Few would argue that Zipp is regarded as the premier brand of aerodynamic wheel. They’re *everywhere*: on many pro cyclocross bikes, many pro tour road bikes and of course the #1 brand of wheel at the Ironman Championship in Kona, year in and year out.
I was recently invited to tour Zipp’s Indianapolis manufacturing facility, which is located alongside parent company SRAM’s worldwide distribution center. Also residing in this building are engineers, marketing personnel, support persons and SRAM’s dealer support people. The latter answer the phone when dealers like Pedal need assistance figuring out what might be wrong with a fork/brake/component. It’s a rather new building and looks hip and efficient inside and out.
More than one person told the story of Zipp’s inception. In 1988 Leigh Sargent saw a Mavic disc wheel, an aluminum beast that weighed about six pounds. Sargent was a race car composites fabricator and immediately built a 1400 gram wheel of carbon fiber with a Nomex honeycomb core. He took his creation to Interbike, the North American bicycle trade show, where he was told that they looked too fragile. The story I heard was that he laid one wheel flat across two chairs, stood on it for the duration of the show and talked about his wheel. Since then, Zipp has done a lot of neat things: the disk, a tri spoke front wheel, a carbon beam bike, carbon cranks and of course deep section spoked wheels.
Zipp carbon wheels are still produced in the USA. Layup occurs in Indianapolis and hubs are made in nearby Marysville. Carbon is from Hitachi, travels to California where it in impregnated with resin and then makes its way to Indy. The resin cures — sometimes quickly, sometimes over the course of days — at room temperature, so the carbon sheets are kept in a huge freezer in the factory. Many, many dollars worth of carbon are in the fridge, prepaid in cash well in advance of delivery. Can you say capital intensive?
Sheets of carbon are cut on a huge table by a computer-guided Xacto knife. At this point, the process forks: disks are made one way, and deep-section spoked wheels another. Zipp and SRAM would no doubt spank my bottom if I divulged too much information, but suffice to say that there is a LOT of human interaction with a carbon Zipp wheel. Layup is manual. Cleaning up the rim at various stages of the process is manual. Cleaning the molds is manual. Lacing the wheels is 100% manual. All of the quality control is manual. Hours — tens of hours — of human interaction are imbedded in each wheel. Why do they cost so much? Because the material is expensive, the human expense is high, the R&D is expensive, etc.
Every carbon Zipp wheel has interaction with “the drill bit,” which is the culmination of years and years worth of research and constant improvement. Drilling carbon is a tricky business: there’s the nasty dust, the possibility of heating the carbon matrix and ruining it, the possibility of weak, broken carbon fibers. Zipp’s fancy bit has what they call a world patent; it is Zipp’s and Zipp’s alone, and is a tool that they credit in part for their superior product. Cool stuff, and indicative of Zipp’s dedication to (I almost wrote excellence, but what a bullshit corporate-speak term “excellence” has become. Instead, I’ll say that Zipp is dedicated to) awesomeness — to really solving the heck out of a problem.
I saw the test lab and can confirm that the quality is also very high. How long must the hubs last on the fatigue machine? 60,000 miles. How high are test tires inflated? 300 psi for 30 seconds. Many are the pretty incredible tests that random wheels plucked from the line must endure. Competitors’ wheels are also tested. My hosts tactfully avoided smearing anyone, but I did learn that Zipps wheels endure quite a bit more than some others.
During the tour I saw a few wheels marked as blems and asked what happened to them (thinking, perhaps, I might have stumbled onto an inexpensive source for hightest-quality carbon wheels). Alas (for a sometime tightwad such as myself), those make up many of the wheels you see on pro tour bikes. However this blem conversation did bring up a good point. When you examine a carbon Zipp wheel, you’re looking at the carbon — not the carbon and a clear coat and certainly not carbon with a little black bondo to cover any pinholes — the real deal.
Value is such a personal assessment, the weighing of cost versus benefit. The high price of Zipp’s offerings can be off-putting, but the high price of a Mercedes-Benz or a Stihl chainsaw can also seem crazy to those not interested in high-end German cars or lumberjacking, respectively. I came away from my factory tour with a much greater appreciation for the hand-built nature of the product, the hight cost of materials and the technical superiority of Zipp’s wheels. In the past I always thought of Zipp’s wheels as high quality, but not a particularly good value. Now…well, now I think I could possibly see a pair of these things on one of my bikes.