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.








Going by the numbers, or not

Bike racing is a sport of numbers.

Watts produced, oxygen sucked, skinfold numbers (I only have the one gut, personally), time to the break, distance to the finish, grade of the next climb.  You can spend an entire ride glued to a four-inch screen measuring how high you pissed up the toilet wall compared to last week, then hook it up to Strava and compare tidelines with the pros.   You can be weighed and measured by whatever computerized Gradgrind you choose, safe in the knowledge that when it finds you wanting, it’ll be almost as dispassionate. And then, if you like,  it’ll tell all your friends.

The lack of ready access to a huge wad of cash prevents me joining in – by the time you’ve hooked up a Garmin to a Powertap or whatever, you’re in for more money than I’d spend on a bike, being as I am something of an ebay Prince.  Jealousy of the better-heeled and coveting Another Man’s Wheels are sometime sins which I’ll freely admit to, but here – nah.  I just don’t get it.

I raced this weekend, first after a break.  A Garmin might have told me that it was fifteen degrees and dry, but it would have missed the cotton tailed clouds that bunny-hopped off the peak of the mountain into a blue, blue sky.  It would have missed too, the gravel on the corners that spoke of washouts recently passed, of winter roads that we rode on and through, of what a lucky day this was.

It would though, have told me my heart rate was somewhere near the end when the bloke who no-one had seen before tried to go on the last part of a ramping climb, but I knew that anyway.  It would have missed how I got onto his wheel though – just enough to not have let him go.

Maybe they’re thinking of something that would have told me before I cramped, five miles from home, but I don’t know what you’d do with that because when there’s five of you out front you just do until you really, really, can’t, and the computer don’t know that.

I lay on my back in the verge, trying not to kick myself in the back of the head as my hamstring threatened to snap, then repeated the performance a mile down the road.  Groups rolled past, friends laughed.  I rolled home, didn’t DNF.  Sore as hell the day after.

Find me a computer that’ll tell you the real story of your ride.

The Life of Bikes

Today I fixed the Rain Bike, and I got to thinking about how it became the rain bike and what would happen to it next.

When I was a junior there was an old guy in my club who wore mid-length socks ten years before Lance did.  He had calves the thickness of my torso hewn from teak and forearms so hairy they threatened to eat his watch.  He rolled around in the middle of the pack come race time, happily opening gaps for me, calling the race, telling me this would be where it’d go in a lap or three’s time and he’d be right nine times out of ten, and then some time around ten miles he’d gracefully slide out back and meander to the finish on a beautiful pearlescent off-white Daccordi with blue Benotto tape and a matching Rolls saddle.  The sound it made is what I remember the most…it ticked, like the kind of Swiss watch that thinks a Rolex is nothing more than a Casio for a rich man’s blind son.

Later, although still back when Pinarello still made metal frames – still made anything, actually, before they became a design house for an identikit factory in Taiwan, back when you could send them back your twenty-year old frame and the craftsmen who’d made it would renovate and paint it just as you want as nobody else could or ever will again – back then, right at the end of back then to put a time on it, I stumbled upon the frame of the Rain Bike.

It wasn’t the Rain Bike back then, obviously.

In the pantheon of Pinarellos, it was a relatively humble model – the Galileo, although not so humble that Alex Zulle wouldn’t ride one in the tour that year.  It was pearlescent white, with an electric blue fade just the same shade as that Benotto tape.  The amount of money that changed hands was significant enough to ensure that I committed a cardinal sin right off the bat – then, and ever since, it’s worn Shimano rather than the campy which should have been its birthright – one of the last generations of the polished chorus or records – that would have suited it to a tee.

But it never mattered then, and doesn’t now.  It’s always felt special.  I still look at it and see beauty, although these days too, there’s also a wry humour that something so – old, for want of a better word – should still be part of my life, and I question whether that must mean that I’m clinging onto something far surpassed, an anchor, and I wonder just how much longer it’ll be before it dies, or the current number one slides down a step and it sits in the corner, forlorn and unridden, and what will happen to it then.

I could strip it down and wax it, hang it on the wall, and watch visitors to my house edge away as I start to bore the arse off them with meaningless anecdotes of the insignificant and generally unremarkable life of a bicycle.  They might realize just how sad I really am.

I could do the same, but hang it in the garage – a private shrine.  But then it’d be in the company of all the other bikes, and it’d feel bad because they all had parts and it didn’t, and then I’d feel that and put some on it and then we’d be right back to square one.

I could turn it into garden art, or an interesting lamp, and that’d be a crime akin to turning a classic Aston Martin into a potting shed, or wiring up a turntable to listen to all the vinyl you’ve still got stored away that was never quite good enough to beg, steal or borrow in digital form, that never gets played on the radio, because they just don’t make ’em like they used to, and the reason they don’t do that is because the way they used to make ’em was … shit.

Inevitably, the best course of action seems to me to be the one that answers most calls in my life:  do nothing.  Let it have that corner.  Maybe one day there’ll be a l’eroica for nineties alloy, or something more fitting for the period – a ride of some sort preceded by a group jacking up of horse steroids round the back of a public toilet.  Then one day I’ll die, and someone’ll come to clean out the shed and find it under a layer of dust and grime, and the scratches and the nicks and the wear and the little things that speak of love once lavished will tell the story of our lives and trials together more eloquently than I could ever manage – and maybe they’ll wonder at the heroics that must have taken place right here, opine about how if these things could speak what stories they could tell, perhaps recollect Grandad having one that looked kinda similar.

Then, and only then, will they pronounce it worn beyond all hope of reasonable salvage, then chuck it in the skip right next to the record player and the Vanilla Ice b-sides box set.

I can’t imagine a better way to go.