Zipp's brand new 202 NSW wheels are an excellent lightweight choice for climbers and weight weenies, with impressive stiffness and durability, but while braking performance is good, it's not amazing in the wet. Oh, and there's the small matter of the hefty price tag, which for most people will be nigh-on impossible to justify.
There is a lot going for these wheels, though. The 202 NSW is Zipp's lightest carbon clincher wheelset and for 2017 has received the same cutting-edge NSW treatment that first appeared on the 808 and 404 wheels. They're literally crammed with the latest buzzwor... technology, including Sawtooth dimples, Showstopper braking track, Impress graphics, Cognition hubs, Axial Clutch and much more.
These are premium wheels and, as you'd hope, the quality of the build and finish is exemplary. The new Impress graphics give the wheels a reassuringly expensive facade, and also remove the risk of the decals becoming scratched or ripped. The fat Cognition hubs provide a purposeful look when fitted to the bike and the bearing preload is set at the factory, so no adjustment required. There is certainly no mistaking them for cheaper wheels, which is a good thing if you're rich enough to afford them.
The 32mm tall carbon fibre rims are laced to the latest large bodied Cognition hubs with Sapim CX-Ray bladed stainless steel spokes: 18 spokes radially laced in the front wheel, 24 spokes in a two-cross pattern on the rear wheel. The rims are on-trend in the width department, measuring 16.25mm internally and 25.4mm externally.
Installing the wheels is a cinch. There's everything you need – rim tape, spacers skewers – in the box and fitting tyres is easy, with no tyre levers needed. The freehub is Shimano and SRAM 11-speed compatible, with a supplied spacer if using a 10-speed cassette. The Zipp quick release levers are an updated design and much more ergonomic than previous versions. They push close with a satisfying action.
Light on the scales, certainly, they're also clearly very light out on the road. On the steep ascents that litter the Cotswolds the 202 wheels provide scintillating performance. They enhance whatever climbing ability you have. If you spend a lot of riding time battling gravity to ascend the steepest and longest climbs, these are excellent companions. The combination of the low weight and the high stiffness provides very direct feedback; they encourage the bike to dart and dance up the road in a way that almost encourages you to search our more hills.
Away from the hills and on flat and rolling roads, make no mistake, these are fast wheels. Okay, they're not in the same league as a deep-section carbon wheelset on such terrain, but they're certainly not slow. The Sawtooth dimple pattern, the company's latest update of its iconic golf ball dimple design, is now arranged in a way that is said to improve aerodynamics and stability, but it makes a less noticeable impact on such a shallow rim, compared with, say, a deep rim like the 404 NSW.
The rear Cognition hub features the Axial freehub which dispenses with a traditional ratchet and pawl approach and instead uses magnets, which completely disengage when coasting. The benefit, according to Zipp, is reduced friction when coasting. You certainly notice it riding down the road when you're really looking for it, alternating between pedalling and freewheeling, but on a long ride its impact is less tangible. More obvious is the 36-point engagement which means absolutely no lag when you get on the pedals out of a corner.
Braking performance – or lack of...
The Achilles heel of all carbon fibre wheels is braking performance. Great strides have been made over the years, and most modern carbon wheels are pretty good – but there are still some shockers out there. If you were unlucky to experience the grabby and unreliable braking characteristics of early carbon rims, you'll be aware of how far they have come.
That's because companies like Zipp have committed of a lot of engineering time to developing better braking performance over the years. The result of Zipp's NSW development is what it calls Showstopper, the company's brand new brake track. It's actually a moulded brake track with angled sipes, designed to divert water, and a silicon carbine coating. And very snazzy it looks.
Combined with Zipp's supplied brake blocks, designed to work with this unique brake track, and the braking performance is very good. In the dry, retardation is smooth, consistent and predictable, and they adequately control your pace even on steep descents, though braking is accompanied by quite a bit of noise compared with other high-end carbon wheels. They never get grabby during longer descents with lots of deliberate brake dragging (an intimidating exercise to do I can tell you).
In the wet and, well, I'd love to be able to report that the braking is impressive and lives up to Zipp's 'confidence inspiring rim braking whether the road is wet or dry' – but that simply isn't the case. There's a big drop in braking performance in the wet, and it's a similar level of degradation as I've experienced with most other carbon rims. They are not the worst offenders but they don't significantly offer huge performance gains over rival carbon wheels.
Carbon fibre wheels can often (but not always) be lighter, stiffer and more responsive than aluminium wheelsets. The weight advantage of carbon is felt greater on a deeper section carbon rim, a shape that is difficult to replicate in aluminium. They also look good, and for all those reasons, they are popular upgrades.
Carbon wheels are also getting much cheaper. But not all carbon wheels are created equal. Zipp has long stood at the cutting-edge of carbon wheel technology, but it has its work cut out these days as the gap between the high-end and entry-level has really closed up. I've ridden a lot of carbon fibre wheels over the years and progress has been impressive, but my take away feeling from riding these new Zipp 202 NSWs is that we're probably at the end of the evolutionary road for carbon wheels.
Despite Zipp's best efforts, the braking performance is still some way from the benchmark set by a good aluminium rim in all conditions, wet and dry. You also don't need me to tell you that it's possible to purchase a decent aluminium wheelset that is only a smidgen heavier but at a fraction of the price, and while there are some benefits to the carbon rims that an aluminium rim can't match, you really have to want carbon to ignore such comparisons.
As such, these 202 NSW wheels definitely fall into the specialist climbing category reserved for good weather cycling for those fortunate enough to have deep enough pockets to afford the massive price tag.
Lightweight climbing wheels but massively expensive and subpar braking performance in the wet
road.cc test report
Make and model: Zipp 202 NSW wheelset
Size tested: 32mm rim
Tell us what the wheel is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
When we gave our top engineers in The Nest advanced development lab the task of shedding more weight from our lightest carbon clincher wheelset, the 202 Firecrest, while also improving rolling friction, aerodynamics, and braking, it was a very tall order. When we asked them to do all of this without sacrificing durability, it looked like an impossibility. But the NSW advanced development team delivered on every request and built the ultimate climbing wheelset, a climbing wheelset strong enough to use on every ride.
Engineered to be the fastest accelerating carbon clincher Zipp has ever made, 202 NSW flies up the toughest climbs, and then shaves even more time off of the descents to follow. And because extracting greater speed on the mountain is only half the battle, we built 202 NSW to deliver the lowest aerodynamic drag available for a rim of this depth for speed everywhere else.
In order for a climbing wheelset to be world beating it has to do more than simply deliver low weight; it has to deliver uncompromising performance on every level. This is why Zipp engineers in The Nest chose to enhance the world's fastest climbing carbon clincher, the 202 Firecrest.
With a new lighter carbon fiber layup for the 32mm deep 202 NSW they've dropped weight where it matters most, at the outer edge of the wheel, while maintaining the durability and lateral stiffness that Firecrest is famous for. Then they reduced aerodynamic drag with ABLC Sawtooth™ technology and used ImPress™ graphics to ensure that nothing stood between the air flowing over the rim and the dimples made to smooth that flow. Knowing that there is no benefit to a wheelset that climbs fast and descends slow, NSW engineers incorporated our Showstopper™ brake track for the most confidence inspiring rim braking performance available, whether the road is wet or dry.
To further improve the wheelset's rolling efficiency, the 202 NSW rim is laced to our groundbreaking Cognition™ hubset. Built around our Axial Clutch™ freehub technology, the Cognition rear hub is engineered to maintain speed when coasting by disengaging the ratchet mechanism. This technology enables the Cognition rear hub to deliver far less rolling friction than wheels using conventional freehubs - a real advantage when fighting through rolling foothills or when spun out on long descents.
Engineered for speed when approaching, ascending, traversing, and descending the world's toughest mountain roads, Zipp 202 NSW is a wheelset that can only come from one place, The Nest, where the world's fastest wheels are made.
Every time a conventional hubset starts to coast, friction within the freehub ratchet mechanism works like a drum brake to slow the rider down. With the Cognition hubset's Axial Clutch technology, we've reduced this drag by disengaging the ratchet mechanism when coasting. Our testing shows that the best traditional three-pawl hub designs have twice the rotating friction as our Axial Clutch equipped Cognition rear hub, and the most popular hubsets using a similar drive mechanism as Axial Clutch were found to produce four times the rotating friction.
With less internal hub drag a rider can pedal less when riding through rolling hills or drafting in a headwind. Or achieve higher speeds when coasting in an aero tuck, or opt to stop pedaling a moment sooner before entering a corner and bank that wattage for use exiting the corner. Axial Clutch technology also allows riders to maintain speed through corners that don't require braking input, thereby increasing corner exit speeds.
Inside the Axial Clutch mechanism we use magnets, rather than steel springs, to move and engage our light weight Metal injection Molded (MIM) ratchet rings for unrivaled reliability and consistent operation. With 36 points of engagement that all interlock simultaneously, there isn't a more secure freehub mechanism on the market.
Our Axial Clutch freehub mechanism is also compatible with XDR drivers. This gives riders the option to select a 10-42 cassette to assemble a 1x11 drivetrain with an equivalent range to either a compact or standard road double drivetrain.
A star-flanged straight-pull hubshell design on the rear hub distributes the load placed on the hub angle away from the bearings. We've also developed a unique scalloped edge hubshell design for our front hub. This scalloped design maintains the bearing bore diameter when high radial spoke tension is applied. Both of these hubshell design elements ensure that bearings quietly stay in place, roll faster, last longer, and provide a laterally stiffer hub. About those bearings, we've chosen Swiss stainless steel bearings specially made to our specs to provide the longest lasting, lowest friction performance available.
ABLC SAWTOOTH™ TECHNOLOGY
Our new Sawtooth dimple design consists of 12 nodes that are precisely clocked to start aerodynamic shearing at a rate of 50hz at a rider speed of 20mph. Sawtooth accomplishes this by inducing small sheet vortices that shed at a low magnitude, but at a higher natural frequency, thus decreasing the laminar bubble effect on the aerodynamically shielded side of the rim's profile to further reduce high yaw drag and improve crosswind stability. That crosswind stability then imparts peace of mind in gusty wind conditions while saving watts that would have been expended while attempting to hold your line.
We've employed Zipp's ImPress™ graphics technology, which prints graphics directly on the wheel, to help allow the dimples to do what they were designed to do – control vortex shedding, the rate at which air sheds off the wheel. Managing this is crucial to stability. Like the 303, 404, and 808 NSW, ImPress graphics also give the 202 NSW a distinctive stealthy look while keeping the rim as light as possible.
When it comes to braking, 'good for a carbon rim' wasn't good enough for the 202 NSW. We wanted braking performance that was better than aluminum rims and any other carbon rim, and we've achieved that goal. Our industry leading silicon carbide Showstopper™ brake track delivers unmatched stopping power and modulation regardless of weather conditions or the length of the descent. With Showstopper braking performance, you'll need to find another excuse not to ride on rainy days.
BORN OF SCIENCE. REALIZED BY HAND.
Zipp 202 NSW was developed using CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) post-processing software and months in the wind tunnel, including the Aerodynamic Bike Testing Facility at the ARC Wind Tunnel, a short drive from Zipp's Indianapolis facility. We do this because, as one of our advanced development engineers, Dave Morse, is fond of saying, 'The wind tunnel will never be replaced as the gut check for wheel design.' The advanced development engineers at The Nest took that data and created the rim shape that became the 202 NSW.
Zipp 202 NSW rims are laid up, molded, drilled, and built in Indianapolis, USA by Zipp technicians. Our expert wheel builders then hand lace the rims to our European-made Cognition hubset using Belgian Sapim CX-Ray spokes and Secure-Lock nipples to ensure precision alignment and even spoke tension. The end result is a handcrafted wheelset that stays fast and true for years to come.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the wheel?
ImPress™ graphics technology
Aero performance, Sprinting stiffness, Light enough for the highest climbs, Stable in the Crosswinds
Designed for triathletes, time trialists or any cyclist looking for increased speed and stability
The 202 NSW features a new hubset and a rim depth of 32mm for excellent aerodynamics
ISO 4210 compliant
Zipp's new Cognition hub
Please read the pdf explaining Zipp's NEW Cognition hubset
Rim material: Carbon
Rim finish: UD carbon fiber, Impress technology
Rim width (inside): 16mm
Rim width (outside): 27.4mm
Rim depth: 32mm
Hub: Zipp Cognition
Spoke count: 18/24
Spoke type: CX-Ray - black
Spoke pattern: Radial/2 cross
Bearing: Cartridge, SST
Max rider weight: 250Ibs
Max tire pressure: 125psi
Zipp black titanium skewers
Zipp valve extenders by Silca
Zipp individual wheel bags
Zipp Platinum Pro Evo brake pads
Zipp tubex2 700c x 19-25mm
Zipp rim tapex2 700c x 20mm
The build quality and finish lives up to the big price tag.
For climbing and fast riding these inject a lot of pace and liveliness into any bike they're fitted to. Would score higher here but for the braking performance in the wet.
No qualms battering them over the roughest Cotswolds roads.
They are light, but not that much lighter than a good aluminium wheelset.
Taking the braking performance and weight into consideration in comparison to an aluminium wheelset, it's hard to justify the high price tag.
Did the wheels stay true? Any issues with spoke tension?
How easy did you find it to fit tyres?
How did the wheel extras (eg skewers and rim tape) perform?
Lovely shape and ergonomics to the new skewers.
Tell us how the wheel performed overall when used for its designed purpose
For climbing they are fantastic.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the wheel
Very stiff and responsive wheelset makes for fast climbing and enhanced bike agility.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the wheel
Braking in the wet isn't amazing.
Did you enjoy using the wheel? Yes
Would you consider buying the wheel? No
Would you recommend the wheel to a friend? Probably not.
Use this box to explain your score
A really nice wheelset with some nice details (the Impress graphics and the new hub and freehub design) but ultimately let down by sub-par braking performance and a weight that isn't far off a good aluminium wheelset.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.