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Back 1.23.2017

Wheel selection with Axeon Hagens Berman… What wheel when?

Pick a wheel, any Zipp wheel. The riders on Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team, the world's leading Under 23 development squad, have that luxury. They have access to a full team service course or trailer full of wheels at every rim depth.

Most cyclists can only dream of such a deep wishing-well of wheels. But amateur cyclists of every ability can benefit by examining specifically how pro cyclists approach wheel selection. Axeon Hagens Berman pros may switch wheelsets race by race. “Wheel choice is something we discuss with every individual rider,” said Axel Merckx, team owner and director.

But most Axeon Hagens Berman riders also develop a single favorite Zipp wheelset in the same way a baseball player clings to his favorite model glove. For pro cyclists, wheel selection is part objective analysis, part subjective feel:

  • Riding style – are you a hammerhead who loves solo efforts, time trials, or breakaways? A sprinter? Or are you an all-rounder or climbing specialist?
  • Riding terrain – where do you live, train, and race? Is it primarily flat, rolling, hilly, or mountainous? For pros, wheel selection is typically made race-by-race.
  • Physical characteristics – are you a larger or smaller rider? Are you especially confident in strong crosswinds? The fastest wheel is the wheel you’re comfortable on.
  • Intangibles – what wheel simply feels right for you? This includes subjective feel as well as a bit of ‘bling’ factor. Pros, like all of us, love a bike that looks great and fits their personality.

As part of how it works with pro teams, Zipp provides pro cyclists with rough guidelines on wheel selection reflected in the chart below. This chart below is a starting point for thinking about what wheel to ride when...

 Aero Balance for All

Zipp carbon wheels (Firecrest or NSW) are engineered to achieve best-in-class Aero Balance, which is the optimization of aerodynamic efficiency with crosswind stability.

For Axeon Hagens Berman head mechanic Eric Fostvedt, wheel selection is part of a wider effort by the team staff to help teach their young riders how to take care of all of the details that go into being a pro. “It’s a lot of getting to know each guy and what their preferences with the bike are and how they like their bikes set up,” Fostvedt said. “I just try to sort out the personalities so you know how to communicate with them in a positive manner.”

For time trials, he may suggest an 808 front wheel (82mm deep) for time trial specialists or larger riders, and a 404 (58mm deep) for smaller riders. For most races or training rides, Axeon Hagens Berman riders opt for the 303 (45mm deep) or the 404 (58mm deep). The team has fewer pairs of 202s (32mm deep) than any other wheelset, and typically reserves those for the most mountainous races.

“I like the 303 the best, basically any day that’s anything but flat,” said U.S. national Under 23 road and time trial champion Geoffrey Curran of Tustin, Calif. “But, definitely, if you’re really going for the break, the 404 is the best one because you’re going to spend a lot of time in the wind. You can feel it during the race, just the momentum keeps going and going and going.”

New Axeon Hagens Berman signee Ian Garrison of Atlanta is a 6-foot-4 time trial specialist. He’s quickly become a 404 fan, even with all the climbing he’s done at this month’s training camp in Southern California. “I’ve been on the 404s which are relatively deep but with all the climbing, the bike is still super light with them on,” he said.

Fun and Function

The Zipp 303 Firecrest – designed for every riding condition – is perhaps the single most popular wheel among Axeon Hagens Berman riders, especially with the team’s many climbers or aspiring stage racers. This also, perhaps, reflects that many Axeon Hagens Berman riders grew up in hilly or mountainous terrain.

“The 303s are perfect for me,” said Eddie Dunbar of Cork, Ireland. They’re easy for me to handle on the flat. They climb so well.”

“On the road races, I always go with the 303. I’m a pretty small guy,” added Will Barta of Boise, Idaho. “It’s the perfect wheel; light, aero.”

New Hampshire native Chad Young just can’t seem to settle on just one Zipp wheel....

“The most fun I’ve had on Zipps is on some 808s because you just feel like a total killer with the big sounds when you’re ripping,” Young said. “But probably the most versatile set is the 303s. You can use those for any kind of race. They’re light for climbing, aero, anything you want.”

But when Young was asked if he had to select just one Zipp wheelset for riding around New Hampshire, he opted for the 404: “It’s not like you’re paying a weight penalty with them and they’re aero. It’s a good mix of the 808 and the 303. That would be the one.”

Ultimately, there is no single right answer. Each rider finds the wheel that best fits his goals, riding style, and terrain. The same holds true for cyclists everywhere.

Axeon boss Axel Merckx picks his favorite wheel simply based on having fun (and looking sharp) out on his bike.

“It’s about enjoying and having great equipment to ride. My performance on a bike is long gone,” Merckx said. “It’s just more for enjoyment and the look of the bike. Being that tall, I think the 808s look better on my bike.” (For the record, Merckx, at 44, still looks fit and fast on his bike.)

For more information on the best Zipp wheel for you, please visit your local Zipp dealer.

All photos © Wil Matthews Photo