XC Specific with All-Mountain Travel Numbers
Each year, right about this time, the MBT Test Crew finds itself in a bit of a pickle. Since the riding season is in a state of hibernation not unlike that of a bear, the local shops have scores of demo units available that would otherwise be “waiting list only” affairs come spring. Of course the downside to this situation is that while we have access to some really nice bikes, the conditions for testing are about the poorest imaginable. It’s dark shortly after lunchtime, the temps barely reach double digits and the only accessible trails are the ones that have been tampered down by snowmobiles. Clipless pedals are tossed aside for platforms large enough to support a pair of boots and riding gear consists of more layers than your average parfait.
This was precisely the case when we got the call that the Felt Virtue Team we inquired about back in September was finally ready for pick up. An over $6,000, 26-pound full suspension powerhouse was ours for two weeks of experimentation. The only catch was convincing the crew to bundle up and get out there for the experiment.
The Team has the distinction of being Felt’s top of the line Virtue model. Suspending our test model is the RockShox Revelation 426 Dual Air fork up front and Fox RP23 shock out back (5-inches of travel). Transmission is entirely Shimano XTR as are the brakes, hubs, levers and so on. The stem and bar are Easton bits and as for hoops, Shimano one again gets the nod with XTR rims wrapped in Maxxis CrossMark 2.l rubber. Finally a Selle Italia SLR Ti saddle rounds out the cockpit.
All told our size Medium unit weighed in at 25.6 pounds (without pedals) and would set a customer back $6,200 (the frame alone goes for $1999).
The Stare Down
You wouldn’t be the first to tell us that fancy suspension linkages don’t impress you, but go ahead and stare at Felt’s Equilink design, everyone else is. Aside from the insuppressible urge to touch the carbon fiber rear triangle frame spars, the first thing everyone seems to notice about the Virtue team is that red link connecting the linkage’s rocker arm directly to the chain stay. To be honest, it really does look like a rigid piece of metal wedged here would nullify the action of the shock, but don’t worry- it doesn’t. In fact what it does is it counteracts the rearward weight transfer that all riders exhibit (yes, even those of us who think we’re spinning those cranks as smooth as humanly possible) when pumping the pedals. With that force canceled out, the shock is free to work as if there were no force from above to contend with whatsoever (because technically, there isn’t). As such, it’s able to give 100% of its attention to the ground below, or more accurately, the tire’s response to the ground.
After you’ve finished rubbing the subframe and pushing down on the seat to see whether the shock moves with the Equilink, climb on. The seat’s high and thin, your legs can nearly fully extend in reaching the pedals, and the bars are way out there in front of you. This is a cross-country chassis folks and it makes no apologies for living up to its heritage. Stand-over clearance is surprisingly ample and the bike feels light and airy. Your first thought is going to revolve around the lack of creature comfort in the no-nonsense spec and body positioning but don’t judge such things quite yet.
Even with heavy winter boots and less mobility than the Michelin Man, the Virtue Team likes to rip. Those gripes about its cross-country state of mind translate to snappy acceleration with each turn of the cranks. There’s a Pro Pedal lever on the shock but we never felt inclined to flip it even once during our test period. Pedal bob (even on extended climbs) never reared its ugly head although the downside to this great setup is that at times it was very hard to believe this was in fact a 5-inch travel bike. Chassis rigidity and naturally stiff suspension result in a bike that gets twitchy in the rough stuff and is especially nervous around square-edge bumps. The moral of the story is Felt’s designers didn’t feel the need to blur the line between XC and All Mountain just because the suspension boasts fairly high travel numbers. This is a machine that demands its rider take seriously the recommended sag settings. We found changes as small as 5-pound increments would totally alter the way the bike responded to the terrain so it’s a great idea to carry your shock pump with you.
Shifting from the XTR train was remarkable; especially considering it didn’t take long to get the cogs all jammed up with slush. Even still, shifts were always butter-smooth, precise and fired off without complaint. It’s rare that we should say this, but the Virtue Team is one of those mountain bikes that feels perfectly content blasting along a wide-open flat for as long as its rider can keep pumping. No need to seek out hills to take a breather or climbs to level the playing field, this Felt is happy just flowing all day.
Once elevation does enter the equation (as it almost always does), the Virtue Team excels in climbing over coming back down. That stretched out body positioning and wispy-feeling chassis make squirting upward relatively quick and painless. On the flip side, prepare to find the limits of the suspension fairly quickly (and often). In this regard the RockShox fork is slightly more at home than the rear as the Motion Control damping dial allows the rider to make changes on the fly. Even at its stiffest setting, the fork does an admirable job picking up the small stuff without easily and harshly bottoming on the larger.
Though better than most dedicated XC rigs we’ve encountered, the Virtue Team rider should still be prepared to choose his lines carefully to avoid chatter and bottoming once the speeds really start to increase. Stability, however, is more than adequate for most runs and the XTR brakes (6-inch rotors) slow things down in a hurry for the once or twice you find yourself in over your head.
There’s always a tough compromise for designers to make when it comes to the competitive weight on which the XC-set thrive. It’s always a matter of comfort versus weight shaving. The fact that Felt was able to build a sub-26-pound five-inch travel dual suspended mountain bike isn’t only remarkable; it’s the stuff of legends just a few seasons ago. The downside is that creature comforts take the backseat and it won’t take long to feel it (literally). If you’re planning on spending extended time in the saddle of the Virtue Team, it’ll probably be a good idea to kick the stock saddle to the curb and replace it with something from WTB. The grips too are thin and hard. We found that foam grips took a lot of stress from the palms. The bike is sold without pedals so the choice of running what works best for you is left in your hands. Finally the tires seem to work best on hard pack and on rock due to their tendency to roll well. Should you find yourself in mud, sand, loam, or (in our case) snow, we found WTB’s Moto Raptor or Kenda’s Nevegal to be a performance enhancer.
With bikes as sure about themselves as the Felt Virtue Team, it’s easy to recommend them to riders equally focused about what they intend to do. This is a cross-country bike that has been designed and built from the ground up to excel on the XC racecourse (it could be serviced into endurance race duty as well). If bike parks, tight singletrack, or high-speed descents are your bag, you would be wise to look elsewhere. Sure it could be made to work on the trails with some component swaps and specific settings but taking this route only undermines Felt’s original goals. At 26 pounds, there may be lighter bikes out there on the starting grid but we can assure you that there won’t be any with as much suspension to get you to the finish line.
This review has been brought to you by Mountain Bike Tales.