Why Felt spent years developing new non-aero road bikes — meet the new FR and VR

by James Huang


The 2017 Felt lineup will feature two all-new collections of carbon fiber and aluminum road bikes. The FR is a wholesale redesign of the longstanding F-Series range of traditional light-and-stiff road racers, while the current Z-Series of endurance bikes will be replaced by the more multisurface-friendly VR. US technical editor James Huang flew out to Felt’s headquarters in Irvine, California to check both of them out firsthand.


Aero be damned with the new ultralight FR

Felt’s current F family of traditional road racing bikes already has an enviable reputation for low weight and excellent chassis stiffness, but the company says this latest evolution — now dubbed FR — is even better. Naturally, Felt claims a number of measurable performance gains, such a 5% weight reduction, a 4% increase in head tube torsional stiffness, and a whopping 30% boost in rear-end rigidity. Moreover, Felt says the new FR also smoothes out road imperfections better than before, which not only helps with rider comfort, but also cornering traction. Disc options will be available as well.

As with the current F-Series, the FR sticks to rounded tube profiles throughout, along with genuine size-specific designs that vary not only tube diameters but also fiber lay-ups and joint geometries for more consistent performance across the board. But whereas the current F uses a custom BB30 press-fit bottom bracket shell, the new FR switches to the more spacious BB386EVO system, which offers an extra 18mm of width for the down tube, seat tube, and chainstays.

The new FR retains the previous version's predominantly rounded tube shapes but pushes the seatstays further apart. Felt claims this greatly boosts rear-end stiffness while also improving ride quality.
The new FR retains the previous version’s predominantly rounded tube shapes but pushes the seatstays further apart. Felt claims this greatly boosts rear-end stiffness while also improving ride quality.

Also new on the FR are size-specific steerer tube diameters on the matching revamped fork. The two smallest frame sizes (43, 47cm) use straight 1 1/8″ tubes; the middle two (51, 54cm) move to 1 1/8-to-1 1/4″ tapered dimensions; and the biggest three (56, 58, 61cm) stick with the current 1 1/8-to-1 1/2″ size — all part of the aim that every FR rider experience the same ride and performance characteristics regardless of height or weight.

Increasing the diameter of the chainstays — and pushing them further apart — helps provide some of that claimed rear-end stiffness gain but, according to Felt, a bigger contributor is the wider spacing of the seatstays up at the seat tube. Those seatstays are slimmer and more apt to flex when hitting bumps than before, too, and the new fork blades have been reshaped for what Felt says is a more forgiving and balanced ride.

There are no radical shapes to be found back here, either.
There are no radical shapes to be found back here, either.

Felt has retained most of the current F-Series’ frame geometry but with one major change: stack height has increased 19mm on average, and the taller front end will allow a wider range of riders to fit comfortably. But before you cast off the FR as a sadly neutered pseudo-race machine, keep in mind that the old F-Series was arguably too aggressive with front ends that were even lower than a comparably sized Specialized Tarmac or H1-fit Trek Madone. Most pro riders should still be able to get their desired fit with -17° stems.

The expanded fit window is undoubtedly a plus in terms of potential sales. However, Felt says that the longer head tubes just make the new FR better, period, by improving front-end torsional stiffness. The revised geometry lends more of an “in the bike” feel, too, as opposed to the “on top of the bike” feel that sometimes accompanied the stubby head tubes of the current F-Series.

Head tubes have been lengthened across the board on the FR, as compared to the current F.
Head tubes have been lengthened across the board on the FR, as compared to the current F.

“The difference between the traditional F and the FR is that we were able to get the stability and confidence into the frame,” said company founder Jim Felt. “The F was always a nervous, pro-level bike only. It had a very aggressive geometry, and just those slight changes in the lay-up made it handle phenomenally well.”

That Felt was able to improve chassis stiffness while also making the bike more comfortable is impressive enough, but the fact that the new FR also manages to shed weight off of what was already a fantastically feathery design is even more so. Claimed weight on the top-end FR FRD frame is now a shockingly low 685g, while the matching revamped fork comes in at just 285g.

Other features include adaptable cable routing (with internally run wiring for electronic drivetrains and external paths for mechanical ones), slick reflective frame graphics, and factory-installed magnets (inside the frame!) for Pioneer power meters.

Magnets are applied from the factory inside the frame for use with Pioneer power meters.
Magnets are applied from the factory inside the frame for use with Pioneer power meters.

One of the changes on the FR is bound to stir some polarizing opinions, however. Whereas the rear brake was once situated in the traditional location on the seatstays, the FR has switched to a bridgeless layout, and the newly direct-mount caliper is now located beneath the chainstays.

Felt insists that the change was driven solely by function. After all, the chainstays are already stoutly built to withstand drivetrain forces and don’t need any additional reinforcement to handle braking loads, which allowed the engineers to slim down the seatstays and tune them more specifically for ride quality. Another bonus is clearance for tires up to 28mm-wide.

The direct-mount rear brake (sourced from TRP) seems to work reasonably well but accessing adjustments is still tricky.
The direct-mount rear brake (sourced from TRP) seems to work reasonably well but accessing adjustments is still tricky.

Nevertheless, other companies — namely, Trek with the previous-generation Madone — have gone down this path before with decidedly mixed results. Chainstay-mounted brakes may make sense on paper but they’re also trickier to set up and maintain, and are prone to more pad rub under hard pedaling efforts since the wheel moves more side-to-side down there than up top. Even Trek ended up backpedaling, reverting to a more traditional rear brake location for the current Madone.

Time will tell how successful Felt will be with this approach, but that will be a moot issue for riders who opt for the new disc brake-equipped variants, which will use flat-mount caliper interfaces across the board, plus dual 12mm thru-axles for carbon models (aluminum frames stick with quick-release wheels).

Either way, an initial test ride of the new FR near Felt’s southern California headquarters was certainly positive with outstanding responsiveness to pedal and steering inputs, and an enviably controlled ride quality.

Felt will offer the new FR in carbon fiber and aluminum versions, with both men’s and women’s models, and in a mix of rim brakes and disc brakes. Seventeen models will be offered in total for the US market, with prices ranging from US$799 to US$9,499. Aluminum models will arrive in August, and carbon models will follow shortly afterward. Pricing and specific model availability for other regions are still to be determined.

New VR lets you go further down the unbeaten path

Felt’s long-running Z-Series endurance bikes were certainly popular but they were ultimately still best suited for pavement with a maximum official tire size of just 25mm. The new VR (Variable Road) ups the versatility quotient in a major way with official clearance for 30mm treads (depending on rim width), disc brake-only formats across the board, and improved on-road performance.

Frame design features borrowed from the racier FR include the wider-format BB386EVO press-fit bottom bracket shell, bigger and more widely spaced chainstays, slimmed-down and more widely spaced seatstays, and the same bridgeless rear-end architecture. Also as on the FR, the ZR uses the now-standard flat-mount brake caliper interface and 12mm thru-axles front and rear.

The new VR (Variable Road) range will essentially replace the long-standing Z-Series with a new design that should offer both better performance and increased versatility.
The new VR (Variable Road) range will essentially replace the long-standing Z-Series with a new design that should offer both better performance and increased versatility.

Whereas the FR chassis is more keenly focused on stiffness and low weight, though, the VR’s tubes are designed more specifically for rider comfort and overall versatility. For example, the seatstays are much more dramatically shaped while the trapezoidal top tube profile is supposedly “23% more comfortable” than the previous version. As one would expect, the front end is also much taller for a more upright position while the shorter seat tube leaves more seatpost exposed to flex on bumps.

Fender mounts are built in, too, and Felt has developed a specific set that mounts very cleanly. Mounts on the top tube (just aft of the headset) are designed to hold a bolt-on bag for food — and if you’d prefer a third bottle instead, the holes are spaced for standard cages. As Felt’s frame engineers were less concerned with shaving grams here, all VR carbon frames get fully internal cable routing regardless of drivetrain type.

Whereas the FR seatstays are only modestly shaped, the ones on the VR feature more dramatic changes in cross-section.
Whereas the FR seatstays are only modestly shaped, the ones on the VR feature more dramatic changes in cross-section.

Not surprisingly, build kits on all VR will be aimed at rider comfort. In addition to standard 28mm-wide tires, all VR bikes will get “sub-compact” 46/30T cranksets to help ease the sting of going uphill. According to Felt, this “all-day, climbing-biased gearing” not only gives riders lower gear ratios to choose from but actually increases the total range so there isn’t much loss at the top end.

Felt will offer the VR in carbon fiber and aluminum variants, and men’s and women’s versions. American buyers will see a total of 13 different VR models in total, with prices ranging from US$899 to US$5,499. As with the FR, aluminum VR models will arrive first, in August, with carbon models to follow later in the calendar year. Pricing and specific model availability for other regions are still to be determined.

But what about aerodynamics?

Felt’s move to replace the aging Z with the VR was wholly predictable, as the new range is not only more inline with what modern roadies expect from their machines in terms of capability, but also fills a gaping hole in the company’s lineup.

That Felt has devoted so many resources to the new FR, though, is a bit more surprising. Countless hours of collective industry development time has concentrated on aerodynamic efficiency, and it’s now widely accepted that slicing cleanly through the air pays bigger performance dividends than decreasing weight. Despite the long legacy and unquestionable success of the F series, even Felt has seemed to question the line’s relevance in recent years.

Felt offered eight different carbon F models in 2012, and then trimmed the selection down to five one year later. In 2014, Felt pared the range even further to just three, and the F has only mildly rebounded since then with four models in 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, the AR line of aero road bikes has trended in the opposite direction.

Given all of that, why would a company — particularly one that believes so wholeheartedly in the aero road bike segment — bother with something that’s enviably light and stiff, but makes absolutely no effort to efficiently travel through the air? Even if the FR is lighter, stiffer, and more comfortable than before, wouldn’t it still be slower than Felt’s AR aero road platform?

The short answer to that second question is, “yes”, but the long answer is a little more complicated.

“I think there’s always a place for the fundamental expression of a road racing bike,” said Felt road brand manager Hubert Otlik. “Aerodynamics are very important, and aerodynamics do confer an actual advantage to the rider. There is a benefit to that, and that’s why we, as an industry, and we, as a brand, invest in it. I think there is definitely a certain degree of quantification when you decide to buy an aero bike; you look at test data, you look at wind tunnel results. But for the FR, I think there is a focus on just the elemental nature of riding. For me, there’s always a place for that sort of bike.”

Otlik has a point there, particularly in the context of stage racing; key moves are often made on tough climbs where a GC rider is more focused on a bike’s weight and stiffness (and usually after hiding in the peloton all day). But it’s also a position that largely makes sense given current engineering limitations. As advanced as modern carbon fiber manufacturing and design is, road racing bikes today still have to strike some sort of balance between weight, stiffness, aerodynamics, and ride quality — to date, there arguably isn’t a single “ultimate” frame that absolutely excels at all four.

“There will always be a place for a bike like the FR or the AR,” Otlik continued. “Because if you try to make one like the other, you always compromise one element or another. The F has a legacy and history that we wanted to continue, and the FR is essentially a revolution through restraint. We didn’t add curvature, we didn’t over-integrate, and we intentionally kept the bike very austere and true to its objective. And because of that, I think we created an experience that continues to be relevant to the rider.”

Other brands seem to agree that such a two-pronged strategy for performance road bikes is still the way to go — at least for now.

“As it stands, with our current technological know-how and manufacturing processes, it still comes down to picking two of the three holy trinity of road bike qualities: weight, stiffness, and aerodynamics,” said Giant global product manager Andrew Juskaitis. “In the very near future, we will be able to produce a bicycle that encompasses all three qualities, but making a product aerodynamic almost always translates into adding material. Only when we determine a way to significantly reduce the core weight of the frame (while adding aerodynamic properties) will we be able to meet the very challenging goal of achieving this ultimate goal of weight, stiffness and aerodynamics.”

“The simplest metric to understand is weight; if your bike is lighter, then it will go uphill faster,” said Sean Estes, global press relations manager for Specialized. “Aero is more challenging to interpret. Without access to a wind tunnel, you basically have to take the manufacturer’s performance claims at face value. Also, before we knew aero mattered so much, weight was the only metric we knew, so it became the thing that was fixated on the most. Old habits die hard, and while weight has turned out not to be the end-all-be-all, it certainly does still matter quite a bit. It will take time to get to the point that the average rider is as savvy about aero as they are about weight, but we have come a long way in the past five years.”

“Fact, aero is faster than lightweight in most situations — but, aero is not everything,” said Trek road brand manager Michael Mayer. “There is a cost component of aero and aero integration. Some riders do not appreciate or want what an aero bike provides. They don’t want the aerodynamics, the style, the look etc., even though they know it can go faster. And there are proven circumstances where light weight benefits the rider more than aerodynamics.”

So at least for now, aero road bikes may be attracting the lion’s share of the attention but even bike companies admit that there’s still some work to be done before they can totally replace traditional road bikes. Until then, which one is best for you will still be a matter of your personal priorities. Choose wisely.

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