Why a Cyclocross Bike? Felt F4X Review.

By Jim Weaver
Service Manager, Fit Werx Vermont

Most bike riders are familiar with two basic types of bicycles – road and mountain; many riders are becoming increasingly aware of a third alternative – the cyclocross bike.  A  cyclocross bike could be described as a “cross” between a traditional road bike and the original mountain bike (pre-suspension).  However, the “cross” in cross bikes is not really because of this combination, but rather is short for “cross country”.  The design of a cross bike allows for mild off-road use, and affords increased performance, comfort, versatility and security in negotiating unpaved roads or rail trails than a traditional narrow tire equipped road bike.

Cyclocross bikes were born from racing.  Cross races are run over a closed course, with obstacles that need to be negotiated, both on and off the bike.  There are many cyclocross races throughout New England, and indeed across the world, in the fall and early winter.  Many road racers turn to cross racing after the road race season is over to maintain conditioning and to improve their bicycle handling skills.

However, racing is not the only reason we have seen increasing interest in cross bikes over the past few years – it is because a cross bike can be a great shoulder season/off-season bike/training tool for the average recreational rider due to its versatility.   With wide tires, a cyclocross bike is well equipped to head across the fields or onto rough winter roads, unpaved roads or rail-to-trail and if those wheels are swapped out for a set with 23mm or 25mm tires, the same bike can do well cruising down the paved road.  Although they will not perform as well on the road as a true “road” bike, and they can’t follow a mountain bike onto more technical terrain very well, a cross bike can be called upon to do double duty across a variety of terrain and it is this versatility that is so attractive to many.

Cross bikes are visually very similar to a standard road bike.  However, the frame and fork are designed to accommodate tires that are wider than a standard road bike – 32mm or wider in some cases.  The brakes are generally of a cantilever design, to prevent mud and debris from clogging the area between the tire and a traditional road brake caliper.  The handlebars are usually of the drop design found on road bikes, although mountain bike style flat bars can be used on some custom built cross bikes.  The shifters and derailleurs are also usually integrated road design and use the same component levels found on road bikes (Shimano Ultegra or SRAM Force, for example).  When it comes to gearing, the crankset on a dedicated cyclocross race bike may be smaller and geared closer together than on a road bike (36-46 tooth combinations are popular).  When it comes to riding position, the position is generally very similar to a road bike.  However, some riders who are set-up aggressively on their road bikes may come up and in with their handlebars a little on their cross bike to make it a little more comfortable.

Cross bikes in the $2000-$3000 range have been some of the most popular as of late and the Felt F4X is one of the very best bikes in this range for a variety of reasons.  One Felt hallmark is offering a good frame and components at a very competitive price; the Felt F4X offers many features that make it a true bargain at the price of $2,799.  The frame and fork of the Felt F4X are full carbon fiber and the carbon fiber provides all of the benefits for which carbon has become famous – high stiffness, excellent shock absorption, lighter than metal weight. The frame weighs 1,090 grams for the 55cm size.  While not ultra-light compared to some road frames (you can easily find road bike frame and fork combinations at the weight of the F4X frame alone) this weight would have been in the same range as some of the lightest road frames just a few short years ago and you would not take those bikes off road ever!  This is a light frame for how tough it is.   Felt designed this bike to be race capable, and Felt’s engineers “erred” on the side of durability with the frame and fork while making sure it has all the latest features.  The bottom bracket is the over-sized BB30 standard which provides increased crank stiffness while keeping weight down.  The frame headtube and fork steerer tube are tapered, meaning that the bearings between the frame and the fork crown are larger than the upper bearing.  Tapered forks are a growing trend as they offer greater stiffness and strength at the front of the bike while actually reducing weight in many cases.  So, the Felt F4X is equipped with a host of modern frame design attributes; the frame and fork are strong, durable, and well-designed for the conditions that a cross bike might see.

The Felt F4X comes well equipped for its price point.  For example, the shifters and derailleurs are Shimano Ultegra 6700, some of the best performing components on the market.  The chain and cassette are also Shimano, although of the 105 level.  The crankset is an FSA Energy BB30 – an alloy crankset that offers strong value and looks like FSA’s fancier carbon units from a few feet away.  The brakes are Tektro cantilevers, a common original equipment part on many cross bikes.  While the brakes are not any worse than what comes on many competitors, they are honestly not the high point of the package and are a good part to consider upgrading at purchase or down the road.  The wheels are Fulcrum 7CX’s.  This is the cross version of the Fulcrum Racing 7 that, like the crankset and brakes, is original equipment on many bicycles.   Again, these are not the lightest wheels, but are a tough, durable wheel, with nice riding characteristics.  At $2,799, the Felt F4X has a very functional and solid parts package and a frame and fork of the quality that is well worth upgrading over time.   Indeed, the primary difference between the F4X, and its more costly brethren (the F3X and F2X) is the components – the frame is the same on all three of these bikes.  For $700 more you can get the F3X with the same frame and fork, but with SRAM Red shifters and derailleurs, SRAM crankset, chain and cassette, TRP brakes, and the higher level Fulcrum 5 wheelset.  Likewise, the F2X, at $6,499, uses the same frame, Shimano Di2 drivetrain, while replacing the Felt fork with an ultralight carbon fork from ENVE.  So, the F4X offers the same top-flight, full carbon fiber frame found on a $6,500 bike, but for well under half the price.   While Di2 is great, you can upgrade a lot of parts for $3700…  The F4X is a great value.

So, what doesn’t the Felt F4X have?  Disk brakes.  Since the UCI (competitive cycling’s governing body) legalized disk brakes, they are showing up on modern cross bikes more frequently as they offer improved braking in adverse conditions.   However, many cyclocross racers do not like the added complexity of a disk brake system and, to date, there are not any combination drop bar shift/brake levers from Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo that offer hydraulic brake actuation – you have to use a remote reservoir from an aftermarket company or a cable actuated disk.  Check out the Felt F65X if you really want disk brakes, otherwise the vast majority of cross bikes available today are cantilever brake equipped – including the F4X.

When it comes to fit and frame geometry, the Felt F4X actually fits a wider range of riders well than many of  Felt’s road bikes.  We still wish that they would look at the reach on smaller sizes as they are a bit on the long side (there is only 2mm, yes mm, of reach difference between the 51cm and 53cm sizes due to steepening seat tube angles in smaller sizes without full compensation in top tube length adjustment), but that is common with many brands.  So, while Felt’s cross bikes do not fit everyone, they work well for more people than some other options.

My test rides on the Felt F4X have left me impressed by the quality of this bike, particularly the frame.  It is stiff, offering very good power transfer with minimal flex, but not uncomfortably so.  The Felt F4X filters road shock and vibration well.  The parts all also feel solid and dependable.  They may not be top of the line, but they don’t feel like they are going to let you down anytime soon.   Comments from our clients who own this bike mirror my impressions.

If you are interested in dipping a toe into the waters of the rapidly growing sport of cross bike racing, or if you are simply looking to ride unpaved roads or rail trails with the security afforded by a wider tire and the comfort of a carbon fiber frameset, the Felt F4X offers a high quality, budget-minded option that should not be overlooked.


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