• The Zipp 454 is on the cutting of technological improvement. (Screenshot)Source: Screenshot
Zipp on Friday released a radically different rim profile with their 454 wheelset to a veritable avalanche of social media and web coverage.
Alex Rose-Innes

Cycling Central
7 Nov 2016 - 7:59 AM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2016 - 8:52 AM

The lumpy rim is optimised for stability and cross-wind performance, which has been the key selling point in most of the coverage it has received thus far. 

The press release invoked the arcane and sleepy field of biomimicry , basically finding stuff that works in nature and applying it to manufactured products.

The description of the wheelset confirms my (rather flimsy) theory that the number of “™” neologisms that appear in any marketing spiel is inversely proportionate to any real world performance gains.

Zipp mentioned a whale and a shark in their paragraph on biomimicry. In the case of a humpback whale, the tubercles on the leading edge of the fin help it create lift and not stall at high pitch angles.

In the case of the Zipp 454, the rim design apparently improves high-yaw performance by reducing side-force. The idea is that the wheel will be faster in crosswinds due to overall improved aerodynamics and reduced side-force from the rim profile.

Zipp claims two watts of improvements over the standard 404 NSW at zero yaw, and five watts at 15 degrees. The wheels were tested at 50km/h, and so we are talking about very marginal gains at best for the average rider. However, as Flo Cycling has shown, 80 per cent of rider time is spent between 0 and 10 degrees of yaw, and so here the already marginal gains become paper-thin. I suppose this is why the crosswind stability and ride quality attributes have been emphasised.

And then there’s the staggering cost. You’ll pay an extra US$900 over the already eye-wateringly expensive Zipp 404 NSW. Is $300 per watt* gained a decent value proposition? Only you can decide. The question remains, however, to whom are Zipp marketing a US$4000 (AUD$6100) wheelset, given the niche use-case is a professional riding in the blustery Tour of Qatar?

Posit: cycling is the new golf, ergo cycling companies are marketing expensive gear in the same way to the same high-income, educated male 35–55 demographic. Since the breakthrough of graphite shafts and oversized clubs, golf equipment manufacturers have spent the ensuing years making borderline useless technological improvements. Sure there have been some outliers, like hybrid and rescue clubs, but overall little has changed.

In the case of wheels, following the invention of the toroidal rim profile by Zipp and Steve Hed, the marginal utility of each iteration of rim improvement becomes smaller. Furthermore, now that the patent has expired, a flood of other wheel manufacturers are producing wheels that are as fast as Zipp’s or HED’s products at sometimes a fraction of the cost.

This has forced Zipp into radical differentiation territory, where price and their undoubted engineering prowess are the key signifiers.

Callaway is the obvious analogue in the golfing world, they invented the oversized driver, and once everyone else was doing it, including Chinese clones, they steadily became more and more “technical” and concerned with aesthetics and user experience.

Take a look at Callaway’s description page for their top of the line driver, replete with buzzwords and woolly performance claims.

“…triaxal carbon Exo-Cage” — yes, please! The feature is capitalised so it must work.

And then look at the product page for the Zipp 454.

In the old days, marketing was easy for Zipp . 'We hold the toroidal patent, our wheels are empirically faster, here is the wind-tunnel data'.

The dimples were originally a differentiator between Zipp and HED, but they were never able to prove that they had any performance advantage. Most of Zipp’s new tech in the NSW range has been in improvements to the braking track, the hubs, and the graphics.

How many trademarked terms does it take to build a wheelset? Seven, apparently. Sawtooth™, AeroBalance™, Hyperfoil™, HexFin™, Showstopper™, ImPress™, Cognition™.

We truly are at the bleeding edge of aerodynamic gains in cycling. This is why all of the major product releases this year have focused on ride quality and aesthetics.

We’ve had disc brake TT bikes from Cannondale, Cervelo, Diamond Back, and Parlee; suspension and compliance technology from Specialized and Trek; and integrated front-end componentry from everyone.

These products are specifically engineered for safety, comfort, and friendliness to the richest demographic in cycling (I need not mention the acronym we’re all familiar with), and show that there will always be willing, price-insensitive buyers for products that scratch the marginal gains itch, however small those gains might be.

*I took an average of the two to five-watt improvement suggested by Zipp in the GCN video (Zipp are GCN sponsors).

This article was originally published at Medium. It has been edited for style.