Felt FR1 review: A rear brake away from greatness

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Felt makes no illusions as to the intentions of its FR1 — “racing” is part of the name, after all. As such, it excels at many of the classic traits associated with high-end road bikes: low weight, high stiffness, fast handling. In almost every way, the FR1 is a fantastic machine, but a goofy rear brake holds it back from being truly exceptional.

Making the new FR

Felt’s previous F-Series family of light-and-stiff road racing machines was already among the most under-appreciated collection of carbon fiber bikes on the market. For whatever the company lacked in marketing muscle, it seemed to more than make up for it in substance with frames that were superbly rigid, very light, and generally good value for the money, especially at the mid-range.

Not surprisingly, then, Felt didn’t rewrite its F-Series recipe when it revamped the line last year. Whereas the AR collection focuses on the aero road segment, the new FR instead continues to focus on the more traditional road bike performance metrics of low weight and high stiffness, using rounded tubes and gentle transitions throughout the carbon fiber chassis to make the most efficient use of the least amount of material.

Felt FR1 review
Tube shapes are nominally round throughout to maximize structural efficiency.

One major change is a switch from a BB30 to a BB386EVO press-fit bottom bracket shell, with 18mm of extra width, allowing for an even-bigger down tube than before, plus larger chainstays that can be spaced further apart. Between the revised frame shape and updated fiber lay-up schedules, Felt claims a modest front-end stiffness gain of 4% as compared to the previous F-Series (for more predictable handling), but a more substantial 30% increase in rear-end stiffness (for a snappier feel under power).

Other details include molded carbon fiber dropouts, revised geometry with a slightly taller front end to accommodate a greater percentage of riders than last year’s ultra-aggressive F-Series, and built-in cadence magnets for Pioneer power meters.

While the new bike may be better than the old one on paper, one change may not be welcomed by many. The previous-edition F-Series placed the rear brake on the seatstays as usual, but it’s now moved beneath the chainstays on the FR. From an engineering standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. Since the chainstays are already substantially bigger and stiffer than the seatstays, they provide an inherently stouter foundation for mounting the caliper without requiring any additional reinforcement. In theory, this also allows frame designers to slim down the seatstays more than would otherwise be possible for a smoother ride.

Felt FR1 review
According to Felt, it makes more sense to mount the rear brake underneath the chainstays since those tubes are inherently bigger and stiffer than seatstays.

As added bonuses, those seatstays can now be pushed further apart — which Felt says provides much of that rear-end stiffness improvement — and combines with the broader chainstay spacing to allow for tires up to 28mm-wide. From a design standpoint, chainstay-mounted rim brakes also allow Felt to change just one section — the chainstays and rear dropouts — for the disc version of the FR instead of recreating an entire rear end.

“The weight loss and stiffness gains are relatively small when it comes to [removing] a seatstay bridge as long as you account for it with the design,” said Felt senior design engineer Jeff Soucek. “But you have to remember it takes overbuilding in that area to handle the forces when using a seatstay-mounted brake, which results in less comfort.”

“A big goal of ours was to make this bike more vertically compliant,” he continued. “We learned on the Nine hardtail the benefit of removing the bridge, then on the AR, so it was natural to apply this to the new road frames. The bottom bracket area is already overbuilt for pedaling stiffness so it is a smart place to put the brake considering the extra material is already there. On lightweight frames, the idea of removing any redundant material goes a long way toward total lightness. Any time you can kill two birds with one stone, it’s a good way.”

Felt FR1 review
Felt says the broader seatstay spacing up top boosts side-to-side stiffness of the rear end as compared to the previous F-Series.

Such an approach has been tried before with the same arguments presented to support it, but most have failed to gain traction with end users. Most recently, Trek even reversed course on its flagship Madone, reverting back to a standard seatstay-mounted rim brake on the current model after a brief — and widely criticized — experiment with a chainstay-mounted brake on the previous version.

Nevertheless, Felt certainly seems to have accomplished the goal of structural efficiency, which, when it comes to bike frames, essentially means doing a lot with a little. For the flagship FR FRD, claimed weight for a raw, unpainted 56cm frame is a staggering 685g without associated hardware — roughly 5% lighter than last year’s F-Series FRD despite the claimed stiffness increases.

Actual weight for my second-tier FR1 frame wasn’t quite sub-700g, but still a tidy 869g (51cm, with seatpost collar, rear derailleur hanger, and cable hardware), plus 297g for the matching fork (cut to 180mm, without compression assembly). Built up with a SRAM Red eTap wireless electronic groupset, Zipp 202 carbon clinchers, a 3T cockpit and seatpost, Prologo Nago Pas saddle, and 25mm-wide Schwalbe Pro One tires, my 51cm test bike tipped the scales at an excellent 6.71kg (14.79lb) without pedals.

Time to climb

Aerodynamic efficiency may be the key to getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible in most road riding situations, but there’s still no substitute for how a classically light-and-stiff machine performs when the pavement turns abruptly skyward.

Simply put, the FR1 feels like it was made for steep climbs where aerodynamics play a lesser role. The stout chassis and low total weight make for easy accelerations on challenging pitches, and the bike just feels incredibly efficient when you’re battling against gravity.

Felt FR1 review
Upper-end models use oXeon’s TeXtreme “spread tow” carbon fiber plies, which are supposedly stronger and stiffer than more conventional weaves or unidirectional layers. It’s not exclusive to Felt, but the company was among the earliest to use it in bicycle frames.

That stiffness isn’t confined to one area of the frame or another, either. Whereas some bikes can occasionally feel a bit disjointed (say, with a ultra-rigid rear triangle but a somewhat soft front triangle), the FR1 is pleasantly balanced and cohesive from tip to tail. That proverbial bank-vault-of-solidity feel carries through when either smoothly pedaling in the saddle or mashing squares and frenetically swinging the bars back and forth.

According to Felt, that uniformity should carry through to other frame sizes, too, with tube sizes, steerer tube diameters, joint shapes, and lay-up schedules all adjusted as needed throughout the size range.

As an added bonus, that chassis consistency combines with smart geometry for highly predictable — not to mention entertaining — descending on fast and windy downhills. Felt may have raised the front end slightly relative to the previous F-Series, but the FR1 retains its quick and nimble handling personality, easily darting in and out of corners and happily adjusting its line through multi-radius turns. Riders accustomed to the more relaxed handling of endurance or all-road bikes may find the FR1 to be nervous or twitchy, but it’s wholly appropriate for the bike’s intended category.

Felt FR1 review
Felt adjusts the steerer tube diameter with frame size. The two smallest sizes use straight 1 1/8″ steerers to quell undue harshness for lighter riders; the middle two sizes move up to 1 1/8-to-1 1/4″ tapered steerers; and the largest three sizes inflate to a 1 1/8-to-1 1/2″ tube to provide larger riders with better handling precision. Previously, all F-Series frames used the same 1 1/8-to-1 1/2″ size.

As promised, ride comfort is improved over last year’s F-Series, albeit subtly. As is typical with well-engineered carbon fiber frames, the FR1 is smooth on well-maintained roads with excellent damping characteristics that keep vibration to a minimum. Larger bumps present a bigger challenge, of course, but the frame does a better job of taking the edge off than before.

Nevertheless, it’s still a firm ride overall, to the point where it can be challenging to hold your desired line if the pavement gets choppy through a corner. Moving from the stock 25mm-wide tires to 28mm ones helps in that regard, but at the expense of some of the bike’s fleet-footed feel.

Racers who might lament Felt’s decision to tone down the FR’s fit needn’t worry. While the move sounds like a platitude towards buyers who fall outside of the FR’s core racing focus — and in fairness, it probably is — even riders on the Felt-supported Holowesko-Citadel haven’t had to resort to extreme measures to get their desired fits. Stack and reach dimensions are a bit higher and shorter, respectively, than what is found on the Specialized S-Works Tarmac or Trek Madone Race Shop Limited, but not by any extreme amount. Notably, Felt hasn’t gone as far as Cervelo has in terms of raising the front ends, and if anything, the FR1’s stock 15mm-tall upper headset cone leaves even more room for downward adjustment if needed (there’s a flush cover hiding beneath). Overall, it’s a smart change.

Felt FR1 review
The revised front end may appear tall, but hiding beneath that giant headset cone is a flush cover that yields an instant 15mm drop in bar height as needed.

Parts-wise, it’s tough to argue against most of the choices Felt has made for the FR1. Despite early fears surrounding its wireless format, SRAM Red eTap is proving to be a very reliable groupset — and one that works quite well, wires or not. The Formula 1-style shift operation is intuitive to use and almost without fault ergonomically, there’s excellent tactile feedback from the shift paddles, and chain movement is consistent — if a bit slow — between the sprockets and chainrings.

Felt has also included the Blips remote shifters as standard equipment, stealthily concealing them beneath the handlebar tape up top where they’re easily accessed on long, grinding climbs. The action on those buttons is more vague than the standard lever-located paddles — not to mention occasionally tricky to locate — but I’m happier they’re here than not.

As with the top-mounted Blip remote shifters, Felt’s decision to include Zipp 202 carbon clinchers on the sample provided reinforces the notion that the FR platform is ideally suited for climbing. At 1,450g (claimed), they’re reasonably lightweight but yet still provide some aero benefits for when you’re cruising on the flats or rocketing downhill.

Felt FR1 review
SRAM Red eTap wireless levers are mounted to 3T Ergonova carbon fiber bars.

That said, Felt has since changed the spec to the Mavic Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C carbon clinchers. I unfortunately wasn’t able to test that setup firsthand, but if anything, given the specs on the total and rim-only weights, that wheelset should feel even livelier on the climbs than the Zipps. Either way, an internal rim width greater than 17mm (the Zipps are just 16.25mm between the bead hooks) would be welcome.

Considering how well the FR1 climbs, then, some may call into question Felt’s choice of stock gearing, which features mid-compact 52/36T chainrings and an 11-26T cassette that seem better suited to rolling hills than grand cols. In fairness, it could easily be argued that more gifted climbers would do just fine with this as is, but it’s something to keep in mind regardless. If your rides regularly feature long, steep ascents and your power-to-weight ratio perhaps isn’t what you’d like, be sure to factor in the cost of a replacement cassette into your budget.

Gearing preferences aside, it’s good to see that Felt has opted for a separate bolt-on chainring spider on the stock Red crankset instead of the fully integrated carbon fiber one. While the latter would be lighter, this two-piece setup allows buyers to easily upgrade to a spider-based Quarq power meter and true dual-sided measurement for the comparatively paltry sum of US$679.

Felt FR1 review
My test sample arrived with Zipp’s lightweight 202 carbon clinchers, but production bikes are now equipped with Mavic’s new Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C.

But, oh, that rear brake.

TRP has done a good job of designing the caliper itself, which uses stout, slop-free pivots, a compact profile that resides wholly inboard of the chainstays (meaning no clearance issues with any crankarm-based power meters), and independent adjustments for left and right pad spacing.

Unfortunately, the crankset obscures half of those adjustments. The convoluted cable routing and overabundance of links, stops, curves, and pivots also made for a mushy feel at the lever that no amount of tinkering could fully rectify.

Felt FR1 review
Brake supplier TRP has gone to great lengths to make the rear brake easy to service with independent left and right adjustments for pad spacing and spring tension. Some of the adjustment screws are still hard to access, though, especially on the drive side.

Moreover, chainstay-mounted rim brakes are inherently more prone to pad rub since the caliper is located closer to where the wheel is loaded — in other words, where the tire contacts the pavement. Keeping pad rub at bay was a constant battle during my test period.

Some riders will be willing to live with the headaches of that rear brake in light of the FR1’s overall fantastic performance. But for others, it will be an outright deal breaker.

Felt stands by the concept of mounting the caliper beneath the chainstay, but nevertheless acknowledged the issues I raised. Felt’s position is that the core problem is not so much where the caliper is located, but its specific linkage geometry.

“We believe the issue you’ve experienced stems from the unique cable pull ratio of SRAM levers and the unavailability of a direct-mount brake caliper designed to work in conjunction with a SRAM lever,” said Felt senior marketing and communications manager Michael White. “As you know, SRAM currently does not make a direct-mount style rim brake to pair with their levers, and since the percentage of SRAM-equipped bikes pales in comparison to Shimano-equipped options, brake vendors design their brakes around the Shimano standard.”

“A brake caliper and brake lever must work in conjunction so that the leverage and cable pull rate of the lever matches the caliper,” he continued. “If they are not matched well, braking performance suffers. Either the brake lever feels solid but has little braking power and/or modulation, or the brake lever feels spongy. The latter is the case with SRAM eTap brake levers when used with a brake caliper designed around a Shimano brake lever. Because of the spongy feel, the brake pads are often set close enough to the rim’s braking surface to create brake rub under power.”

According to White, Felt is already investigating solutions for the issue, both for bikes yet to be sold as well as ones that have already been purchased.

Felt FR1 review
Felt acknowledged my issues with the stock rear brake on the FR1 I tested, and later supplied a prototype eecycleworks eebrake with a custom linkage that the company was considering supplying as a replacement for current SRAM-equipped FR and AR owners.

One potential option is a replacement caliper from eecycleworks, which Felt sent to me to trial. That caliper was fitted with a specific linkage arm to better match with SRAM levers, and as promised, it provided much more rim clearance for a given amount of brake lever travel — enough that pad rub was no longer an issue, even when pounding the pedals out of the saddle on steep climbs.

The ee caliper’s built-in quick-release mechanism also eliminates the need for a separate inline widget.

That generous pad clearance came at the expense of overall braking performance, however. While the pad contact point was reassuringly distinct, power was lacking. Moreover, I found the caliper’s overly stiff spring tension to require an inordinate amount of hand effort at the lever, which felt particularly out-of-sorts when combined with the standard SRAM Red front caliper’s comparatively feathery-light action.

Felt FR1 review
The custom caliper indeed solved the problem of pad rub when pedaling out of the saddle. Rim clearance was very generous, but that extra room unfortunately comes at the expense of braking power. The stiff spring also required an inordinate amount of effort at the lever, and a very imbalanced feel overall when compared to the stock SRAM Red front caliper’s light action.

White says that Felt is committed to rectifying the situation regardless, but the exact details on how that will happen remain fuzzy, such what costs, if any, current SRAM-equipped FR (and AR) owners will incur, and even exactly what replacement caliper will be supplied.

“We are taking this seriously, and are ready to do what it takes to not let frames be tarnished by something we feel is easily fixable, and so that our riders can concentrate on riding,” he said. “Our product team continues to work with ee directly as well as other manufacturers to finalize a SRAM-specific rear brake that executes the same functionality as the one you’ve received.”

Felt’s efforts are nonetheless admirable, but what ultimately needs to happen — and what current SRAM-equipped FR/AR owners arguably deserve — is for SRAM to release its own direct-mount caliper.

Adding another blight on what would otherwise be a near-flawless setup is the replaceable rear derailleur hanger, which appears to be made of aluminum but whose rigidity more closely approaches that of room-temperature butter. Considering the level of engineering applied to most of the rest of the bike, this is a disappointing oversight on a small — but mechanically significant — piece of hardware.

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