Recently, I’ve been building up a Factor Vista gravel bike for review. As I shared on a recent episode of the Paceline, I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the frame module, which is frame, fork, seatpost, integrated bar/stem. As I’ve worked on this bike, I’ve been impressed by the forethought that went into it, which is one of the reasons I wanted to review this bike. Not that I knew I’d be impressed by the forethought, but because Factor is a brand born of some real milestones in carbon fiber manufacturing.
I realized while working on the bike that if I try to save all that’s interesting about this rig for the review I will be forced to write another 8000-word bike review, which I really don’t want to do unless absolutely necessary. And as it turns out, it’s not.
The force behind factor is a man by the name of Rob Gitelis. Those who came up racing in South Florida in the 1980s will know his name, and anyone who closely followed the Spanish ONCE team will also know his name; Gitelis was a pro with ONCE for a number of years during the 1990s. As it happens, Gitelis did a fair amount of racing in Asia and when his career as a racer came to a close, he stayed in Taiwan and began working for one of the manufacturers there.
Gitelis’ background is in chemical engineering and while that’s not the same as designing a bicycle, when I talked to him the first time in any real depth, he stressed to me that processes are what’s important. He’s not impressed if a bike company claims their bikes are built to 150 percent of the required strength to pass a CE test. To his eye, it’s an admission that there is a wide variance in the strengths of the frames and they have to aim for 150 percent to make sure all the frames pass. If the construction is sufficiently consistent, then a frame doesn’t really need to be more than about 5 percent stronger in order to pass.
Gitelis and his team of engineers have worked on some ground-breaking bikes over the years. Most of the ones I know about I can’t say, but there is a Canadian manufacturer that impressed the bike world with an ultralight frame in the early-mid 2000s that was ridden to victory at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France.
I’ve been looking at carbon fiber frames since the mid 1990s. I’ve seen stuff that passed quality control that made no sense to me, like half a dozen plies of unidirectional carbon that we placed to sloppily they had a fold in them. Spider webs of resin often clogged tubes and alignment fails were a regular occurrence.
The inside of the Vista was cleaner than the outside of many frames I’ve seen. I found no orphaned glops of resin, no spider webs. Getting a frame down into sub-700g territory demands a level of care and engineering that isn’t easy. Ply placement must be very careful and that usually requires laying the plies on a polystyrene or polyurethane form in order to achieve sufficiently precise placement. Those little foam inserts that are typically used in the bottom bracket and at the head tube that smoothe the transition for the carbon fibers, because they don’t like sharp bends, well those foam pieces are dead weight and when 10g can be the difference between 695g and 705g, so they get eliminated. That means layup at the bottom bracket and head tube become more difficult.
Now that most frames include some internal cable routing, thinking about how to get the cables and hoses through the frame has taken on a new importance. The Vista is notable in that it has no guide tubes and yet was easier to push hose and housing through than any other frame I’ve ever worked on. One typical issue I run into has been a small edge or corner that will cause the hose or housing to catch.
The fact that the Vista uses an unusual fork design, one that echoes the Felt DA, which the steerer does not run through the head tube and is instead in front of it allows the load bearing structure to be larger, while a long axle runs from the crown through the bearings and up to the bar/stem. A small pinch bolt secures the axle to the fork. The top of the axle is machined with notches so that it fits in the part of the fork to which the stem is secured.
Because the hoses for both brakes must pass through the stem (the rear hose coming into the head tube and then up through the spacers and into the stem, while the front comes up through the steerer, though the spacers and into the stem), and if the bike features a mechanical drivetrain or Shimano Di2 both cables or wires will need to pass through the stem as well. Everything is routed internally and they way they pass through the bar, the stem and the frame or fork cuts down on the amount of water or grit that can enter the frame. But what about changing the height of the bar after a fitting? Standard stem spacers are one-piece affairs and if the hoses, cables and/or wires pass through those spacers, you will want a way to adjust that height without disconnecting a hose or cable. So the spacers on the Vista are two-part pieces so that they can be added or removed at will.
One of the big reasons that many frames have eliminated a traditional seat collar is that having a vulnerable carbon fiber structure extend above the top tube creates a potential damage spot for a frame. Pinching carbon fiber in that way isn’t good for a frame; that’s not a great load for them. The other reason to eliminate the seat tube extension is because it restricts flex in the seatpost. Of all the places on a bicycle that introducing some flex to increase a rider’s saddle comfort, there is no better, or more challenging, place to make that happen. Great because it doesn’t sacrifice stiffness in the frame, but difficult because the post must withstand a crushing force for which a round structure like that must be totally overbuilt in order to survive. The Vista uses a pinch bolt hidden at the bottom of the junction of the seat tube and top tube.
I want to add that each of the various bolts or other pieces is of exquisite quality. I often see stem bolts that I just know following the first good rain ride will begin to rust. I like tight tolerances and clean edges. It speaks of care.
It’s possible to learn a lot about a bike company from assembling one of their bicycles. Bicycles that came out of Schwinn’s Greenville, Miss., facility told a story of poor training and bad management; I saw mistakes on some of those bikes that I didn’t think were possible.
The Vista is one of those products that I run across on occasion, like the Silca Super Pista or a pair of bibs from Assos that seems designed not so much to beat its competitors, but to lay claim to a definition of quality that speaks of personal ambition. This is what happens when a team of people all agree to do the best job they can do.