What's Cool In Road Cycling

Weapons Factory: ZIPP Inside!

You don’t have to walk more than a few feet through the front door to realize that there’s more to Zipp than most folks give them credit for…

Right inside the front door you get a bit of Zipp history with a wall of wheels dating back to the beginning as well as some of the other gear Zipp has created.

Read the little tag on one of the early Zipp bikes and you might notice that what some folks think is a “latest rage” adding Boron or Kevlar to carbon to make things better has been around at Zipp for almost 20 years…

Check out the brakeslickers…

A quick swing up in your vision also reminds you that Zipp had was the first with a Tri-Spoke comp wheel, though unlike a few competitors that cling to the past, Zipp has moved on to better designs.

But how’d it all get rolling?
Leigh Sargent was Zipp’s founder. A Formula 1 Composite engineer for the still potent Williams team, Leigh found his way to Speedway Indiana which is genuine hotbed for both Military and racing composite tech and has been for decades. Inside a few city blocks you’ll not only find Indy Race team chassis and body work (Leigh still does things for Penske and Ganassi racing) but you’ll find the composite cockpit for the next gen Raptor.

Leigh’s first go at hoops was actually a request for work on a wheel chair composite and the meeting went down at what passed for Interbike at the time. And while the wheel chair hoop deal fell through (given the cost at the time was several times what the company had in mind) Leigh did get a look at the state of “tech” in the bicycle industry at the time… And let’s just say back then, he wasn’t exactly intimidated by the state of carbon affairs.

Fast forward a bit and Leigh started Zipp and brought out a carbon wheel that tipped the scales at 1400 grams or so. Right now that sounds a little silly, but the wheel to have at the time was sitting at nearly 2000 grams.

Click ahead to 1990-91 and Zipp rolled out the first Tri Spoke. ’91-2 saw the Zipp bike and Zipp beam and also the first deep section wheel… And the rest is, well not just history but the future as things are developing nicely.

Most folks know that Zipp was acquired by SRAM and there was some speculation that it would have Zipp rolled up and reduced to a great label on a marginal foreign product. SRAM’s too smart not to recognize what they have as a design and manufacturing team though (part of the attraction) and the opposite has been the case as Zipp have been expanding.

Zipp’s current honcho, Andy Ording has been at with the company since 1991, and purchased the company from Leigh and is responsible for its exceptional development and expansion.

Andy kept Zipp’s location here and one of the main reasons was mentioned above. Having a load of high end composite shops within a stones throw also means that the labor pool for Zipp in Speedway is great, not only for manufacturing positions, but also for Engineering and the type of people that are working in either race shops or defense related production can be a bit more detail oriented than those coming from other cycling related gear…

Get On The Floor
For starters, Zipp’s factory is simply the nicest carbon oriented fab shop I’ve seen in cycling. Sure there are a few glorified office fronts that are though of as Cycling HQ’s, but this is a genuine Design, R&D and production facility.

Unfortunately a big picture of the manufacturing floor should go here… But I would have had to blur out almost everything but the ceiling, so I’ll settle for saying that the walls and floors throughout are all as bright and clean as this shot. And the people are all as bright and clean as my hosts, “Salt and Pepa”.

Andy Paskins, Josh Poertner and the torture chamber.

Stop One
Not many folks realize how much history Zipp have with Crank Development.

Sure you might recognize a few of these, but a view of the case I can’t show would have you also see cranks that are exceptionally popular but come under another household (big) brand… Now while I can appreciate history, what I really wanted was a look at the new hotness.

One of the first stops on the fab floor was by request. After all the hype for the new Vuma Quad, (I went and bought a set and love em) and I wanted to watch a set come together from scratch.

I walked from back to front in the line and the first view were nice neat little rows of completed cranks…

Or at least what I thought were complete less the stickers, as these already had a great finish but were only part way through… The impressive part of this line comes earlier or later in the game…

The cranks themselves are not simply a bunch of carbon squished together in a mold. In fact there was a detailed lay-up schedule at each of only a couple of build stations and the directional and fit schedule was exceptionally complex. Each crank has some place around 100 separate pieces. Most having specific (and complex) shapes and directions and each having to go in the proper order in the multiple layers… Star shapes, L shapes, strips, all going in specified directions and at specified points in the layering of material.

Zipp have very good people working on all of their products but the people handling the cranks are like the “special forces” for Zipp. And the combination of material costs as well as the complexity in build up mean there’s no robot that could handle producing this part. These are all hand made. Even the metal portions and inserts are machined locally (but we’ll get there later).

The time and complexity of the crank build was a surprise honestly and the detail is rivaled by not only the detail but also the sheer volume of QC testing the cranks go through.

Testing to Failure is pretty much constant and a couple sets per hundred are randomly selected and tortured to failure creating a box of goodies that damn near made me cry…

Why couldn’t just one of these could have been saved for me!?

And the failure test is just a part of it… Better than 10% of the sets get x-rayed right on sight so that they can actively monitor each fabricator’s ability and ensure the product quality.

Next, the sonsabitches torture tested me by showing me a whole slew of random cut up’s.

Here, they’re looking for voids and checking the consistency around a critical part of the crank and it’s just another part of a QC process that is far and away the most extensive I have ever seen for any bicycle product.

Pretty much the only complaint I hear about Zipps Vuma are that they use a chainring standard that doesn’t allow for a lot of aftermarket swapping.

I’m not sure that I think it a real issue though, as I would guess the number of better alternatives that developed an equal or better ring in terms of stiffness (both ultimate and consistent around the ring), durability and shifting would be exceptionally small.

I’m thinking the number would be small, simply because of the amount of testing Zipp did in development was substantial and included not just their prototypes (they partnered with Cannondale and ran through a hundred or so…) but they’ve tested all of the other major manufacturers and several aftermarket rings.

Box one of several on the test floor, filled with samples.

All the data left them with enough info to be sure that their 4 hole design was not just “as good” but actually better in terms of stiffness and stability while allowing them to have a design that gives the Vuma a weight rivaled so far only by boutique cranks costing far more.

Hoops Time
From the crank line we went over to the new hotness section on the floor. Zipp’s disc wheel building section.

Yeah – a couple bucks in this pile with Sub9 Powertaps…

The material here that stuck out most to my eye was the nomex that is the core of Zipp’s disc wheels.

Leave it to engineers that came from outside cycling (which includes pretty much everyone at Zipp) to figure out that the same stuff that’s used to give body to aircraft tail sections and helicopter blades might have excellent stiffness, support and weight character…

Nomex, along with Zipps layup design also allows for proper support of the raised outer wheel section of the Sub9 so that it can be hollow.

And just to round out what seems to be racing’s best disc, based on a visual tally of TT gear on bikes from both affiliated and non affiliated teams, Zipp went ahead and added next gen power measure to the mix, integrating the new hubs.

Sure $3400 bucks sounds high, but then there are now basic tubular wheels without a tap that fetch well beyond those dollars so it’s a relative performance bargain.

And an additional plus based on feedback that I’ve heard is that the handling on the new Sub9 is a bit better than any other disc wheel. When I asked Zipp, their comment was “look at the wheel, what do you see”. My first thought was “the big bulge at the outside”. The second thought was that the bulge was hollow…

Less weight at the outside of the disc makes for less force required to lean it over and that makes for a bit easier handling…

”Plain” Wheels
Of course Zipp also had a few sets of their more “traditional” wheels rolling out.

Loads of tubular sets were popping out of the molds and in between wheels being formed, it was pretty neat to see the reverse (printing included) shape of the hoop form in what is an exceptionally fancy mold.

Unlike the competition who have deep but basically flat section molds, Zipp not only have to machine the dimpled surface and keep things to spec, but form those dots on a shape that is curving to form Zipp’s oval rims. Molds like that don’t come cheap or easy…

It’s hard not to feel the heat in this part of the factory but a nervous close up of the mold internal was just about the only picture I could take in order to keep from showing proprietary temp and pressure readouts, details of the equipment as well as the number of machines (all of which Zipp would rather keep in house).

Another “eyes only”, no pictures area was a VERY cool new(ish) addition to the production line where a few steps are taken with the pre mold carbon in order to create the new “Carbon Bridge”.

The picture (above) is one of the greater oversimplifications of what’s really going on with the complexity of the layers and manufacturing process involved. I wish I could show it too you, but you’ll have to settle for me saying that the Carbon Bridge tech is the most substantial advance in quite a while at Zipp.

That’s no small statement considering all of the additional products, existing line changes / improvements Zipp have made in the last several years. Most don’t realize it, but the 404 alone has had 7 model changes in 10 years. In fact the whole line of wheels has been aggressively tweaked and the Carbon Bridge is just the next thing…

It’s a seemingly little detail, but the Carbon Bridge allows for two substantial improvements; a 20% bump in rim stiffness and an improvement in impact strength of between 28 and 43% (202 to 404).

And yeah, I got to see the wheel impact testing as well. In fact, Zipp not only test their wheels to failure, they test their test gear to failure as well…

Note the bent fork on the test jig… This surley fork is bent in prodution but this one’s gone beyond it’s happy place

I watched wheels go through crap that would make the worst roads in Belgium seem smooth as glass, and strike bumpers mounted to the test rollers are not only substantial, but are not exactly a friendly shape…

Of course Zipp make a clincher or two as well and the manufacturing or the components for these wheels is a little more involved and substantial than most might think.

For starters, the metal extrusion they use is specially shaped and the manufacturing process goes way beyond simply gluing a flimsy carbon shell to a standard clincher hoop.

Zipp’s extrusion has a special shape that is co-molded to a structural, load bearing Carbon rim in a fashion that would hold very well with no bond at all.

They do make an additional form of a bond to further secure the carbon and meta; and make a more aesthetically pleasing material transition, but the carbon section itself takes the nipple and spoke and is completely structural.

Once the rim is formed it goes into a post machining step that takes it from smooth…

to grooved…

One of the larger machines in the building actually machines the brake track groves and wear markers, and colors the marker and it also does a slight finishing around the joint between the carbon and metal portion… All in one shot wile the wheel is inside.

Line a few of these machines up and pretty soon you’re spitting out more than a few top line clinchers (or maybe a prototype or two for testing :- )

But while these machines were neat, and the rims are where most folks lend their attention, It’s Zipp’s hub tech and fab shop that was my “nirvana”.

The name Zipp Speed Weaponry makes a little more sense when you learn that the same facility that carves up the detailed metal parts for Zipp gear is also the type of facility that will take extremely limited (single digit) contracts to produce an item that you might find in use by extremely skilled military personnel… That’s the extent of my comment, but they’re partnered in a facility that is at the highest end of machining detail for any industry, not just cycling…

Zipp start with solid custom extrusions, using different treatments for different pieces of the hub.

The axle faces different needs than the Axle caps. The caps require a different character than the shell body and the list goes on…

While companies might choose standard 6061 Alu, Zipp’s piece specific process makes for a much stronger total unit and comes at a raw materials cost that is relatively high.

Their material choice and the detailed nature of their fabrication equipment also make for a part that comes out of the raw machining phase with a finish that other companies would like to have after several steps and some hand finishing.

The shells then go to a lazer etching machine that can be programmed to put photo quality pictures onto a hub (a feature that I am really wanting to abuse…) and or just the standard Zipp logo.

And the lazer works so damn fast that I had to do the “1-2-3…GO” method 14 times just to take this picture…

After just a couple steps (if you spend enough money on your multi axis, tip-top of the line machining gear) you wind up with a very nice hub shell. Or enough hub shells to have a Tech weenie reporter wishing he had lots of baggy pockets (and / or a shop host that wasn’t someone that could shoot the ass off a honeybee a mile and a half away using one of his pet projects…).

And when I say the machining is high end, I mean it. For example, how does a tolerance of twenty-millionths of an inch sound?

Zipp use an EDM machine that knocks that tolerance out on the toughest part of the Hub…

Under the fluid and behind that bright light sit Zipp’s ratchet and pawl material.

The Electronic Discharge Machine uses a wire feed and a couple hundred thousand volts to basically “scare” the material out of it’s path… And we’re not talking some wimpy metal here. The ratchet and pawl material hardness is roughly 68 rockwell.

As an example, I have a set of cobalt drill bits for use in repeatedly cutting through metal… They’re nice bits and they’re 65 Rockwell. Zipp are holding 20 millionths on material that is harder than metal used to destroy other metal.

… And the EDM machine is one of the more simple units in the building.

So what’s all that mean in terms of quality and durability?

To show me, they had to break out a tool that I named the “BFW” or Big F…ing Wrench.

First you take a vice and clamp in a form that holds one side of the hub body…

Then you insert the Freehub into a receiver sleeve that gets twisted by the BFW…

The pictures show the halves of the hub so you can see the fit, but the test happens to a complete hub…

Now most folks version of a torque wrench used on today’s high-end, light weight parts is a unit about half the size and thickness of a tube of toothpaste.

The BFW is several feet long and shows a torque range of 1000 foot pounds.

And while Zipp don’t make a ratchet and pawl system that requires the full range of the BFW’s force, they do require that the hubs handle roughly the same torque stress produced by one of these…

Zipps hubs stand up to roughly 300 foot pounds of torque and the Haman BMW M coupe drops about 290.

And while swapping wheels on the BMW takes a tech editor about 20 minutes at home, swapping free hubs (no need for re-dishing) on Zipp wheels takes roughly 10.

Beyond the strength of the hub, Zipp also do a pretty good job with their bearing specification.

The stock bearings are Swiss (most everyone else use bearings costing 2-10 times less). They test typically at ABEC 7-9 but only claim an ABEC 5 rating.

Zipp use a grade 10 ball where the balls in Record or Dura Ace hubs are a 25. That’s 2.5 times rounder and a grade of ball that’s actually better than several of the aftermarket ceramic balls that some of us (yeah “US”, as I spent money too without paying attention) are buying as aftermarket upgrades.

As for Ceramics, Zipp were the leaders with Ceramic bearings in cycling, bringing them out in 2001 with the limited run Z3’s… Zipp run a grade 2 ball in an ABEC 7 race now and you can hit the speed shop and spec either, for any wheel set you order…

So you get the point…
Hey I’m the first to admit I care about the details more than most folks.

I get all warm and fuzzy just looking at Zipps redesigned, screw-over type, valve extensions (needed because the 1080 rim profile goes way past anyone’s screw-in types).

Something else that most folks might not realize is that Zipp really is a bit of a boutique shop. While they have earned a place on a lot of very recognizable bikes and their popularity has climbed, they’ve not strayed from the roots of the business of building things. Zipp are no place near a “mega corp”, though less able competitors might cry about their relative success.

Zipp do have some really slick machining capacity but when in comes down to it, the wheels, just like the crank sets are really about the hands of the people on the shop floor. In fact there are no machines what so ever in their build up section where the hubs spokes and hoops all come together.

Every wheel, just like every hub, is 100% hand built and tested before it leaves.

And I know of no other wheel company that is using 100% US made Carbon fiber material, 100% US made resin and 100% US produced metal. Zipp simply can’t find an off shore source that can maintain the quality and consistency level they require.

That leaves the Swiss bearings as the only off shore wheel portion and that’s because it’s also the best source for repeated quality…

Turn around from facing the wheel build section and you’re in the shipping area and a quick look up on one of the shelves and I noticed the CSC / SaxoBank team keep their North American race support equipment stored here (or will this now be the new Zipp Cervelo team gear?)

Of course my favorite part of the floor happened to be where 303 front and 808 rear wheels were racked up and ready for boxing, as those were what I needed to round out my current house 404’s…

That set up leaves you with a great climbing / all round set of 303 front, 404 rear for the KOM, and a fast land 404 front and 808 rear for the new Kredo Ultra…

Click the thumbnail at page top for the big view of this sweetness…

Zipp’s Speed Shop allows people that have a clear understanding of what they want to order a mixed model set of wheels to target exactly what they’re looking for and get as detailed as selecting color options, bearing type, hub type etc…

For me a set of 404 tubular wheels cover just about 75% of the conditions I have here in Arizona very well. That’s a deep section VERY aero wheel set that weighs in the 1200’s. Considering that’s less weight than 90% of the shallow clincher wheels available but with a substantial aero advantage over anything else in the shallow depths. Actually the 404’s have an Aero advantage over several things at or above their depth (not featuring a Zipp Logo…).

Add a 303 front to the 404 rear and I have a very aero and competitive set of wheels for flats and at a weight that’s very comfortable when the road tilts up, as the 303 front tips in at 498 grams (72 less than the already light 404).

Swing the other way and add an 808 rear to the 404 front and you have a monster set of flat to rolling terrain wheels with a deep front and very deep rear that has class leading road legal aerodynamics and the pair comes in at just 1350 grams.

That’s 5 grams lighter than a set of “climbing” focused Mavic R sys wheels that have a shallow depth and spoke set up that nobody would consider “good” where aerodynamics is concerned.

OK, now get the hell outta the factory
This is the part where I should tell you again what you already know. Zipp have very good materials and build up, and their Aero development combines these materials to create wheels that simply perform very well.

I’ll also say that Zipps relative durability and build quality are under rated.

Zipps rims were relatively durable for their weight and purpose already. Add the new Carbon Bridge tech (that changes more about the lay-up than just the two little cords in the picture would have you believe) and they’ve become solid enough to daily drivers for me.

Their hub tech has become better over time as well. There’s a great domestic (North American) hub and headset (and other parts) maker that people rave about being “bullet proof” and most people would be surprised to find that they hold overall tolerances of less than half of what Zipp now spec and use lower grade raw materials.

Add to the list that Zipp’s front hub rolls in at 82 grams and the rear at 176… That’s similar in weight to several boutique weight weenie hubs that would break just being in proximity to the BFW…

Carbon wheels from lots of places have become better over the past few years. There are some really good choices and a few not so good… Zipp are not alone in light weight and they have competition in durability… But combine weight and durability with aero performance and the backing of a company like Zipp and supported by SRAM Corp and the crowd gets very thin…

And… In the next few days you’ll see several new things from Zipp that I’ve had to keep under my hat. They’ll show you a couple new products and a few BIG tweaks to the existing line up…

Trust me… It’s cool.

You can hit Zipp today at ZIPP.COM and check back in… The new stuff’s pretty sweet!

Have Fun,

Charles Manantan

Thanks for looking. If you have other experiences with gear, or something to add, drop us a line. We don’t claim to know everything (we just imply it at times). Give us a pat on the back if you like the reviews, or a slap in the head if you feel the need!

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