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Back 10.11.2018

Big Island of Innovation: Kona’s Pivotal Role in Zipp’s History

Triathlon legend Greg Welch, shown in 1992, was the first to ride the Zipp bike at Kona. Photo ©Rich Cruse 

As part of our 30th Anniversary, we look back on the vital role Kona has played in our success…

Soon after its founding in 1988, Zipp identified Kona as a special place. Each October, Hawaii’s Big Island is a searing test for triathletes and their machines. Time after time, the Kona World Championships provided the motivation for our engineers to develop wheels that were faster and more stable amid the crosswinds of the famed Queen K bike course. This is a look back at stories and milestones for Zipp over the past three decades at the Ironman® Triathlon World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

In 1990, just two years after our founding, Kona legend Mark Allen became the first winner to ride Zipp wheels. Back then, Zipp’s small crew and shoestring budget was stretched to the limit in Kona. Todd Winget, who joined Zipp in 1992, remembers long days of prepping wheels and interacting with athletes while he subsisted on cheap sweet rolls and expensive Kona coffee. One year Zipp’s expo display at Kona’s famous King Kam Hotel was a stack of bike wheel boxes on folding tables. Zipp’s early products including the tri-spoke, Zipp 440 deep-section wheel, and the Zipp 2001 bike became aero weapons of choice in the early 1990s.

Zipp's out of the box thinking and emphasis on aero quickly drew the attention of triathletes, especially those bound for Kona. 


Challenges abounded.

“One year I nearly missed the fight from Indy to LAX while a very particular baggage checker went through the adhesives and tools in my checked tool bag,” Winget said. “Andy Ording (longtime Zipp owner) used his awesome powers of persuasion to get the pilot and gate agent to keep the jetway door open while he deplaned and ran down the concourse with the gate agent to vouch for me.”

Winget added: “It was a low-budget effort at first, but we met so many really great people and hopefully helped many realize a dream.”

Persistence paid off. By 1995, Zipp wheels had been ridden to victory in Kona four times. In 2003, Zipp wheels were ridden to victory in the men’s and women’s races, by Canadians Peter Reid and Lori Bowden.

A computerized wind-tunnel graphic from Zipp's 1996 catalog.  


Confirmation in the Kona Spec Count

By 2006, with cycling technology exploding, the annual Kona Spec Count started to provide confirmation that Zipp wheels weren’t merely the choice of pros, but where the go-to speed weapons for many of the roughly 2,000 age-group athletes who compete each year in Kona. At the Kona Spec Count, professionals from the bike industry hand tabulate the brands of gear on every bike during athlete check-in. Zipp has been the No. 1 wheel choice every year since 2006. Last year, for example, Kona athletes rode 1,896 Zipp wheels, more than five times the No. 2 wheel brand.

One of Zipp’s most significant breakthroughs came in 2010 when Australian Chris McCormack won the Kona World Championship aboard the just released 808 Firecrest Carbon Clincher. At the time, Zipp’s Firecrest technology, with its wider rim width, revolutionized bike wheel design by focusing on the aero performance of the back half of the wheel. The result was best in class aero efficiency and crosswind stability.

Germans Jan Frodeno, top, (2015 and 2016) and Sebastian Kienle (2014) are Kona champs Zipp works closely with to test and evaluate new products. Photos ©BrakeThrough Media 


In 2015, German Jan Frodeno blazed to his first Ironman® World Championship aboard the just released 808 NSW Carbon Clincher. He won again in 2016. Last year, Zipp introduced the 858 NSW Carbon Clincher at Kona. That, along with the 454 NSW, are now the go-to wheels for Zipp’s sponsored pros on the Big Island. Australian Mirinda Carfrae so far has won Kona three times aboard Zipp wheels and aerobars (2010, 2013 and 2014).

“IM Kona is one of the few events in the world where there is always a crosswind. For a number of years, aluminum wheels were the go-to wheel because people were afraid of being blown off the road. It wasn’t until Firecrest that the game changed and the tide shifted to carbon wheels,” said Jason Fowler, Zipp wheel category manager. “The 808 NSW and 858 NSW wheels were developed specifically for low aerodynamic drag and low side force, the pinnacle being 858 NSW.”

Australian Mirinda Carfrae is a legend of Kona and a longtime Zipp athlete. Photos ©BrakeThrough Media


Vuka Aerobar Development at Kona

The rigors of the 112-mile Kona bike leg also motivated Zipp to take a fit-first philosophy in designing its Vuka aerobar systems and extensions. It’s vital that a rider be able to hold his or her aero-tuck position on the bike in order to achieve optimal aero efficiency. Australian Pete Jacobs, riding the Vuka Bull and Vuka Clip in 2012, became the first pro to win the Kona World Championship aboard a Zipp aero cockpit.

Australian Pete Jacobs won Kona aboard Zipp wheels and aerobars. Photo ©Getty Images


“Ironman® tri is the reason for our aerobar development,” said Nathan Schickel, product manager for Zipp handlebars, stems, and seatposts. “The position of a rider on the bike accounts for up to 85 percent of the total drag of the bike and rider system. Giving athletes the ability to find their most optimal position is the paramount design driver in our aerobar development.”

Currently, Zipp’s VukaAero integrated base bar and Vuka Carbon Evo 70 and 110 extensions are the top choices of our sponsored pros.

Kona's windy bike course taught Zipp engineers and product managers valuable lessons for the development of aerobars and wheels. One key takeaway is the importance of effecient rider fit on aerobars and crosswind stability for wheels. A poor fit and crosswind instability can keep a rider from maintaining his or her aero tuck. That comes with a significant time penality.  


Yet there’s something more than just product development that keeps us coming back to Kona year after year.

We love triathletes. (OK, we also love Hawaii!)

Triathletes are, to their credit, discerning and demanding customers. They help drive our innovation. “Every year, Zipp representatives travel to the island and speak with age-group athletes about what challenges they face, what their problems are, and then take that info back to Indianapolis to determine how we can engineer products to solve their problems.”

For us, as with so many of our customers, Kona rises from the Pacific as a beaconing challenge. To those who have been along for the ride with us over the past 30 years, we say mahalo.