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Zipp 101 Long Term Test - Stealth Aero?

Written by: Tom Anhalt
Date: Sat Apr 21 2012

Around two years ago, Zipp introduced a type of wheel they had not previously produced: a wheel based on an all-aluminum clincher rim – the Zipp 101. Founded on the idea of using carbon fiber construction for bicycle wheels, this seemed to be quite a departure for Zipp and the casual observer couldn't be blamed for thinking this was only done to provide "training" wheels of a width that better matched up to the wider rimmed race wheels they (and other manufacturers) began producing at the time. After all, I can personally attest to the fact that having differing rim widths (at the brake track) between race and training wheels can be a bit of a hassle with having to adjust brake pad spacings (and sometimes locations) when swapping between race and training wheels.

However, taking a closer look at this wheel (which we will do in this long-term test review) reveals that making that assumption sells the wheel short, and in some cases this wheel performs better than wheels significantly deeper and that are considered pure "race" wheels...which then begs the question "Is this a training wheel or a race wheel...or both?"
OK...so Zipp made a 30mm deep aluminum clincher wheel. What's so special about that? There is no shortage of 30mm deep aluminum clinchers on the market and the width of them (22.8mm at the brake track, 24.5mm total width) isn't anything unusual either. Well, what makes the 101 different is the shape. It's the first aluminum clincher to use Zipp's toroidal shaping throughout, including in the brake track area. The advantage of this shape is it's aerodynamic performance as compared to other 30mm deep aluminum clinchers. Getting that shape onto the brake track area was no easy feat either. A few years ago at Interbike, I discussed with Josh Poertner, Zipp's chief engineer, the special brake track grinding equipment that Zipp had to develop to pull this off. The 101 rim extrusions are produced with extra "meat" in the brake track area that is then carefully ground down to the final smooth toroidal shape. It's that toroidal shaping, however, that gives the 101s their excellent aero performance, and so this extra step is deemed well worth the effort.

The 101 rims are built using the same Sapim CX-ray spokes and Zipp 88/188 hubs that are used in their carbon "race" wheels. Altogether this makes for a package that has good lateral stiffness (stiffer than Mavic Ksyrium ES according to Zipp's data) while also being aerodynamic. A total wheelset weight of 1527g is respectable for its class. The wheelset's list price of $1300 may seem a bit high for an all-aluminum clincher, but as we'll see below, when you compare it's performance to other wheels, it's quickly apparent that typical aluminum clincher wheels are not its true competition in the marketplace, and one really should be comparing it to wheels of much deeper, and more "exotic" construction.
As has been shown previously, aerodynamic properties are the over-riding determinant of cycling wheel performance, and in this case the results are VERY good for the wheel depth of only 30mm. In the bike industry, manufacturers typically like to compare to a wheel euphemistically called "the industry standard", or "Brand M" aluminum clincher. We all know this to mean the ubiquitous Mavic Ksyrium. In the case of the aerodynamic performance of the Zipp 101s to this "industry standard", the difference is a full 1s/km of time savings at race speeds (or, the equivalent of ~10W of power savings for a given speed). That difference is not only what Zipp claims, but has also been confirmed in independent testing, such as by Tour magazine, where the 101s outperformed across yaw the 50mm deep Mavic Cosmic Carbone SLR wheels. This means that the 101s could be thought of as "stealth aero" wheels...or, the wheels you use when you don't want to look like you're trying to eek out every aero gain possible.

OK, let's talk about the living with these wheels long term. In short, the "living is easy". Having ridden on these wheels for nearly a full 12 months of close to everyday usage...and this may sound like a cliché, but it's true...they are as true as the day I first put them on the bike. It's not like I've babied these wheels either. Long solo rides, sprint workouts, climbing, pot-holed filled descents, group rides, crits, etc. are all part of what I've subjected these wheels to on a near daily basis (one of the benefits of living in SoCal is being able to comfortably ride on the road year round.) Obviously, this durability is a testament to not only the construction of the wheel's parts, but also of the quality of the initial build. When I first received the pair of 101s to test, I immediately pulled out my trusty Park tensionmeter and checked the magnitude and consistency of the spoke tensions and didn't see anything that would cause concern. Excellent. As I expected, this high quality initial build has led to many miles of use without needing to touch them with a spoke wrench (as it should be for a wheelset in this price range!).
Of course, rims and spokes aren't the only parts of a wheel. As mentioned above, the 101 wheelset uses the same Zipp produced 88/188 hubset as in it's deeper carbon aero wheel offerings. The name refers to the 88g and 188g masses of the front and rear hubs respectively. From a workmanship standpoint, these hubs are near "jewel-like". And from a design standpoint, my Mechanical Engineer sensibilities would term them "elegant". Using 17mm diameter aluminum axles, the hubs are light without giving up any axle stiffness. The bearings used are Swiss-made ABEC 5/Grade 10 (higher precision than most any ceramic bearing, according to Zipp) and adjusting the hubs is a simple, 1 allen key process, and disassembling them is no more difficult. After loosening said allen head screw on the bearing jam nut, no other tools are necessary to completely disassemble the hubs. In fact, one of the bonuses of the design is that the bearing preload can actually be adjusted "in situ", or with the wheel installed on the bike, which can eliminate any guesswork in setting the preload to account for quick release compression of the axle during installation.

However, as much as I love the design of the hubs and their workmanship, this also brings up the one difficulty I encountered with these wheels. For some reason, under my pedal stroke, the rear 188 hub tends to want to "loosen up" over a period of time. Luckily, as I mentioned above, the hub adjustment is a fairly simple affair, but having to do it regularly is somewhat annoying and tends to dampen my enthusiasm for the wheels. To be fair, I've talked to MANY other riders with wheels that use these same hubs and they've never had the same issue. Coupled with the fact that I've managed to have the exact same problem with a total of 3 different wheels I've ridden with the same rear hub model (ridden in 2 different bikes), this leads me to believe it's something about my own "technique" of riding that's contributing to this issue for me. Then again, I have other hubs I use that I've never had this problem with...so who knows? I don't think this is a huge issue however since it doesn't appear to be a common problem at all, and I'm sure the vast majority of folks would have no problems with this rear hub.
So, what's the result? Are these training wheels, or race wheels? In my opinion, after having ridden them long term, the answer is "Both." The Zipp 101s represent a wheelset that one can reliably ride in everyday conditions AND race them as well...and I actually have done both. With a maximum allowable tire width of 35mm, these wheels would make great CX wheels as well, especially considering that the wider bead width would help reduce the incidence of pinch flatting. The extruded aluminum construction of the rims makes for a durable rim with no compromises necessary in braking function, even in the wet, due to the aluminum braking surfaces. In addition, the unique shaping of that same braking surface area allows the wheels to perform at an aerodynamic level equivalent to wheels of significantly deeper construction. To top it all off, in the opinion of this reviewer the wheels are extremely good-looking with the hubs being highly polished and the rim exterior surfaces also being polished prior to being anodized a classy light grey. For those who prefer a darker color palette, Zipp introduced their "Beyond Black" version of the 101s which feature black anodized hubs, black spokes and black anodized rims. Either choice makes for a visual upgrade to any bike.

Summary

Model: Zipp 101
List Price (set): $1300

Pros:
  • • Durable
  • • Aerodynamic performance
  • • Simple to maintain and adjust
  • • Aluminum braking surface
  • • Good• looking
  • • Reasonable weight

Cons:
  • • Appear to be " pricey" (but not when compared to true competition)
  • • Rear hub can tend to loosen under certain riders

  

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