Zipp's new 454 NSW wheels deliver a noticeable all-round speed boost and sweet handling versatility for those lucky enough to not choke on the price
- Perceivable real-world aero gains
- Climb-boosting light weight
- Rapid acceleration
- Shallow-wheel handling
- Smooth riding and tubeless ready
- Lifetime damage warranty
- 25-30mm tire compatible
- Proven hubs
- Let you talk about whales and US Navy drag data at coffee stops
- Look totally badass (and stay that way)
- Cost the same as a really good bike
- Not all tires are listed as hookless compatible
- ‘That look’ when you mention the whale thing
Zipp breached its flagship humpback whale-fin-influenced NSW wheels a few years ago but now they’ve been extensively updated in line with the company’s new Total System Efficiency R&D drive. That means they’re faster in more wind conditions, a jar of Nutella lighter, smoother in feel, tubeless-ready across a wide tyre range and they’re significantly cheaper too.
We said cheaper, not cheap though, so does their performance match up to the price tag? And how do they compare against the best road bike wheels on the market?
Design and construction
The big focal point of any aero wheel is normally the rim and that’s even more the case with Zipp's NSW wheels and their distinctive ‘sawtooth’ profile derived from the the leading edge (known as tubercles) of humpback whale flippers. Before you roll your eyes and think they should have called this tech WTF not NSW (Nest Speed Weaponry - The Nest being the Indianapolis research hub of Zipp where NSW wheels are designed and still made) the research on humpback whale fins dates back to US Navy studies in 2003 (published 2004), backed up by later research at Harvard and first applied to experimental wind turbine blades before going commercial on Canadian industrial ventilation fans.
Okay, so I may have geeked out on the background of this one but the basic science is pretty simple. By varying the leading edge shape you stop the fin/blade/rim from stalling (where airflow separates from the surface and drag massively increases and stability falls off a cliff) at a single point. Instead, the airflow wraps, sticks and stays stable and efficient through a far greater angle of attack. That’s how 30-tonne humpback whales can turn remarkably quickly and do all sorts of badass breaching acrobatics but it’s also why these deep wheels (nominally 58mm) perform the way they do. But more on that later.
As well as the obvious ‘Sawtooth Hyperfoil node’ profiling, the rims also get a hexagonal ‘HexFin’ version of Zipp’s ABLC dimples to stick the overall wind flow onto the face of the wheel better by creating surface turbulence. The new style Zipp graphics are direct printed ‘ImPress’ so there are no worries about them scraping off accidentally either like they have in places on our 303 long-termers.
The 454 rims were already tubeless but they’ve been widened significantly from 19 to 23mm internally, and they’re now hookless. That means the tyres aren’t pinched in so the transition is smoother - reducing drag - and while they’re aero optimised for 25mm rather than being locked into 23mm like before, they will support 28 and 30mm fine. Removing the hooks on the rim means Zipp can use a solid steep mandrel to mould the sidewalls too. That also allows the use of more pressure for a stronger, more consistently compacted composite despite using less material. That makes the new wheels well over 400g lighter than the previous 454 at 1,396g complete with valves. That’s slightly lighter than the new 303 Firecrest but still 100g heavier than the new 353 NSW. Despite the dramatically lower weight, you get a full lifetime warranty for any damage caused during ‘appropriate use’. As there’s no need to use a single-use mould bag for each rim, there’s less eco-impact, too. The hubs are the same Cognition V2 set as the recently-launched 353 NSW with a fast and positive 54-tooth axial clutch pick up to make the most of the weight loss.
- Best lightweight wheels: Shallow wheels for climbing and accelerating fast
Unsurprisingly the low weight and easy acceleration are what you first notice about the 454s but they also give very positive feedback through the pedals, even if you’re gurning up a climb at low revs/high torque. That’s despite the wider rims with a construction that reduces vibration, and tubeless compatibility with low pressure recommendations taking the edge off the sharpness that normally provides a sense of speed.
According to Zipp though, that micro compliance adds a rolling speed gain of 6-14W depending on the roughness of the surface and they certainly hold a gear well where stiffer wheels can stutter and choke slightly. Watching the speed rise smoothly and then sustaining a pace comfortably above other mid-depth wheels puts on-road proof behind the rolling reduction figures and Zipp’s claims of a 10-watt overall gain across all speeds/angles compared to the previous 454.
The ‘on road’ aspect is key too as Zipp did a lot of their development using Aerolab pitot tube-based drag systems in real-world environments rather than wind tunnel testing alone.
Where that really shows is how well these wheels handle. 40-50mm is normally where I start to get nervous of potential issues, even with modern broader-profile rims, so closer to 60mm always puts me on edge on gusty days or twisty roads. However, the new 454s not only sailed serenely through mixed conditions without a twitch or flutter - even on a narrow bar set up - but they’re obviously agile, too.
You can snap them into turns or change attack angle mid-corner with no tram lining or stubbornness. Even when a tip-in coincided with a change of direction into a lifting wind, they’d just hesitate a little, we’d apply a touch more hand pressure and they’d carry on pushing onto the tyre edge. No wobble, no micro shimmy and certainly no sudden flutter and flap. Just a smooth, progressive transition into and out of turns as you’d expect from a much shallower wheel. Accurate wheel feel from the rims, large diameter hubs, and low-pressure tyres meant we certainly weren’t being shy with lean angles either.
In terms of tubeless seating and sealing, there was zero drama there either, with tyres popping on lever free and pumping up with a standard track pump. Be aware that some tyre brands still don’t clear their tyres for use with hookless beads though, despite Zipp hitting all the relevant ETRTO sizing regs. All freehub types are covered though and suitably low profile lockrings are provided for the Centerlock splined disc hubs.
Massively reduced weight - Zipp even sent us a pot of branded Nutella to prove the point - aero gains you can feel over shallower wheels, smoother yet without losing important cornering feedback, wider tyre compatibility and a big drop in price are already significant reasons to rave about the new Zipp 454 NSW wheels.
It’s the handling that really makes them stand out though. Wheels above 50mm normally make me nervous and part of the reason I got sent the new 454s was that I was one of the very few princesses who noticed a slight pea in the airflow stability of the previous wheels when I used them with tyres over 23mm.
Try as I might to trip these wheels up in the most demanding airflow environments though, I only ever got one slight hiccup. A wraparound gust from a solitary building just nudged the bars slightly and reminded me I wasn’t on 30mm tyres but it was momentary and instantly collected and corrected when other similarly deep wheels would likely have put me in the opposite gutter and had me cowering for the rest of the ride. Instead, I just noted the one totally understandable incident and then carried on chucking them around like a set of shallow climbing wheels with a built-in speed boost.
That pulls these radical-looking wheels out of the speed-freaks-only bracket and into the daily driver category for anyone* who wants a setup that accelerates and climbs extremely well, handles with consistent poise and accuracy and lets you run tubeless tyres in all the widths you’re likely to want to.
*Okay, anyone with a big chunk of cash to spend but the overall versatility, impressive warranty, US build as well as outstanding performance certainly make them a lot more justifiable in terms of ‘investment’ status. Besides you aren’t going on holiday this year are you?
NB. For those wanting a lot of the same performance cues, but without wanting to splash out (sorry) on whale based aerodynamics, then the new Firecrest 404 are 58mm deep with a conventional profile, the same inner width/rim design and less than half the price at £1,600/€1,800/$1,900 (£700 less than the previous 404) if you can cope with 8-watts more drag and likely a bit small amount more gusting / tramlining occasionally.
Tech Specs: Zipp 454 NSW
- Price: £3,200, €3,600, $4,000
- Weight: 1396g (with tubeless tape and valves)
- Freehubs: XDR, Shimano, Campagnolo
- Axles: 12mm
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