How do you top yourself? How do you look at the best work you’ve ever delivered and then begin improving upon it? It’s a question most professionals have faced at one time or another. I’m familiar with it, for sure.
I once compared the experience to slaying the big, bad monster in a video game only to have that followed by a bigger, badder monster immediately after.
If you’re lucky, some time has passed in between your efforts. I could go with the obligatory consecutive Tour de France victories—Chris Froome’s victory this year was certainly more impressive than last year’s win—but I think a better example is how The Beatles followed Revolver—an utterly mindblowing album at the time—with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is by any standard one of the finest albums ever released.
Improving upon your previous work becomes ever harder as the rate of your output drops. When you produce something on a daily basis the need to top yesterday is dismissed in favor of consistency. It’s enough just to be as good as yesterday. But when something is annual, semi-annual or just when it’s ready, the pressure gets ratcheted upward.
Such is the plight of product designers, especially those in enthusiast industries. It’s not enough to introduce a new bike. When you release a new bike, it had better improve upon the previous bike in noticeable, if not significant, ways, lest you risk consumers yawning and deciding to stick with their existing T2000 Gonkulator (apologies to Hogan’s Heroes).
Just recently I wrote that I hadn’t been reviewing many traditional road bikes lately because there hadn’t been all that many that excited me. I’ve ridden a number of bikes that are more of the same—crazy stiff in too many directions, so stiff that the joy of riding had been, well, stiffed.
Well kids, I recently rode a bike that reminded me why I like a great road bike.
The Felt FR
To the degree that there are some bikes (and companies) that get overly hyped, there are bikes and companies that don’t get the credit they deserve. I’ve written before that I think Felt is the most underrated bike company in the market. With their new road bike, the FR, which supplants the old F, Felt has once again proven that they place a premium on development, materials and process.
I got to ride the FR 1, the second from the top in Felt’s lineup and it rides better than Felt’s previous top of the line F FRD. Most companies do well to make sure their new bike is better than their old bike. This isn’t even their best bike and it easily tops their previous best.
So let’s start with the broad strokes: tubes have been reshaped to improve comfort while maintaining bottom bracket stiffness. Front triangle stiffness wasn’t so much an issue, but making sure the rear triangle didn’t move under a sprinter was a big goal. But stiffening the rear triangle usually means a loss of—dare I write it—compliance, so some hard choices had to be made.
One of the quickest ways to improve comfort at the saddle is to eliminate the brake bridge and move the brake, either to the chainstay (for a disc) or under the bottom bracket (for a direct mount). Eliminating the brake bridge brings with it a certain amount of comfort, but it also allows you to remove more carbon from the seatstays because they no longer need to sustain braking forces.
Felt not only moved the brake to the bottom bracket (there’s a disc version, but I haven’t ridden it yet) and eliminated unnecessary carbon, they joined the seatstays to the top tube to increase the seat tube’s fore-aft flex. They also went to a BB 386 EVO for added overall stiffness.
Head of engineering Jeff Soucek went to stunning lengths to eliminate superfluous carbon. Among his techniques was to specify that the regions where carbon layers overlapped be positioned at 12 o’clock or 6 o’clock in order to function as stiffness-increasing ribs. Indeed, I got a look at the layup schedule and it is easily the longest, most detailed layup schedule I’ve ever seen for a road bike. He also used more traditional techniques, such as flattening the top tube.
The FR 1 uses Textreme (which I detailed in my review of the AR FRD), a material that’s been under exclusive license to Felt for use in bike frames for the last few years. Textreme combines the impact resistance of a weave with the structural strength of multiple layers of unidirectional fiber. It comes in a few different varieties these days, but all of them are crazy expensive. This is not a material you’re going to use if you expect to sell a bike by the container load.
The FR 1 is laid up using EPS forms with urethane tooling and traditional bladders. Very few companies go to this trouble and they only do it with their top-of-the-line models, and this isn’t even Felt’s top model. Each model has its own layup schedule and blend of carbon, not to mention tube shapes and transitions are all size-specific. The head tube and fork tapers are all size-specific as well: the 47cm size uses a 1.125-inch headset bearings top and bottom. The 51 and 54 use a 1.125-inch bearing top and 1.25-inch bearing bottom. The 56, 58 and 61 use 1.25-inch bearing top and 1.5-inch bottom.
Some companies lead with talking about how light their frames are. With Felt, road feel and performance are more important than weight, but they didn’t forget that light is desirable. The target weight (frames will always vary a bit) for the 56cm FR FRD frame is 690 grams. The FR 1 frame, I’m told, comes in below 800g.
I and others have faulted Felt for building the FR’s predecessor, the F, for having too short a head tube. They’ve rectified that, increasing the head tube length by as much as 2cm on some sizes. It’s much easier to fit mortals to this bike now.
The bike was kitted out SRAM Red eTap, Mavic Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C wheels, 3T bar and stem, as well as a 3T seatpost. As built, the FR 1 is $8999.
Orange County Roads
If ever there was a place on earth where you ought to be a road cyclist, Orange County, California, is it. The roads roll over hills and coastal overlooks and while many are aircraft-carrier-wide, they usually feature a generous bike lane that allow reasonable sorts to roll two-by-two. And they are smooth as the voice of Barry White.
At home, I’ve been riding neglected roads on what I used to think of as touring tires. And I’ve been doing it long enough that rolling out for our ride was a nearly nostalgic reminder of just how good it can be to be a road rider. As with every media event I go to, there are always some young guys who want to prove they are strong. And so we punched it up each hill. The experience of standing up on this bike reminded me of the first time I rode oversized steel. The increase in stiffness was apparent, but the road feel didn’t suffer, like when I rode my first aluminum bike. And on descents the FR 1 was composed, stolid. One fault I’ve found in bikes that combine too much stiffness with an ultra-quick geometry is that any little imperfection in the road will bump the bike off its line. The FR 1 rolled across pebbles, pavement seams and manhole covers as if it was all of a piece.
Late in our ride, we rode a world-famous bike path through an estuary known as Back Bay. It’s a beautiful spot. I’d recovered from my previous efforts and wanted to check the horse’s teeth. From a few riders back, I stood up, wound up the gear a bit and then punched as hard as I could. I got a bit of ribbing for the attack, but my effort wasn’t about the group at all. I was checking the bottom bracket. I accelerated and shifted, and shifted again.
I was checking for two things. The big item was to what degree I could feel the bottom bracket wind up, whether or not I felt any give when I got the bike leaned over and stood on the pedal with everything. And no, it didn’t budge. The other quality I wanted a feel for was how composed it remained as I rode myself into flaildom. Some bikes will develop a funny shimmy or other quirk. The FR 1 was masterful, a sushi chef with the sharpest of blades.
I’d rue the idea of riding this bike on my home roads were it not for a tantalizing detail. All the bikes in the FR series were built with clearance for 28mm tires. Yeah. This thing is flat-out the best carbon fiber road racing bike I’ve ridden. And until Felt becomes willing to really invest in marketing, most cyclists will either not find out, or won’t choose to believe it.
Final thought: This must be what it felt like to be a climatologist 20 years ago.