When I found out that the Z1 frame was tipping the scales at 900g, I knew I wanted to review one. My first trip out on one came in borrowing one belonging to one of Felt’s staffers. In two rides I knew I needed to experience more.
I arranged for a frameset rather than complete bike. I had a Campy group sort of lying around waiting to go on a bike. Doing reviews this way cuts the expense for a bike company pretty radically and while I had done this on a number of occasions previously, that’s not quite what I did here. Spoiler alert: I bought the frameset.
With that out of the way, here’s why: When it comes to my views on frame geometry, high performance carbon fiber construction and weight, the Z1 comes very close to everything I want in a bike. Traditionally, my preferences have been for relatively low weight, a longish wheelbase, a tad more trail and good torsional stiffness. I also like a low bottom bracket, but as far as production frames go, that’s just a pipe dream on my part thanks to the CPSC. The Z, like all Felt road frames, has a 27cm-high BB.
As I see it, you have several alternatives. You can buy a heavier frame that will offer more impact/crash resistance. It may handle better, or it may not. It may have a superior road feel, or it may not. You can buy a frame with a lower BB, but it won’t be as light. Of course, you can choose to purchase a frame with a shorter wheelbase and less trail and those bikes abound.
My preferences aside, in absolute terms, the Felt Z1 is a remarkable and rare bicycle. To my knowledge, it is the only grand touring frame that tips the scale at less than 1kg in a 56cm frame. Even the Cervelo RS weighs more than 1kg. And while weight isn’t everything, the bike’s weight comes with an important corollary. To be that light, the frame must employ a fairly ambitious blend of intermediate, high, and ultra-high modulus carbon fiber. This blend allows for exceptionally thin-walled tubes. As a result, the Z1 has a road feel that imparts much greater sensitivity than competitive models. As much as I like the Roubaix, the Z1 has a far superior road feel.
Among cycling cognoscenti there’s a certain mistrust of bike reviews. The joke goes, “and they said it was torsionally stiff and vertically compliant.” I think the reason these assessments don’t pass the BS meter is simple. Anyone who rode steel from the Columbus SL/Reynolds 531 era knows a thing or two about vertical compliance. And if you ever rode one of the bonded aluminum Alan or Guerciotti frames, then you know a lot about vertical compliance. Today’s top-shelf carbon fiber frames are stiffer than those old frames in every single dimension. Where they really differ is in the severity of road vibration they transmit. An equally stiff frame made from steel transmits more road vibration. What gets called “compliance” by most cyclists is really just vibration damping and the beauty of carbon fiber is that some carbon fiber frame have the ability to damp a broad spectrum of vibration so that the sensation isn’t so much wet blanket, but rather volume lowered. Kind of the opposite of the amp in “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Look, this one is turned down to five.
That said, there’s also some suspicion for the notion of torsional stiffness. To this I cry foul. When I began reviewing bikes I would spend some time making sure the shifting was adjusted perfectly to eliminate the ability of componentry to color my opinion of the frame building. It was only fair.
Next, I would take the bikes out and after I was warmed up I would do a few sprints in the 53×19 (assuming the cassette was a 12-23). On most frames, I could make the outer plate of the front derailleur rub against the chain. This was my standard litmus test for bottom bracket stiffness. On those occasions in which it didn’t rub, I knew I was dealing with a bike with a really stiff bottom bracket.
That didn’t happen much.
But bottom bracket flex isn’t the whole story. Not even most of it. Once manufacturers had largely addressed BB flex a whole new issue emerged: torsional flex. The issue is familiar to avid tandem riders. Those who rode tandem back in the days of small-diameter steel-tubed tandems will remember a phenomenon referred to as “lash.” Frame twist could be so pronounced as to cause the tandem to steer in one direction or another, making handling unpredictable. Compounding matters, wheels have gotten more flexible. Some 16- and 18-spoke wheels flex like the BB used to.
Carbon fiber frames still run the gamut on flex, mostly due to their forks. Some are sheetrock stiff while others are as flexible as bamboo shoots. Sit on the top tube of a bike and twist the handlebar and you’ll be surprised how often you’ll feel the bar twist slightly and the front wheel stand firm as the fork gives.
The fork on the Z1 is the same as Felt’s F1 with two minor changes. The dropouts are made from aluminum for increased durability while they are shaped slightly differently, giving the fork 50mm of offset. The steerer, the layup of the blades, all that is exactly the same.
This idea of creating exactly the same bike in two categories is significant to me. One thing I heard consistently from women when we reviewed bikes at Asphalt was that any time a bike was offered specifically to women it almost always featured either a watered down frame or parts pick. I knew a number of successful professionals who happened to be women and they felt consistently insulted by the fact that most of the time they couldn’t buy a bike made specifically for women that would also include a top-of-the-line parts pick of Record or Dura-Ace.
So one of my bigger pet peeves is an indication by a bike company that only racers will have reason to buy an ultra-light bike with Super Record or Dura-Ace. Honestly, how many people who are racing out can both afford Super Record and would choose to race it given how much of it is likely to disintegrate in a crash?
The carbon fiber blend that gives Felt’s F1 such a distinctive feel is present in the Z1 as well as their women’s frame, the ZW1. The ZW is essentially just Felt’s Z geometry in women’s sizing.
Back to that whole flex issue. Builders who chose to builde with Columbus tubing back in the 1980s had to choose on what size frames they would begin to blend Columbus’ heavier SP tube set in order to offset the stiffness loss of the larger frame sizes. It was not uncommon to find a 56cm frame built entirely from SL while the 58cm frame featured an SP down tube for some additional stiffness while the 60cm frame would be built entirely from SP. Well carbon fiber allows you to tailor each frame’s material usage to get exactly the right flex pattern.
Because there is no limiter forced by the raw materials, Felt changes the amount of material in each frame size of the F, Z and ZW bikes. Because the ZW bikes are the smallest frames intended for riders likely to be a bit lighter, the ZW1 is actually Felt’s lightest carbon fiber frame, weighing roughly 800 grams in its smallest size.
Why do this? Imagine having the ability to create frames that offer the same flex pattern in every size. Imagine knowing that your riding experience is the same as someone four inches taller … or shorter.
When shopping for bikes, fitting is the crapshoot. Until you take a serious look at the geometry, there’s no way to know if you can fit on a given bike. Between the Z-series frames and the ZW-series (women’s) frames, the Z is available in nine sizes. From smallest to largest, the top tube lengths are as follows: 49.7, 51.5, 52.5 and 54.5, for the women’s bikes and 52.5, 54.5, 56, 57.5 and 59.5cm for the men’s bikes. I could easily have ridden the 57.5cm top tube bike, but selected the 56 due to the length of the head tube and my desire to keep the bar relatively low, while avoiding the change in handling brought about by using a really short stem.
With only five sizes for the men’s bikes there are definitely some holes in the sizing run that could be problematic for some riders. The 1.5cm jumps aren’t too bad (or uncommon), but the 2cm jumps between the 52.5cm and 54.5cm top tube bikes could pose a fitting issue, as could the 2cm jump between the 57.5cm and 59.5cm top tube bikes.
Let’s talk absolutes. I’ve ridden frames stiffer than the Z1. I’ve not ridden one lighter in a 56cm frame—my frame weighed in at 908g. It’s in a dead heat with the best frames I’ve ridden in terms of ride quality. It retails for $2599, about $200 more than Cervelo’s RS and $100 less than Specialized’s Roubaix SL2.
By creating two bikes so very similar in so many aspects, the folks at Felt brought focus to a point that doesn’t get much attention these days: geometry. At the end of the day, the only meaningful differences between the F1 and Z1 are how they handle.
The Z1 reminds me of nothing so much as the Italian road bikes I often reviewed a dozen years ago. It’s calm in a straight line, turns in easily and is responsive in a sprint.
It was at the Markleeville Death Ride nearly Lake Tahoe that I had a revelatory experience. Descending Carson Pass in a painful hail storm (I know, that’s redundant) I began to catch a 3-series Beamer at 40 mph. I couldn’t see much other than the yellow lines to my left and the white line on my right and yet I felt calm and secure. The Z1 was rock solid.
The bike’s only weakness emerges at truly high speeds. I’ve found that once I’m above 45 mph the front end starts to get a little loose, twitchy. I haven’t experienced anything as bad as a speed wobble at those high speeds, but the bike’s unperturbable nature begins to falter. In the grand scheme that’s happened fewer than 10 times and I have more than 2000 miles on this frame.
The bike industry is full of good, if ordinary, bikes. There are a number of impressive bikes as well. There are a handful of truly extraordinary bikes. The shame is that Felt’s Z1 could easily be lost among not the ordinary, but the impressive. It’s far more than that.
(A quick note on bike scores: I’ve decided I’m going to score bikes a little more stringently than I did in some of my previous reviews. I’ve revised those scores down and scores in the future will reflect that as well.)
Felt Z1: 95 points
When Felt Bicycles came back from the brink of extinction a few years back I took note. Jim Felt had been a motorcycle race mechanic for a great many big names in motocross, names like Johnny “O-show” O’Mara. He was a good fabricator and had a creative mind.
And then he got interested in triathlon.
It turns out, some of the riders he worked with were starting to do tri’s to stay fit. He started doing them as well and noticed a funny thing. He couldn’t get the triathlon bars low enough to get a truly flat back while riding a properly sized frame.
So he built a few bike frames. They were notable for quick handling and very, very short head tubes. Head tubes that in some instances measured less than 10cm. Riding a Felt was the only way to guarantee your position was as aerodynamic as possible, relative to the time. And the proof was, as they say, in the puddin’. Big names, names like Paula Newby-Fraser began to win on Felts.
In 1996 I spent a week on a Felt. Manufactured by Answer Products in Valencia, Calif., through a licensing agreement with Jim Felt, the frame was TIG-welded from 7000-series aluminum, which needed no heat-treating, thereby dropping manufacturing costs dramatically and increasing the chances that the frame was properly aligned. Back then, Answer employed a number of manufacturing staffers who were part of the ‘90s aerospace diaspora. At the time, I lived in Valencia and rode on a regular basis with a half dozen of them. A few of them told me that if they couldn’t make $60k working in aerospace, then working on bikes was at least cool.
The aerospace bit wouldn’t be important were it not for the fact that their experience made the bikes damn good. The welding was exquisite and alignment superior to any other aluminum bike I’d seen at the time.
Back to that Felt I rode in ’96. This was the same bike Chris Horner won Athens Twilight on and a career making stage at the Tour DuPont in a two-up sprint against the more experienced U.S. Postal rider, Nate Reiss; ’96 would prove to be Reiss’ last season with Postal. Oops.
The bike I rode was unlike any bike I had ever ridden. It was unusually lively for aluminum, as stiff as any Klein I had ever ridden and carried exquisite grace of a filet knife. It scared the shit out of me.
Then Answer went through what we’ll term a transition. In 2000 the new management decided to get out of the business of road bikes and cut Felt loose.
It turns out this was the best thing that could have happened to Jim Felt and his brand.
Bill Duehring, a former VP with GT and all-around industry lifer, had partnered with Michael Müllmann, the owner of one of Europe’s most successful distributors, Sport Import, and the two wanted to start a bike company. The three decided to team up and together they forged a formidable partnership. Felt was known for his ideas about frame and tubing design. Duehring was known for impeccably spec’d bikes at great price points and Müllmann had access to capital and distribution channels.
It was this incarnation of Felt that loaned me a road bike to review when I published Asphalt. Ron Peterson, the editor who reviewed the bike, lauded it for the feel of the butted Easton Scandium tubing and the handling which he adored for crit racing.
At the next Interbike the company showed off its first carbon bike, the F1. A quick look at the tube shapes told me it wasn’t an open-mold design with their decals. It was their own design, engineered in-house. The F1 was essentially the company’s long-admired road bike geometry in carbon form.
In 2007 the company introduced a new road bike model, the Z1. Like the F, the Z was offered at a number of price points, but the Z1 was notable because it used the same blend of ultra-high, high and intermediate modulus carbon fibers as the F1. The similarities ended there.
The Z-series bikes are grand touring bikes. Compared to the F-series bikes, they are built around longer head tubes (not hard to do), slacker head tube angles and more fork rake. They also get longer chainstays. The slackish head tube angle, generous fork rake and longish chainstays gave the bike a longer wheelbase while maintaining the same weight distribution between front and rear wheels as the F-series bikes.
It’s easy to be cynical and just say Felt was aping what Specialized did with the Roubaix, but there are a few differences worth noting. First, the bottom bracket is a bit higher on the Z than on the Roubaix. Next, the Z doesn’t use the Zertz vibration dampers—Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, says he doesn’t believe they do anything to help the ride quality of the bike; I’ve argued the point with him, but that’s a different story. Third, as mentioned previously, Felt specs exactly the same blend of carbon fibers in the Z1 that goes into the flagship F1 model. My 56cm Z1 frame weighed in at 906 grams (g).
Lots of companies will talk a good sub-kilo game, but far fewer are doing it than you might think. I watched a 52cm Trek Madone—minus seat mast—tip the scales at 1133g. I haven’t had a chance to weigh a Specialized Roubaix SL2, which would be the frame analogous to the Z1, but when I asked a Specialized representative what it weighed I was told “around a kilo.” I take that to mean north of a kilo, because if it was consistently less than a kilo, that feature would be touted like the cup size of a porn star, I expect.
Let’s talk competitive models for a moment. I have to volunteer that I have some trouble taking a bike company seriously if they don’t offer a grand touring model. Now, in the case of a company such as Seven Cycles that builds bikes to suit the rider, there’s no need to offer a specific model for one geometry, but production-oriented companies are another story. Trek’s got the Pilot, Cannondale the Synapse, Cervelo the RS, Bianchi the Infinito and Giant the Defy. Interestingly, Scott claims to offer two “performance” oriented models “more relaxed geometry. Those two models, the CR1 and the Speedster are more relaxed in marketing copy alone. They have the same BB drop (6.7cm) same chainstay length (40.5cm) and same head tube angle (73 degrees for the large size) as their racing model, the Addict. Indeed, the CR1 became “relaxed” when they introduced the Addict. Perhaps they were referring to the fact that the head tube is a massive 2cm longer on the CR1 and Speedster than on the Addict. Whatever.
The vast majority of these bikes feature a watered-down carbon fiber blend (compared to flagship models) and a component spec that says century riders won’t notice an extra three or four pounds. Anyone who thinks only fast racer types will spend big bucks on a bike have completely misread the bike market. Completely.
Next: Part II