Suppose for an instant that you were to let go of every bias, every preconceived notion, every macho attitude and each indelibly stamped image of pro cool that you’ve worked so hard to inventory and catalog into that region of your brain that is reserved for passions. Let’s say you cleared your cycling dry-erase board of everything except the fact that you like road bikes.
What would that bike be? I’m not entirely sure how I would have answered two weeks ago, but I can now say I’ve ridden exactly that bike.
My recent visit to Felt was for not one, but two bike intros. In addition to debuting the new FR, a whole new generation of their road racing machine, they also unveiled the new VR series.
The VR is the road bike that is the appropriate response to the needs of most riders. I’ve never been more convinced of the truth of such a statement than I am with this particular bike. But before I can go into too much depth, I gotta go all postmodern and back up a sec.
For some years, Felt had two road bikes, the F and the Z. The Z series bikes were their fondo/century bikes. Compared to the F, the Z had a bit more relaxed handling and more stack for an easier fit. I owned one for a while and had a chance to ride each iteration. It was a dynamite bike; light, reasonably nimble, but comfortable enough to leave you fresh at the end of 100 miles.
More recently, Felt introduced the V series, which were their first adventure bikes. The problem was, the V wasn’t super differentiated from the Z. It was essentially a Z with a bit more tire clearance. Yawn, but they hadn’t invested in tooling for high-end carbon, so going with the V meant going down-market. Cough.
Felt has now dropped both the V and the Z. The VR is their replacement. What the VR does is combine the fit and handling of the Z with the tire clearance and dedicated disc design of the V in an all-new carbon fiber frame (plus a number of aluminum ones).
So back to that dry-erase board. Again, we’ve checked our egos at the door. What is that bike? Here’s how Felt answered the question. That ideal has more stack than your average race bike for a more practical fit. That’s not to say upright, but out of the box, this is a fit that is more likely to put you in a position to generate great power while leaving enough weight on the front wheel to give nimble and confident handling. The bike also has disc brakes for a couple of obvious reasons. They increase braking force (in most designs) by 15 percent, giving you better control and this isn’t a bike that is going to cross the desk of the DMV clerks running the UCI’s technical commission. It also has ISO-certified clearance for 30mm tires and for the adventurous, room enough for some 35mm tires. The frame has been designed to offer as much comfort as possible without sacrificing control.
To that end the top tube was flattened near the seat tube and the seatstays have an unusual evolving shape as they run from the seat tube down to the dropouts. This bike is not a sprinter’s dream, but that’s not who is going to buy this bike. Standing efforts are well-enough rewarded.
There’s one other thing that Felt did with the VR: they gave it gearing appropriate to people who don’t ride 30 hours per week. More on that in a sec.
Permit me a slight digression: Felt is maybe the most confounding bike company on the planet. They are one of the most creative bike companies and the outfit most driven by the pursuit of product untethered by commercial concerns. They revolutionized triathlon bike designed with the DA and to ride on the wheel of someone astride its descendant, the tri-specific IA, is to know irreversible suffering. But they are awful at communicating the lengths to which they go to make great product. It’s not that hyperbolic to say they spend less on marketing than Richard Sachs does.
Want to know what the rest of the bike industry thinks of Felt? Just check out how many Giant, Specialized, Trek and Cannondale dealers also carry Felt. Allowing a Specialized Concept Store to carry Felt would introduce the kind of chaos that accompanied Ayrton Senna’s arrival at McLaren. Alain Prost was not thrilled. Closer to home, Felt would be to Ritchie Porte what Specialized is to Tejay van Garderen. Oops. But Felt will never compete on an equal footing because they make a fraction of the number of bikes, which is why they can focus so much more energy on materials, production and design.
Most of us generate our best power when we’re not folded up like a dress shirt. The VR was designed with more than 2cm more stack than the same size in Felt’s FR model. Once you bring up the rider’s torso, it’s important to adjust the geometry so that you still have enough weight on the front wheel to keep the bike handling well. One problem I frequently see is a bike like the Cannondale Synapse or the Specialized Roubaix with 4 or 5cm of spacers and then a -6 degree stem flipped upward. It might make for a comfortable position, but there’s no weight on the front wheel, which is why riders on bikes fit that way frequently look like they may lose control at any moment. And just to be clear, this isn’t a Cannondale or Specialized issue; it’s a fit issue.
Felt increased the wheelbase more than 2cm over the FR series to give riders excellent weight distribution even if their fitter flips the stem up. BB drop ranges between 70 and 72mm, depending on the size. They spec’d two different fork rakes, and while there are four different head tube angles over seven sizes, the 54, 56, 58 and 61 all use the same HTA (72.5 degrees with a 5.0cm fork rake). That works out to a trail of 5.48cm for the 54-61. The smaller bikes all increase in trail; the smaller the bike, the greater the trail in order to offset some of the quick handling presented by the shorter wheelbase.
I rode the 56, which has a 56.3cm top tube. Stack for this bike was 59.5cm, while the reach was 38.6cm. That’s higher and shorter than any other bike I’ve ridden this year. It was a terrific fit straight out of the box.
We rode the VR over a selection of popular Orange County roads, including the longest light-free road in the OC, Santiago Canyon. We also departed Santiago to climb a portion of a fire road, the famed Blackstar climb. The surface was hard-packed dirt with occasional dustings of loose sand and dirt, just the sort of thing to cause a bit of drifting if you leaned too much in a turn.
Compared to classic Italian stage race geometry, the VR has a higher BB and a bit less trail. The effect, though, is reasonably similar. CPSC requirements demand that a bike be able to corner at a 25 degree lean angle without striking a pedal; that’s a hard thing to get around, which is why virtually all production road bikes have 7cm or BB drop, or less. By increasing the trail from 5.9cm to 5.48cm, Felt was able to offset some of the effect of the higher BB (most Italian bikes were in the range of 7.5cm). Practically speaking, the bike handled with cool aplomb. It would drop with the fall line of any road and with a little hip English you could adjust your line. Give the bar a flick and it would carve into an assured turn. This is a dream bike for all but the most aggressive circumstances. When I think about mountain roads, this bike would be a welcome foil.
Premium but not pro
Even though Felt called the bike I rode the VR 2, this is the top spec for this given series. Each size of the VR 2 frame uses a customized blend of carbon fiber laid up on a combination of EPS and urethane tooling for maximum accuracy of layup and compaction. The frame is finished in Textreme, which provides a structural layer that also increases impact resistance. Felt is still the only bike manufacturer using the patented material in frames and forks.
The $5499 VR 2 is built up with a combination of Shimano Ultegra Di2 and Shimano’s non-series R785 control levers and new BR805 flat-mount disc brakes. They spec a 160mm rotor front and 140mm rear. The stem, carbon bar and seatpost all come from 3T, while the wheels are Mavic’s Ksyrium Elite Disc Allroads with 12mm through-axles and 142mm rear spacing. Mavic Yksion Elite Guard 28mm tires handle traction duties.
The bike was given mounts for fenders and a bento box, which wind tunnel research has been shown to be a great location to stash items, and is far more aerodynamic than a seat bag.
Here’s the mind-blowing detail from the parts spec for the VR: Felt worked with FSA to introduce a new crank. The FSA SL-K Modular Adventure crank (BB386EVO) uses 46t and 30t rings. To do that they had to use a 90mm bolt-circle diameter. They call it subcompact. It’s paired with an 11-32 cassette. I’ll grant that a 30×32 low gear is a bit too low to be of much use to flatlanders, but it will be welcome anywhere else. And for the all of us who can’t execute a 45-mph sprint, a 46×11 top gear is plenty high. On our group ride, the bunch split going over the top of one hill and I decided to sprint across the gap on the downhill. After a brief out-of-the-saddle effort I sat down and spun the 46×11 up to 40 mph, rolling into the back of the group on our way up the next roller.
If they’d been willing to let me leave with one of those cranks, I’d be in the garage right now installing it on one of my bikes. It’s genius. And while I encountered some people who expressed concern that such a combination would only be necessary for riders tackling dirt roads, I have to disagree. When I’m out and observe the speeds that most recreational riders pedal at, I think this crank will give almost any rider more usable gears on their bike. Indeed, I spent far more time in the big ring than I would have on any other bike due to all the hills we rode.
My only complaint with this bike emerges from an entirely self-centered desire. I’d want to run 40mm tires on it; 35mm isn’t quite enough for some of the riding I do. But I ride in a place with more rock than most riders will encounter on their unpaved excursions. I’ve got some curiosity about whether or not 35mm tires will clear the chainstays on all of the different rims I have, but the fact that the frame is only cleared for 30mm tires by ISO doesn’t bug me.
But let’s be honest, most folks who buy this bike aren’t likely to do much adventure riding. And that’s fine. Shod with 28mm tires, this bike will be more comfortable than what they’ve been on by order of magnitude.
One of the most popular cars in history is the Honda Accord. It bears nothing in common with a race car. The Accord was made for passengers, groceries, has a suspension to keep the ride enjoyable, and yet plenty of go and lively handling. Such is the VR 2. A bike perfect for daily riding. When you consider the frame design, its execution and the gearing, I don’t believe there’s a smarter road bike on the market. And to any bike company that wants to challenge that assertion, I can’t wait to hear from you. Bring it.
Final thought: Why not make the bike for the consumer?