Rohan Dennis on the podium with second placed Tom Dumoulin and third Victor Campenaerts. Image: Sirotti

Zipp 303 Firecrests + Challenge Gravel Grinder 42s On The Brisbane Valley Rail Trail

Just like the legendary Ford Mustang muscle car, Zipp 303s are an all-time American classic. But we couldn’t be any further from America if we tried for this review, in fact we were 9000 miles from the Mustang plant in Michigan, and 8800 from the Zipp HQ that’s just down the road in Indianapolis.

Instead Bicycling Australia were at Fernvale, west of Ipswich, in South East Queensland. It was early Spring, a glorious afternoon, and we were preparing for a debut excursion along the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail.

By preparing let’s just say sampling the quality fare of the respected Old Fernvale Bakery Cafe. Sitting out the front, tucking into a pie, and staring at the brand spankin’ new Zipp 303 Firecrest discs just fitted to the test bike, and a gleaming red Ford Mustang rumbled up.

Stopping outside the cafe, and so picture perfect it felt like a TV ad was being filmed, I couldn’t help but compare the new Ford Mustang to the equally eye-catching Zipp 303 Firecrest wheels that had just been thru-axled to my bike.

The new Zipp 303 Firecrest disc wheels were tested with Challenge Gravel Grinder 42c tyres.

American Classics

The two of them regarded as genuine classics, for decades both have been synonymous with muscle, speed, power, style, agility, quality, trust and performance. And, coincidentally, they are both manufactured just 250miles from each other, the difference being the Zipp’s are hand assembled in Brisbane.

Just as the Mustang has seamlessly morphed with the times ( did you know the latest model is available in 10 speed auto, has a 12-speaker sound system and features 2 x USB ports plus a digital dash ) – so have the Zipps.

Pie finished, coffee downed, and caramel slice in the jersey pocket for later, the Zipp’s were spun into action. 

New Zipps, Welcome To Hell

Initially rolling over a few kilometres of coarse bitumen before turning left and hitting the BVRT I looked down to see the brand new, gloss black, tubeless ready, dimpled Zipps glinting in the sun. Then, for a moment, I felt slightly sorry for this wheelset that had been kindly loaned by Brisbane-based Zipp distributor Echelon Sports.

“Brand new Zipps, not a mark on them, and the rocks, old railway pins, dirt and dust of the rail trail ahead …” I mused. 

“They’re made to be used,” I rationalised, while bunnyhopping the gutter and taking on the first 20km sector of gravel.

The start of the rail trail is easy going, the further you get in the bigger the rocks seem to be!

Timeless Design, Latest Features

Having set the benchmark for more than three decades, and just like the Series 6 Mustang, the latest Zipp 303s offer everything a spoiled-for-choice 2018 consumer is looking for in a wheelset, while still offering the silky-smooth performance-oriented ride the wheels have become famous for.

This disc-specific wheelset ticks all the boxes – it is now built in a wider profile, is phenomenally aero thanks to the sawtooth design and patented dimpled surface.

At 45mm deep and out on the road, these wheels handle crosswinds surprisingly well. After extensive testing – and in comparison to a no-name 45mm deep carbon wheel I was previously using, the wheels cut the air and offer the stability, comfort and control you’d expect from much shallower rims.

Off the mark they are quick to spin, hold pace at the desired speed and appear to effortlessly sit on it for as long as you can. 

Zipp 303 Disc + Challenge 42 Gravel Grinders + Rail Trail = FUN!

The test wheels were fitted with 42mm Gravel Grinders from respected Italian manufacturer Challenge Tyres. Latex tubes helped keep the combo as light as possible – together this tantalising triumvirate seriously gave me goosebumps.

Much like the Zipp wheels – and, come to think of it, the 3T Exploro test bike – the tyres were well suited to the wide-ranging conditions they were used upon. Road, dirt, gravel – flat trails, hair-raising descents, steep climbs and the like. 

Around 20km into the rail trail, between Fernvale and Esk, I diverted off the gravel to enjoy a long, flat and straight section of sweet-looking bitumen. Half expecting to hear Kenny Loggins ‘Highway To The Danger Zone’ start playing, and for a fighter jet from nearby Amberley Airforce base to perform a touch and go on the dead-flat road ahead, the sector of blacktop offered a wonderful opportunity to reacquaint with the tyre’s on road abilities.

Highway To The Danger Zone: A long, straight stretch of bitumen to road test the Challenge tyres.

With around 55 psi in the tyres, the small, rounded and well-spaced centre profile looked, sounded and felt surprisingly efficient on the roadway. Obviously this is a gravel-specific tyre – and the aggressive side tread not at all conducive to fast on-road cornering. But on that relatively smooth, gun barrel straight section of road, the tyres certainly held their own.

A brief stop at the next small town of Coominya, a guilty look at the now dust-covered wheels, and it was back to the trail. From here on the going definitely got one stage tougher. 

160km in length, the rail trail is well sign posted and a popular destination for gravel and MTB riders.

Before long the bike was steered down into one of the regular gulley crossings, several of the historic overhead timber railway bridges being closed for refurbishment. Downhill and under very heavy braking the tyres gripped exceptionally well. Steering through the creek crossing below, then to the climb out of the gully, and again the tyres clawed their way up the incline and back to the gradual uphill trail.

“Impressive,” I thought, while continuing along the track to the turnaround point near Esk.

‘Ride The BVRT’ – It’s As Simple As That

For those who haven’t ridden the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail, here are just two simple words of advice – do it. Arguable one of Australia’s greatest rail trail rides, this 160km adventure is the nation’s longest rail train ride and offers it all. One afternoon was nowhere near enough and I can’t wait to be back, but with minimal lighting onboard, and after stopping to check the time of sunset, I felt it wise to turn around and head back to Fernvale.

Having rumbled close to 40kms on the smooth-running Zipp’s, I’d barely noticed the slight 1 to 2 percent incline on the trail towards Esk. Turning at a stock gate, downing an Endura gel and slugging a drink, I soon realised the trip back was going to be considerably faster and a whole lot more fun!

With the aforementioned minor negative gradient and afternoon tailwind at my back, conditions were absolutely perfect for the 40km return to town.

The wheels were humming, the GPS showing over 40kp/h, and all those stunning sights seen on the way out rapidly ticked by. The Zipp 303 and Challenge Gravel Grinder combo was absolutely in it’s element – comfortable, stable, smooth, and predictable to control.

The BVRT offers some stunning riding through historically significant country west of Brisbane.

Chasing Last Light

‘I’ll easily be back before dusk,” I thought, after again glancing at the computer and enjoying the relatively easy, almost cruise controlled ride back.

Then, out of the thick grass, hopped a wallaby … then another … and a few hundred metres on, the third.

Instantly realising certain elements of this ride were now out of control, I touched the brakes and feathered the speed back for a sedate and reflective cruise home. 

The sun had well-set by the time I reached the quaint village of Fernvale, but the mission had been an unforgettable success – one of those great rides that lingered long after the bike ( and Zipps!) were cleaned. 

Setting The Global Standard

Driving back to Brisbane and again I was reminded why the Zipp 303’s are considered some the best in the world – their performance, pedigree, and all-round abilities are simply beyond comparison.

This latest incarnation – disc specific wheels that are absolutely bomb proof and seem to spin forever, are truly versatile. They prove that Zipp continue to set the standard and create wheels suitable for the wide variety of bikes, locations and terrain today’s demanding riders are traversing. 

Zipp Firecrest 303 Disc At A Glance

  • Hub: Zipp 77D
  • Lacing Pattern: 2 cross
  • Rim Height: 45mm
  • Rim Width: 21mm (internal)
  • Skewers Included: Yes
  • Through Axle adapters: Yes – 12x100mm and 15x100mm front thru-axles as well as 12x135mm and 12x142mm rear. 
  • The 177D rear hub is XDR freehub compatible for use with SRAM 10-42 cassettes. 
  • Spacing: 100mm
  • Spoke Count: 24
  • Tire Size: 700C
  • Tire Type: Tubeless/Clincher
  • Weight: 1530gm pair
  • Pricing: RRP $3,499.00

Challenge Tyres Gravel Grinder Race 42 x 700 – RRP $59.95 each.


All Around Gravel



Tire Width:

42 mm

Internal Rim Width:

17-23 mm


375 gr





















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Rohan Dennis on the podium with second placed Tom Dumoulin and third Victor Campenaerts. Image: Sirotti

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Rohan Dennis on the podium with second placed Tom Dumoulin and third Victor Campenaerts. Image: Sirotti

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