There's an annual contest in the triathlon bike business: Build the least expensive bike with the nicest frame, most sizes, best design and best components and be the first to have it in bike shops. The winner gets the lion's share of profits from selling entry level triathlon bikes, the fastest growing market segment in the bike industry.
It is a tough contest. Fitting triathlon bikes is a tricky business only a handful (less than 10) bike shops in the United States really understand. Triathlon bike buyers are becoming more demanding and sophisticated. The bikes are getting better. More athletes understand the benefits of owning a triathlon specific bike and more athletes (and non-athletes) are trying triathlons for the first time.
The leader (today) in the entry-level, sub-$1500 triathlon bike arms race is Felt. Their Felt S32 is $1349.99. It is very difficult to make a high performance bike at that price: Felt has succeeded. The 2003 Felt S32 at $1349.99 is better than most competing bikes at $1499.99 and higher.
Before we look at the Felt S32 to see why it is so good, let's learn a about Felt, the company. This past Wednesday (November 13, 2002) I spent over an hour interviewing Felt's owner and namesake, Mr. Jim Felt. I asked him hard questions customers would ask me about his company, his qualifications, his bikes. In September Mark Trzeciak and Lindsay Brandon did the same in person with Bill Duehring of Felt at the Las Vegas Interbike Trade Show.
Jim Felt has been a designer of 2 wheel vehicles for over 25 years. He was an engineer at Easton Aluminum, makers of aluminum tubing used in almost all Felt bicycles. He began with racing motorcycle designs for Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Honda used by world champion pro riders like Jim Weinert, Broc Glover and Motocross legend Johnny o´ Mara. Felt's designs won hundreds of races. He established credibility as an innovator and functional perfectionist.
Jim Felt is a designer and craftsman. He is meticulous in his designs and his quality standards for his work and the people who build his bikes is ruthless. Jim Felt himself has a passion for triathlons.
When I asked Jim Felt what to tell people when they say they never heard of Felt bicycles he said, "Ask them if they have ever seen how many world champions ride these bikes". Unfortunately, not too many people are aware of the heritage of Felt bikes. Part of the reason is Jim Felt has designed bikes for other manufacturers that were used under their brand name, not the Felt brand.
Top riders like Paula Newby-Fraser, Greg Welch, Ken Souza, Michellie Jones and many others have won the Ironman, World Championships, Escape From Alcatraz and countless other major events including an Olympic Silver Medal on a Felt.
Felt started in 1990 with Answer Products. Answer/Manitou was a primarily mountain bike suspension and motocross soft goods maker/distributor. Based on Jim Felt's expertise and reputation for innovation in the cycling and motorcycle industry Answer products agreed to do the distribution for Felt bicycles. Felt, former engineer with Easton Aluminum, had a unique understanding of cycling applications of Easton products, many of which he conceived and designed. Growth of Felt bicycles was fast. The four designs offered initially, especially the Felt B2, became popular quickly.
The original Felt B2 was absurdly light for its time. You could easily build a 16-pound bike, nearly unheard of in 1990. The remarkable thing was the bike had almost mystical durability, to the point of weirdness. One of our customers had an old Felt B2 on which he collided with a van at full speed. He was severely injured, the van sustained substantial damage. The Felt B2 was completely unscathed. Another customer had a weird accident where his rear derailleur hanger became bent almost 70 degrees away from its original position. On most aluminum bikes this is a death warrant. We told the customer we could try to fix it by bending it back with a Park DAG (Derailleur Alignment Gauge) tool, but the likelihood was that it would snap off during the repair. He consented and we tried, waiting for the inevitable "snap" of the aluminum sheering off as the hanger was bent back into position. It never happened. The hanger straightened out without incident and the guy is still riding it. The aluminum used in Jim Felt's bikes seemed to have a force field around it.
When Felt was beginning to grow under the distributorship of Answer/Manitou problems began to brew with suspension competitor Rockshox. Financially, Rockshox was one foot on a banana peel, the other foot in the grave. Answer/Manitou saw this as an opportunity and made a full court press for market share in MTB suspension that would be left by a Rockshox void. Answer/Manitou made the difficult (but admirable) business decision to stick to what they did originally: Mountain bike suspension. Jim Felt and answer/Manitou parted company and Jim Felt went out looking for the right set of partners for a new Felt bicycle company. During the time he did Cervelo began their conquest of the triathlon bike world. During the year Felt was finalizing his deal with new partners and distributorship Cervelo was gaining market share. But savvy customers never forgot how good Jim Felt's bikes were. He came back with a bang in 2000.
New partners Bill Duehring, former GT Bicycles V.P. and German bicycle business sensation Michael Mullmann began to hammer out a deal for the reemergence of Felt worldwide. They went big. The attorneys acting as blacksmiths to forge the deal are the same team that brokered the Daimler/Chrysler Anglo-Teutonic alliance. Meanwhile all the major bike companies were posturing to buy Jim Felt's services, designs or both. Trek, Specialized and Cannondale all had "some sort of communication" with Jim Felt about a potential alliance or buy out. But Felt stuck with the charismatic German "uberbikemann", Herr Mullmann and the bike spec guru with a reputation as a wizard at worldwide acquisition of bike components Bill Duehring, like a bike industry "Q" to a cycling version of James Bond.
Like the secret gathering of American and German geniuses in the deserts of White Sands, New Mexico in 1944 under the moniker "Manhattan Project", Felt, Duehring and Mullman began to develop a multi-megaton bike arsenal that will tip the balance of power among the bicycle industry super nations. And like the unfortunate victims of the Manhattan Project's terrible invention- the future victims of Felt's marketing Armageddon don't even know they are sitting in the bull's eye of ground zero. The explosion of popularity of Felt bicycles will, like a nuclear warhead, change the landscape of bicycle brands for the next two decades, and it is just beginning.
This is why: Felt knows his strengths, and his weaknesses. He has shored up his company with impeccable worldwide component sourcing muscle on the leading end of his business. This ability to procure the best parts at the lowest prices combines perfectly with Jim Felt's ability to create the best designs to hang those parts on. On the trailing end is a distribution network- already established and proven-up and running, especially in Europe, to get those products to market. Finally, Jim Felt has an accurate sense of what is going on in the bike industry now, and a feel for what is just over the horizon. The bikes are fantastic too.
For the competition it's all over but the mushroom cloud and fall-out.
In 2002 almost every Felt bicycle was sold out for the entire model year by the first week of May. Some models didn't make it past April. Felt was the first to introduce their 2003 models in June with the Felt S22. In Europe Felt has almost 140 bicycle models in their line, as many or more than the biggest U.S. bike companies. In the U.S. Felt (technically a German company) has focused on 14-16 models, all higher end, all road oriented with the exception of one mountain bike frame.
If there is one shortcoming to Felt's operation it is the bikes are too inexpensive and too good- they sell out way too fast. Getting a Felt, any Felt, can be difficult. Felt promises better availability for 2003 but was affected early on by a West Coast dock lockout that stalled the shipments of bikes and components into the U.S.
At the pointy edge of the Felt product bayonet is the new 2003 S32. This is likely to be your first triathlon bike, your first age-category win bike, and your first Ironman bike. It is unlikely to be a bike you will ever replace. At $1349 it is an out of the park home run.
The S32 is made of Felt custom designed 7005 aerodynamic butted aluminum tubing. 7005 is an aluminum alloy that uses a zinc base to increase its strength. It has a higher strength to weight ratio than 6061 aluminum, which uses silicon/magnesium base. With 7005 aluminum Felt is able to reduce the wall thickness of the tube set and therefore produce a lighter frame. 7005 has become the material of choice because it does not have to be solution heat treated after welding. 6061 aluminum requires solution heat-treating to gain its strength after welding. The S32 frame is beautifully made using the no-nonsense pulse weld and unusual, interesting tubes that set Felt apart. Pulse welding looks much less finished than smoothed welds like Cannondale and Cervelo but is still extremely strong and light. None of the tube shapes on this bike are generic and each is specifically designed for a given purpose: Compliance in one direction, stiffness in another. Each tube is oriented to maximize comfort and stiffness under pedal load.
The most interesting tubes on this bike are the top tube and the down tube.
The top tube has a very pronounced vertical flare as it transitions into the seat tube. This increases strength by increasing weld area and makes the top tube more rigid but only at the joint. In effect, this "forces" more comfort into the ride by pushing the flexible zone of the top tube forward.
The down tube is bladed and airfoil shaped but really doesn't appear to be as pure an airfoil as those amazing Cervelo tubes but its pretty close. The one feature of the down tube that is noteworthy is the radical flare as it transitions into the bottom bracket. Easy to figure out what this is for- it makes the bottom bracket resistant to lateral deflection under pedal load. You see this on all Felt triathlon frames and, having been a Felt tri bike owner for over a year I can tell you first hand it works.
For a frame in this price range to have so many functional, unique features is unprecedented in the industry.
An interesting difference between the S32 and the more expensive S22 are the seat stays. The S22 uses the wishbone style seat stay as seen on the DA650, B2, TT and DA700. These frames and forks sell for as much as $2000 for frame and fork! The S32 uses a more conventional double seat stay orientation that, I feel, is slightly more comfortable than the wishbone design but not as aerodynamic.
The fork is a great bladed aerodynamic carbon fiber fork, the same one a lot of companies have been using for years. It's reasonably light (as light as an inexpensive aero fork can be), rides comfortably and produces minimal drag.
The head tube uses a great integrated 1" TH headset. Narrow, aero and maintenance free.
This is where the S32 really earns respect, even if it were $1499 instead of $1349: It is available in eight sizes. That is an excellent size range. We find the dispensation or ratio of top tube length to seat tube length in each size to be moderate to very slightly short. If you have a super long torso this may not be your best fit candidate. As always, your body measurements will tell us. The distribution of sizes is evenly enough spaced that most average sized people have a good chance of getting a good position on this bike given the right cranks, stem, seatpost and bars.
I do have one complaint. The rear brake cable routing is poor. Felt uses plastic cable guides to route the rear brake cable into the top tube. They don't work. The cable guides perpetually fall out and the cable rattles when you ride. Very annoying. For any company who wants to learn how to do internal cable routing look at Cervelo. Theirs is the best.
An interesting little feature, and a nice one, are the little bumpers on the shift cables to prevent the housings from scratching the paint on the head tube. They even have little "Felt" logos on them. This is a nice functional little detail.
Another area this bike absolutely excels in is component spec. It uses a Shimano 105 front and rear derailleur. It is noteworthy to point out that Felt did not down-spec the front derailleur to Tiagra. We've seen this on a number of bikes (not Felt) and it always leaves you wanting for better shifting. It doesn't cost much to go to a Shimano 105 front derailleur from Tiagra but on the S32 Felt has done it for you. The shifters are no less than the state-of-the-art Shimano Dura-Ace 9 speed bar-end shifters. These are the best you can get. This is what is on Lance Armstrong's time trial bike in the Tour de France. These are the finest transmission controls available from any manufacturer at any price, and they come stock on this Felt S32. Brake levers are the nice little Dia-Compe 188s we all use and love. When we carefully prepare your brake cables by grinding the ends of your cable housing flat, flaring the opening, cleaning the entire assembly and lubing the interior prior to assembly these lever work great. Cable length is critical and we always double check it once we size you for the correct stem length. Brakes are from that vague Asian manufacturer that seems to make brakes for everyone and they work great. The brakes have a good quick release and replaceable cartridge style pads.
Here's the big home run: Syntace aerobars. Thank you Bill Duehring. Thank you for putting real bead-blasted, heat-treated aluminum aero bars on this bike. Thank you for not using those awful cheap Profile or Cinelli bars that just plain suck. This is an inexpensive bike, but the aerobars on it are the best.
Stem is very good, a Felt CNC machined Road S1.4 stem. Realistically, the way we sell bikes it doesn't matter what stem comes out of the box on the bike; chances are we will be changing it to build the bike to fit you correctly. Almost no bikes leave our store with the stock stem (or bars or cranks), We change these components for you usually at no charge to get the perfect fit.
The seatpost- thank you again Bill- is a micro adjust. The adjustment angles are infinite. My privates thank you. The saddle is an OK Selle Italia Trimatic 2. It's good, maybe very good. Saddles are personal preference. I'm spoiled by the Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon.
Wheels are awesome: Alex ALX300 black oxide spoke wheels. Who is Alex wheels? Ever seen Shimano wheels? Alex makes them. This is another example of Bill Duehring's specing expertise. They are light, pretty aero and look cool. They aren't race wheels, but they are great training wheels and a darn bit better than most other training wheel sets. Another bonus: Genuine Hutchinson Carbon Comp 2000 Kevlar tires. We've sold these tires aftermarket very successfully with excellent reviews. This is great training rubber. Again, it's all in the details- this bike is speced to perfection.
Now the cranks. OK, they aren't Shimano. Is that bad? Well, lets look at these cranks: FSA Gossamer cold forged crank arms with CNC machined alloy chainrings. Felt has changed the spec on the chainrings between the 700c and the 650c wheeled bikes. You get bigger 55/44 chainrings on the 650c bikes and a 53/39 on the 700c wheel bike. No one else I know is doing that. The chainrings are a major upgrade over Shimano 105 on these FSA cranks. They are machined instead of stamped. If you ever ride a bike with stamped chainrings on an indoor trainer take a moment to look down at the rotating chainrings. Holy mackerel, I bet you never noticed how crooked they were before. It is impossible to make a stamped chainring straight. The chainrings alone on the FSA cranks, which are CNC machined and much better than stamped, are a big upgrade over Shimano 105.
How is the crank itself? Well, I can't give you a totally informed answer as of this writing. I haven't put enough miles on them. But consider this: If Bill Duehring got everything else so right on this bike, why would he drop the ball on the cranks? I have faith in these cranks, I see them as being a big improvement over a Shimano 105 crank.
What happens if cranks are no good? A few things, but most notably you will notice when the front shifting is poor because of a subtle conspiracy of factors. Bad chainrings, no pick-up pins or poorly placed ones, a disagreement between the shifters and the location of the chainrings, the front derailleur mounting (nothing to do with the crank).
So, we tested the FSA Gossamer cranks in an admittedly informal test. We put a Felt S32 in a workstand, made sure it was tuned correctly, and did 100 pretty abusive slam-shifts of the front derailleur. We did 25 shifts with the biggest cog in the back, 25 in the smallest cog in the back and 50 with the chain on the middle cogs. Then we took the bike outside (It was cold!) and repeated the test.
Out of 200 abusive front derailleur shifts from big ring to small and back again (one shifting cycle, actually 400 shifts) in a variety of rear gears when we were trying to get the shifting to fail the FSA Gossamer crank and chainrings did not fail once. Not one single dropped chain or missed shift. Not one. I couldn't believe it. I was so impressed I took a couple other bikes out and tried the same test: On another bike with a non-Shimano non-FSA crank and a Tiagra front derailleur (this was not a Felt brand bicycle) the chain dropped to the inside on the third shift. Nice.
Picture this: You're doing your first Ironman. It's hilly. You get to the bottom of the last big climb on the course, let's say Yellow Lake at Ironman Canada. You push your Shimano Dura-Ace bar end shifter forward to shift your chain down onto your small chainring and your chain drops to the inside of the ring between the crank and the bottom bracket. Then the crank spider grabs the chain and wraps it half way around until you feel it and you can't pedal anymore. You have to get off your bike and free the chain, get it back on, hope you didn't damage it and try to get started, this time going up a steep hill. Now you understand why this is so important. You won't have this problem with these cranks and chainrings if the bike is set up correctly. They shift great, 400 out of 400.
If there is any doubt about the FSA cranks I think they are unfounded. Our findings are the cranks perform better than Shimano. We don't know how the weights compare, we didn't weigh them. My guess is they are close. In any case, even if they are a bit heavier (we're not sure they are) it would be worth it to get this shifting performance.
The bottom bracket is total mystery meat- what the hell is a "TH splined cro-moly bottom bracket"? We pulled the whole assembly apart to examine it and were pleasantly surprised. All a bottom bracket has to do is spin freely and stay tight. This one does that. No complaints. Nate Griffith, Bikesport, Inc. Manager said "It's entry level but its nice for the price, it has all the qualities of the more expensive stuff".
How does it ride? I like the road feel of this Felt actually better than my super-expensive ultra lightweight Felt DA650. It is stiffer but heavier. My only beef with my DA650 is that it is a bit "soft" for me. That softness is gone on the S32, it really feels solid. The base bars felt a little weird to me. I like the Syntace Stratos bend base bars but these are serviceable. On one of my test rides I discovered the hard way the wet weather braking is really good.
My guess is if you camouflaged the bike and let a number of customers take it for a test ride they would guess the price to be between $1800 and $2500. The bike rides super good once it is set up to fit you with the correct size bars, stem, cranks, positional dimensions and pedal system for you. If you are an entry level triathlon bike buyer this bike should be at the top of your list if it fits you, it's a total home run.