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Zipp Z3 tubular wheels with ceramic bearings

I put it off for years—never liking the idea of a glued-on tire and the hassle a flat tire would entail. Well, I have needlessly suffered too long! A big thank-you to Jeff Selzer at Palo Alto Bicycles for helping me choose these wheels.

With Zipp Z3 tubular wheels (with silicon nitride aka “ceramic” bearings), these are the smoothest wheel I’ve ever experienced. Hold a Z3 wheel in one hand and give it a spin—it spins...and spins...and spins...and spins...well, you get the idea. I chose Veloflex Criterium tires for them. A spare with one coating of glue weighs in at 280 grams, according to my 1/10-gram-accuracy scale. Veloflex claims 250 grams as sold. A Veloflex Record tire would shave off another 70 grams, and I'll probably try those at some point.

The Z3 wheelset are “racing wheels”. Well, I ride them every day on my Trek SSLX. Why pay top dollar and then ride them only for races? It’s like eating the one rotten apple out of the barrel every day—you never get a fresh one! They work pretty well on dirt trails, too (seriously).

Here’s my brief summary of the Zipp Z3 wheelset, after a week of riding. I have previously ridden Bontrager Race X Lite aluminum wheels (2004 model) and Bontrager Race XXX Lite Carbon Clinchers (2006 model) and Shimano Scandium wheels (for about a month).

A brief review of the ZIPP Z3 wheelset

Summary: wipe the grin off your face, it’s like cheating to ride this wheelset!

These are hands down the BEST ride I’ve ever had, exquisite would be about the right term. The difference was obvious from the start.

The overall impression with the Z3/Veloflex Criteriums is a ride of exceptional ease and efficiency combined with outstanding comfort and handling. I feel no need to quantify the efficiency aspect because the ride is so pleasing that even if there were no efficiency gain it would still be worth it. Still, it seems that I am exerting less effort and going faster, both at low and high speeds.

I use 120-130 psi. Another 20 psi and the handling goes to pot as the Veloflex Criterium tires become too hard (180 pound rider).

1. Wind - Straight into the wind, the wheels are phenomenally stable, and just seem to slice effortlessly into it. With the Bontrager XXX carbon clinchers, the bike moves around much more, to the point that concentrated effort is needed to maintain an unwavering course. Not so with the Z3 wheelset.

With a crosswind, stability of the Z3s is excellent...very impressive indeed given the relatively large rim section (which is larger than it appears in the Zipp photos). I was pushed around a bit with some 30 mph sudden gusts, but only a little. A 130 pound rider might not far quite so well, but would have trouble with virtually any other wheelset too.

2. Noise - the wheels seem SILENT eg there is no detectable wind noise, at least not that I can detect above the wind whistling past my ears, even if I turn my head to hear something. I suppose this is a confirmation of their outstanding aerodynamics. The tires are far more quiet than running a Veloflex Record clincher, making little or no noise when run over road grit.

With a bit higher tire pressures, there is a high pitched sort of faint chatter, sort of like an Imperial Probe Droid (Star Wars). Interesting sound, but a non-issue. Braking noise is a distinctive higher pitch that makes for excellent auditory feedback.

3. Handling/Braking – Outstanding...and very confidence inspiring. I am able to fully “commit” to the turns more than I ever have before. Stability over rough pavement was superb. Fear (and appropriate caution) of idiot cyclists or motorists around blind corners is the only limiting factor on my favorite ride now.

Compared to the Veloflex Record clincher, and even at 10 psi harder (130 vs 120), the grip feels much better; the clincher feels harder and thus like it would "wash out" if I hit a bit of sand or gravel (maybe that's a pressure issue, but it's also probably due to the minimal rubber on the Veloflex Record clincher, which is a superb handling tire).

Braking is outstanding, and I would rate it as good or better than the Bontrager aluminum rims I’ve ridden. I’m using the Bontrager cork pads on the Z3s.

4. Comfort - I could hit the rough stuff and say “so what?”. I am sure I could ride all day with more comfort than ever before. This is probably mostly due to the tubular tires, as opposed to clincher tires; the tubulars just conform better. At about 130 psi, the tubular setup is very comfortable and handles great for me (180 pound rider).

5. High speed - Once spun up, the Z3s are VERY fast. It’s like cheating...coming down a favorite descent I was very conservative on turns (given that the tires had barely 24 hours of glue-drying time). Even so, the speed gains going downhill were very impressive. I have never ridden a wheelset that flies down the hill this way. My 130-140 pound riding buddies are going to stare in disbelief as I roll away from them (even as they pedal furiously!).

6. Acceleration - Here I’m used to Bontrager Race XXX Lite carbon clinchers with an ultra-light tube and a Veloflex Record clincher tire (tube and tire as-weighed are 209 grams). This is the one area I'm unsure about, and I suspect the relatively heavy tires. The tubular Veloflex Criterium is at least 280 grams when glued onto the rim, so that's a 70 gram difference that could well account for a slightly slower spin-up.

Then again, the wheels are so solid and quiet that I’m unsure on this point. I have no timings on sprints to compare with. That was my initial impression—a bit more than a week of additional riding suggests that the wheelset in fact handles hard sprints better, with superior power transfer.

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