On Tuesday I went to Felt Bicycles’ headquarters in Irvine for the introduction of their 2014 line. Of all the bike companies I know, they are the most intensely product-focused. By that I mean they devote a disproportionate amount of their resources to product. It’s a double-edged sword; no other company this small (they have fewer than 50 full-time employees in the U.S.) produces such a vast range of bikes, but I’m also reasonably certain that no other company producing product at the quality level and value they do spends less on marketing and advertising. There again, another double-edged sword. By spending a fraction of what Specialized does on marketing, Felt’s bikes are noticeably more value-packed at a given price-point. I’ve encountered riders for whom the effect induced suspicion, as if there must be a man behind a curtain somewhere.
Maybe that will change for 2014. Felt is coming off its most successful appearance at the Tour de France in the company’s history. Marcel Kittel of Argos-Shimano won four stages and wore the yellow jersey for a day. And let’s be honest, Argos-Shimano is a team that doesn’t get the props, attention or respect that Garmin-Sharp does, yet they gave Felt a far better return on investment. Also, while this isn’t exactly germane to the point at hand, I don’t mind adding that with four very evenly matched sprinters (Kittel, Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel), the sprint stages at this year’s Tour were the most thrilling the race has seen in decades.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify what I meant in the headline. There are bikes that we saw that are currently under embargo. I’ll report on them shortly.
The other thing worth noting about Felt’s line is that they offer road bikes at some nearly unheard-of values. Case in point: the Z5, which retails for $1699. While it’s possible to find a carbon fiber bike in this price range, most of Felt’s competitors are spec’ing a Shimano Sora group. Felt specs a mostly 105 group. That’s a big step up in quality.
The other really interesting development I can talk about for now is the new Virtue Nine. Pictured here is the Virtue Nine One, the top-of-the-line. The Virtue has been Felt’s trail offering, fitting in that 120mm to 140mm-travel range (it’s 130mm front and rear). Thanks to a newly designed seat tube and (for those models that use a front derailleur) a new front derailleur mount, Felt’s engineers were able to revise the rear suspension to keep the rear wheel in tight enough that you can pick up the front end when you need to. The challenge they faced was Felt’s patented Equilink design, which is actually a six-bar linkage.
The bar running vertically behind the seat tube minimizes pedal-induced bobbing and helps control the path of the rear wheel. Of all the new mountain bikes I’ve seen announced for 2014, this is one of the ones I’m most excited about.
I continue to marvel at the quality of the layup work on Felt’s bikes. Little touches like the one above, which are cosmetic rather than structural, are a great chance to showcase just how good the work is. So far, I’ve only seen work like this showing up on bikes from Alchemy.
Felt also offers an astounding number of cruisers, fixies and other assorted city bikes. Give them a frame and they’ll come up with five ways to spec it. The bike above is the York, which features a steel frame, aluminum fenders, that carrier and a two-speed kickback hub and carries a suggested retail of $829.
The ever-popular (and nearly impossible to get) New Belgium Fat Tire cruisers have been produced by Felt for the entire run of the offering. Each year they change them up a bit. This year they head in a new direction with the addition of 29″ wheels and a new Felt tire.
The embargo will run out on … other stuff in about 10 days. Check back for more revelations then.
The efforts to tame the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix have included everything from running lower tire pressure in 28mm tires to wrapping the handlebar with foam pipe insulation and even using cyclocross bikes. The cyclocross bikes have been a less than stellar option for a few reasons. First, they’ve been chosen because the standard race bikes from the teams’ sponsors have allowed clearance for 28mm tires; in some cases they won’t even allow 25mm tires. Second, they feature geometries that include high bottom brackets (for pedal clearance) when the average Roubaix rider wants a lower BB to make the bike easier to handle over the bumps.
Felt has taken a novel approach to meeting the needs of their sponsored riders. For this year’s Paris-Roubaix, the Argos-Shimano team rode on a special run of the company’s F1 frames. How these frames differ from a standard F1 might surprise you. Unchanged is the bike’s layup and stiffness, which many might guess would be the first concession made to the cobbles. In fact, the changes are deeper in the DNA of the machine.
Felt’s engineering team changed the geometry of the F1—giving it handling and tire clearance perfect for the cobbles—without cutting new molds. Seems like an impossible trick, huh? Let’s cover the changes to the geometry and the rationale for it and then we’ll get into just how they did it.
The F1 seen above features head and seat tube angles a full degree slacker than the stock bikes. They also have a 10mm longer front center and 13mm longer chain stays to keep the weight distribution virtually unchanged. Felt’s engineers also managed to drop the bikes’ BB height by 3mm even after the addition of 28mm tires. And of course, the modified the fork and the rear triangle to create clearance for those bigger tires.
Again, the amazing thing here is that they managed all these changes without cutting new molds for bikes that will essentially be raced once a year. So how’d they do it?
They designed new dropouts that moved the rear wheel back and up (relative to the old position) which dropped the rear end of the bike and increased the wheelbase of the bike. Up front, new dropouts raised the fork crown and increased the rake, compensating for the decrease in head tube angle to keep trail consistent. The slacker seat tube angle allows riders to sit back a bit more, shifting some weight off their upper bodies to give their hands, arms and shoulders a bit of a break.
And to compensate for the changes to the fork and rear triangle, non-series Shimano long-reach calipers handle the stopping duties.
This isn’t the first time Felt has done this. In 2008 when they were sponsoring Garmin-Chipotle, which included Magnus Backstedt pictured above, Felt produced a run of F frames for the team. Those frames also featured Felt’s “Superstiff” layup, a feature that wasn’t required this time around as the new F1 is both lighter than the previous F1 (standard layup) and stiffer than the Superstiff layup.
While Trek and Specialized realize excellent marketing benefits from putting their sponsored teams on the new Domane and established Roubaix, Felt’s approach yields a bike more purpose built to the racers’ requirements. Both the Roubaix and Domane feature more trail than their racier counterparts. What’s most surprising here is that more companies haven’t had the insight to create a second set of dropouts to give their top-flight race bikes more versatility. Maybe this will help illustrate just how bright Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, and his team are.