all-around bike (climbing on these was just as fun and confident as sprinting), and the braking was better than average for carbon wheels, though they could howl once heated up on long braking sections. I’d love to see these offered in a disc-brake version.
How much of these new aerodynamic claims are just marketing? It’s hard to say. Reading about ABLC dimpling (which we talked more about here), Sawtooth variable depth Hyperfoil nodes, and the Showstopper brake track gives the sense that there’s real science behind the marketing, though it’s up for debate whether a racer will get anything out of this. The marginal gains-per-dollar ratio doesn’t seem favorable, making it difficult to justify this new model over the tried-and-true (and $900 cheaper) 404 NSW.
The 454 NSW wheels are attractive to me more for what they promise when the technology trickles down to more affordable options — I hope. According to Zipp, it currently takes 12 hours to make a single rim in its Indianapolis facility, which accounts for the price. If Zipp can find a way to reduce the production time and therefore the cost, and perhaps offer a tubular option, this wheel technology will be worth a look for racers.