Campagnolo Zonda 2014 review

Before I start, let me add a couple of disclaimers:  one: I am not now or never have been a professional bike journalist, tester, and it’s been twenty-something years since I worked in a bike shop.  Two: I like handbuilt wheels.  I like building them, I like selecting my hubs and my rims, and I particularly like the bit where you pay any bike shop in your path a buck – maybe a buck-fifty – for a replacement spoke, right off the shelf.  My number one wheels are a set of Ambrosio Nemesis laced to a pair of Dura Ace 7900 hubs.  I shall extol their virtues in a future post (edit: I did), but I will pause to qualify their greatness – and that of all tubulars – by pointing out that I have a wife and two children, and just about enough of a conscience to feel more than a pang of remorse every time I ride over a shard of glass and chuck another hundred-buck Vittoria in the bin.    Racing, Sunday best rides, solo epics – days you live for – yes.   Intervals and hill repeats at six in the morning, snatched ten milers in fading light – no.  I have a couple of pairs of tough-as-nails training anchors (36 hole Ambrosio Excellences with the Ultegra hubs which are excellent enough to really deserve their own blog post but will probably, as in life, be sadly overlooked) but at knocking on 2 kilos a pair, plus a pair of fat, armoured conti armchairs on them, they really aren’t something you leave on for an evening crit, or chuck in the wheel van at a big race.

So that was what I wanted: something tough enough to train on, fly enough to race.  Something that feels high rent, yet cheap enough to sneak past the purchasing committee.   Various handbuilt options were weighed up and discarded, mostly because at this price point you’re playing with things like Novatec hubs and a selection of rims which some people have luck with, others don’t.  I could have gone the chinese carbon clincher option, but well…no.  I’m sure there’s some folks who’ve wound up with excellent wheels that way, and I’m definitely not one of those people with an axe to grind about manufacturing quality in Asia.  I did enough reading though, to leave me uneasy at the likely QC that goes on at the better known outlets, and enough perusing of the scale of charges for return postage to figure that one small fuck-up would wipe away any savings whatsoever and I might as well have bought those 2nd hand 404’s that I really wanted when all of this started.

And in such roundabout fashion I arrived at the Zondas, via a couple of other safe options (Shimano RS81 – a bit heavier, allegedly a bit noodly, according to some reviews I read, and considerably more coin – and the Fulcrum 3, pretty much identical to the Zonda except for the spokes and … well … looking like they fell off a Specialized.  Too boring.)  The Zondas, I read, were pretty much the equal of the Shamals and higher offerings in Campy’s line, Robbie McEwan raced them lots (whether actually he did or not I have no idea) and there seemed to be a general consensus that they were good, solid, fast wheels a lot cheaper than they had any right to be.  So I bought some.

First impressions were good.  I like the way the rim bed’s been made, so you don’t need a rim strip.  Mounting the tyres I’d chosen (Michelin Pro Race 4’s in 23’s – more on that in a minute) wasn’t too much of a struggle.  The supplied spacer for fitting my 10 speed cassette to the hub – they’re 11 speed compatible, unlike my DA7900’s, a fact which leaves me wanting to find a shimano executive to kick – unsurprisingly, that was fine too.  I wasn’t overly in love with the quick releases at first glance, but then I compared their weight with the Dura Ace ones and found them a few grams lighter, and I can’t fault the closing action, so that shows you what my first glances are worth.  The freewheel sounds a little funky on the first spin out of the box, but after a couple of hundred yards, even, it settled in and sounds like a campagnolo freehub should.  So far, so good.

Hubs are solid, quick releases light enough and reassuringly taut.
Hubs are solid, quick releases light enough and reassuringly taut.

Wheels and tyres go together, so in some ways it’s pointless to try and compare this pair of wheels to my others because my tubs run – well, tubs, and my training anchors run 25c contis that weigh a ton.  The pair of wheels the zondas are replacing are a 38mm carbon faired alloy clincher that I ran 25’s on too, and that was fine for them, but I approached the zondas with a different rationale, because:

Zonda front is conventionally radially laced with 16 spokes.
Zonda front is conventionally radially laced with 16 spokes.

1.  They’re a little aero, but not a lot. They’re also a traditional width – not the new-fangled wide stuff.

2.   They’re stiff.

3.  They’re light at the rim, where it matters for acceleration and climbing.

That’s why it made sense to me to stick a lighter tyre on –  to play to the zonda’s strengths.  I did, and this is what I found:

They accelerate and sprint brilliantly, and for climbing – they’re pretty damn good at that, too.  The braking is great – a major reason I went with alloy over a cheap carbon, because as much as anything else there’s no f*cking around with brake pads.  The braking surface is very nicely finished, right out of the box. The hubs roll great, and looking close up, you can see these are actually really nice units.  They’re not the polished chorus hubs of fifteen years ago, but they do the job well.

Zonda rear is spoked "Mega G3" - 2 drive side spokes in each triple.  Spoke replacement is apparently not straightforward.
Zonda rear is spoked “Mega G3” – 2 drive side spokes in each triple. Spoke replacement is apparently not straightforward.

Like I said before, they’re stiff: my longest ride on these so far has been a shade under five hours, and I don’t mind admitting that I felt a little beaten up afterwards, in a sort of driving a jackhammer-with-my-scranus type of a way.  Hours afterwards, the poor old chap felt like he’d been frozen in liquid nitrogen as part of a suspended animation project that involved thawing it out with boiling meths.

I’ve also done a few evening rides up our local mountain, a crit, and a 50 k road race – things I did buy them to do.  They’ve been fine with all of it, and so has my scranus.    They feel like they’ll last for years, and I think that I’ll mostly be racing on these from now on when the course suits –  there’s plenty enough races around here on shitty surfaces and belgian-type courses to keep the nemesis’s busy between times.  So no, they’re not really a total do-it-all wheelset – the stiffness and resulting lack of comfort rules them out if what you’re really after is a cushy, slightly racy number for a summer of sportives – but for a diet of shortish road races and crits for the man who can’t be arsed to swap his posh wheels out between times, I think they’re a solid choice.

By the numbers:

Campagnolo Zonda clincher wheelset.

26mm semi aero front, 30mm rear, 21.5 mm width

16 spokes front, 21 at the rear

Weight: 1595 g the pair.

Mine are the Shimano freehub, 10 + 11 speed compatible, and I paid $438 from Wiggle + New Zealand import taxes, taking the total damage up to about $600 NZD.

There’s some interesting stuff over on the weightweenies wheel forum about truing G3 laced wheels and their construction in general.  The rims are out of round before they’re built.  Suffice to say, spoke replacement is not straightforward, but it seems to be something which is mercifully rare.  Bet they cost more than a buck-fifty, though.