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The wheel is one of mankind’s oldest inventions, dating from the Ancient Greeks, who first used it in wheelbarrows. Thousands of years later, the modern bicycle depends on wheels for its incomparable qualities. Not only do they bear the full weight of rider and machine but they also interact with the elements: Earth (smoothing the surface on which we ride), Fire (combating the heat of braking friction), Wind (cutting through the air that restricts our speed) and Water (overcoming the rainfall that attacks bearings and slickens roads). The four classical elements were first identified by Greek philosopher Empedocles, who lived on the Italian island of Sicily—and that’s where we decide to test a new wheelset.
Landing in Catania, the island’s second largest city, we meet up with Thomas and Tommaso, our two local test riders. It took them a little time to identify the perfect Sicilian location to test the new Zipp 454 NSW carbon clincher on its maiden voyage, but they wisely chose the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. This ancient land boasts some of the best examples of Greek architecture outside of Greece, and it also happens to be the birthplace of Empedocles, the “four elements” philosopher. Cycling fans, of course, may remember Agrigento as the site of the 1994 UCI world road championships, where Lance Armstrong vainly tried to defend his rainbow jersey against a French national team led by Luc Leblanc. But to the rest of humanity, Agrigento is a mecca for lovers of Greek temples. So what better way to break in a new wheelset than a loop around the Temple of the Concordia, Temple of Heracles and the architectural jewels that sit below the hilltop town of Agrigento.
“For us Sicilians, the Valley of the Temples is strongly linked to our youth,” says Tommaso, a native of Catania. “We always visited in the springtime with our school. Imagine dozens of 10-year- old kids screaming and running around the temples in between the blossoming almond trees and the cactus! At the time we didn’t even care too much about history or Greeks. I remember always that my main concern was often finding a Coke or something to drink, because it is always so hot and windy here.
“It was only much later that I realized this amazing place was in my own backyard. Now I often bring visitors here, and riding a bicycle between the temples is just an incredible feeling. It’s a challenging ride with the heat and wind, but I can’t help but think it is the same heat and wind that these temples have faced for 2,000 years!”
Thomas, a Danish amateur cyclist who came to Sicily for the riding, settled here just a couple of years ago and is still discovering the island. This is his first trip to Agrigento and he’s stunned by the Greek ruins. But the bike racer in him is also stunned by the Zipp 454. “Actually, I was more than impressed at just how stable the wheels were in the crosswinds in Agrigento,” he says. “For a wheelset of this depth it handles amazingly in the wind, actually better than anything I have tried of similar depth. Another thing is that the stiffness has improved over earlier generations of Zipp wheels. I could really feel when I accelerated in the corners on the climb to Forza d’Agrò. The wheels just came alive!”
Throughout their day in Agrigento, the two riders do their best to visit all seven temples. Some are in considerably better condition and more tourist-friendly; others, like the little-known Temple of Esculapio, are more remote, giving the new wheels an unexpected test on dirt roads. But there too the wheels cruise over the terrain. And the detour proves one of the highlights of the day. Void of other visitors, Thomas and Tommaso can relax at the ruins and simply take in the spectacular beauty of the larger temples towering on the hillside.
After taking in all the temples, the two continue to find new roads to ride, even as the sun goes down. Modern wind turbines stride up one hillside, a testament to the strength of this ancient land’s Sirocco winds. “You know, I think the revolutionary saw-tooth design really works,” says Thomas. “These wheels have true stability. They really cut the wind. Riding with the Zipp 454 NSW is just plain fun!”
Images and Words: James Startt
For more on Zipp’s new 454 Disc go to Zipp.com