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2006 Felt S32: Your First Tri Bike.
By Tom Demerly.


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I thought a review of the new 2006 Felt S32 may be a rehash of the previous model year ’05 S32. We reviewed the S32 in early 2005 (See that review here) since the bike was the category leader in entry priced triathlon bikes and also typified the lean and mean strategy of a bike company that was challenging the biggest names in the bike industry for market share.


The new 2006 Felt S32 on the left, and last year's version on the right.

In 2005 Felt Bicycles and the S32 were arriving. In 2006, they have arrived. This year Felt is reveling in a series of industry-quaking coups that have the biggest boys in the bike industry looking over their shoulders. A Felt bike (the new 2006, all-carbon F4C) won the Bicycling Magazine “Best Men’s Road Bike of the Year” award, the cycling industry equivalent of Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” award.


Local hotshot Ryan Rau qualified for the World Championships on a 3 year old S32. Here is seen winning the 2005 Nankin Mills Duathlon on an "entry level" S32.

Felt now has warehouses on both coasts and an expanded (and expanding) line of road bikes including interesting “cross-over bikes” such as the new T23 that bridge the gap between road and triathlon. The T23 is built using lessons learned from the elite ITU (International Triathlon Union) racing circuit and from the Olympic Triathlon in Sydney and Athens. Round 1 of the U.S. Olympic Qualifying “Race to Athens” was won on a Felt bike by Felt sponsored athlete Barb Lindquist.

 

Felt has emerged as such a dominant force at least one major bike manufacturer has asked their largest dealers to not display Felt bikes on their sales floors along with their own brand since Felt bikes represent such a better value. The bottom line is, when you compare technology and performance Felt is on par with the most advanced manufacturers in the entire bicycle industry. When you add price to the mix, all the comparisons fall apart: Felt is the leader in performance, technology and value.


The new 2006 S32 sports a beautiful blue paint scheme and updated graphics.

It seemed like there wasn’t much that could be done to the S32 to make it any better. But if you put the magnifying glass on the 2005 model relative to bikes positioned just $300 above it you did notice the bike’s one concession: It had a 9-speed drivetrain. The 2005 Felt S32 used a Shimano 105 9 –speed rear derailleur combined with a 9-speed cogset that was slatted for obsolescence in the coming months. The 2005 S32 was good, but it didn’t have the current technology 10-speed drive train used on bikes just $300 north of its price point.


The primary change has been the update to universally compatible
Shimano 10 Speed with an upgrade from Shimano 105 to Shimano Ultegra 10 speed.

Considering the first 10 speed drivetrain was Shimano’s Dura-Ace born in 1997 the older 9-speed Shimano 105 was in line for a technology upgrade. Even in 2005 Shimano’s mid-range Ultegra component ensemble had inherited many of Dura-Ace’s technology trickle-downs including a 10-speed drivetrain.

In 2005 Shimano announced that their entry price 105 component kit would be updated to 10-speed for the ’06 model year. Everyone expected the 2006 Felt S32 would simply get that Shimano 105 10-speed update. Felt did include 10 speed technology on the new S32 for 2006 bringing the bike in line with bikes priced hundreds more. Felt went one step further and upgraded the rear derailleur to Shimano Ultegra 10-speed, a rear derailleur proudly worn on some exotic carbon race machines doing laps around the $3K price point. Felt completed the up-spec by using a 10 speed cogset, 10-speed chain and the new top-of-the-line Shimano Dura-Ace 7800 series 10-speed bar end shifters, the same ones used on the most exotic tri bikes selling for over $5000.


More cogs mean smoother, faster shifting.


FSA's new Gossamer crank is 10-speed compatible and uses alloy chainrings with 10-speed shift pins.

The benefit of the new 10-speed drivetrains and transmissions is lost on some consumers and that is a shame. Some cyclists think the only difference between a 9-speed drivetrain and a 10-speed drivetrain is the addition of one more gear; that isn’t true. For riders who argue they only use four gears out of nine the benefit of another gear is lost on them. The truth is 10-speed is not about one more gear, it is about better, faster, easier and more dependable overall shifting. The Shimano 10-speed revolution that began 10 years ago with the Tour de France winning Dura-Ace 10-speed incorporates subtle and not-so-subtle improvements that mean shifting gears simply works better on 10-speed. The benefit isn’t an extra gear; it is better performance over all your gears.

 

On a 10-speed cogset ten gears occupy the same space as nine did on 9-speed. That means the cogs sit slightly closer together. Since the cogs are closer together, you have to move the shift lever less distance to make the shift happen. Shifting is easier and faster- you simply move your hand less. Additionally, there are fewer gaps in the combinations of cogs, giving you finer tuning of your level of effort while pedaling on the flats. It isn’t about a higher end or lower end gear at either end of the cogset, but about more choices in the middle where you need them. The 10-speed chains are slightly narrower (for the narrower cog spacing) and also slightly more flexible enabling them to more easily follow the derailleur through the shifting pattern. They have proven to be every bit as durable as 9-speed chains over the past 10 years. New 10-speed chainrings sit slightly closer together and are narrower so even front derailleur shifting is better than the previous 9-speed versions. Every aspect of gear changing is improved with the more recent 10-speed drivetrains that have proven themselves during the last decade again and again. The S32 may have been a little late coming to the 10-speed table, but this gives entry level triathletes a new reason to own the bike.


Nice quality Tektro OEM brakes with an alloy (not plastic!) brake shoe.

Another improvement in the 2006 Felt S32 is the upgrade from Shimano 105 up to Shimano Ultegra 6800 series for the rear derailleur. The upgrades from a Shimano 105 rear derailleur to Ultegra 6800 include new sealed ceramic bushing pulleys that spin easier and with less friction than the Shimano 105 rear derailleur that uses the rougher-running sintered alloy bushings. The new Shimano Ultegra 6800 series rear derailleur used on the 2006 Felt S32 also uses weather resistant sealed bracket pivots that mean the derailleur moves through its parallelogram with less friction making shifting easier- you don’t have to pull as hard on the shift lever on the new 10-speed Ultegra equipped S32. The inner and outer links of the derailleur itself are upgraded to aluminum on the Shimano Ultegra derailleur whereas the Shimano 105 rear derailleur uses heavier and more flexible steel links that aren’t as crisp feeling as the Ultegra version. There is also an overall weight savings of 6% on the rear derailleur for the upgraded Shimano Ultegra 10-speed over the current model 105 version.

 

Additional changes to the new Felt S32 are an impressive wheel up-spec to Shimano’s work-horse WH-R500 integrated wheel set. While a lot of bikes at prices higher than the 2006 S32 are substituting lower end, non-Shimano wheel sets Felt opted for the quality and curb appeal of the genuine Shimano brand wheels. The WH-R500 used a parabolic, semi-aero rim section combined with a CNC machined brake track design for good all weather braking and excellent all-pavement durability. The front wheel is a robust 20 spoke configuration on Shimano hubs while the rear wheel uses 24 spokes on a similar rim. This is a wheelset you can use everyday on nearly every road. It is solid, dependable and will handle riders who got into the sport to lose a few pounds- or more than a few. The wheels are shod in the Vittoria Action HSD tire, a proven OEM spec from one of the after-market, high-end hand made tire manufacturers. These tires are heavy-ish to be sure, but that is probably what the entry-level triathlete wants; a durable pair of tires that will get you out and back with little risk of flats no matter where you ride.


The Profile Aerolite cockpit remains on the S32 for 2006.

If there is a minor glitch in the S32’s spec sheet it continues to be the heavy, adjustable Profile cockpit. While my preference is the Visiontech wing-shaped base bar and size-specific Visiontech aluminum aerobar Felt has continued on with the length-adjustable Profile aerobars.

First, the bad news on these aerobars: They are heavy and not particularly aero. There is a lot of round tubing hanging out in your boundary layer. As viewed from the front they look less like the X-wing fighter that many modern aerobars resemble and more like a Three Stooges plumbing project. There is a large collection of heavy bolts and nuts to facilitate the widely adjustable pads and aerobar length extensions on this cockpit and you pay a weight penalty for that. Specifically, the total weight for the pair of Profile Aerolite aerobars is a portly 701 grams while the Visiontech aerobar is only 508 grams (270mm length) for a total weight savings of 28% or 193 grams or 6.89 ounces which is crowding a half a pound (.43 pound). Taken high on the bike and at the front end, that is a lot of extra weight. The Visiontech bars are more expensive, the upgrade would be about $150 from Profile to Visiontech including the nice Visiontech base bars. The Visiontech is lighter due to elegant design and also because it is not adjustable; it is sold in five lengths and the lengths can further tuned to rider size by cutting them down, further reducing weight.


If you make one upgrade on the Felt S32 the $150 for a
Visiontech cockpit will give you a 28% weight savings over the original Profile cockpit.

Second, the good news on the Profile Aerolites, well… they are adjustable. While that may sound like a contradiction it is worth remembering who the S32 is intended for: The entry level triathlete or aerodynamic bike rider. The adjustability of the S32’s Profile Aerolite cockpit enables the bike fitter to dial in the fit on the front end of the S32 to perfection. Since the most important determining factor in a rider’s performance is bike fit, many will argue it is worth the extra weight to have better fit with one aerobar. Since bike fit and particularly aerobar fit is most important to a rider who is new to using aerobars then the Profile Aerolite may be well suited for first time tri bike buyers even if they are heavy. The bottom line is that if you are a gram counter you probably aren’t an entry level bike buyer anyway. The primary attraction of adjustment for any triathlete is that the elbow pad can be positioned directly in line with the humorous bone in the bicep providing good skeletal support of the torso over the aerobars. This makes steering easier and more stable, relieves saddle discomfort by repositioning torso weight on the skeleton in the arms and reduces neck and back distress while riding in the aero position. Provided the bike fitter knows enough about triathlon aerobar bike fit to adjust the Profile Aerolite bars correctly, there is no reason for the cockpit fit to be anything but perfect on the S32.


The Profile Aerolite aerobars are infinitely adjustable. Almost any
rider can get perfect aerobar set-up if you know how to use the adjustments.

The rest of the S32 is still excellent. The frame quality has, if anything, maybe improved with slightly nicer looking welds. Cable routing is perfect with the top tube using an internal rear brake routing and hard plastic cable guides that stay put in the frame where they belong. This is an improvement over previous model years. It is worth mentioning that in over four years of selling the S32 we have never had a single defective frame: Not one. When you consider the S32 is usually our best selling bike on unit sales that is a very good track record.
 


Weld quality and unique tubing shapes have made Felt a stand-out in the quality of their frames.


A bladed, aero seat tube design.

The basic frame design and shape of the tubes used on the S32 harkens back to original versions of the hand made bikes Paula-Newby Fraser used to win Ironman. Jim Felt was a tubing designer for Easton Aluminum and understands the dynamics behind tubing design. The constantly changing, multi-shape orientation of the down tube and seat tube are testimony to Felt’s background as a tube designer. The tubeset is custom drawn and proprietary to Felt, you won’t see this tubeset on any other bike. Expect a comfortable ride that climbs with authority. The bladed, aerodynamic carbon fiber fork is the same proven design we’ve seen before: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.


The zero setback post will enable the rider to sit in an effective triathlon posture.

Felt uses a zero setback seatpost on this bike with a micro-adjust seatpost head using a two bolt angular adjustment similar to the Thomson style posts. The zero setback post allows riders to use a position up to 81 degrees effective seat angle. This is as steep as the steepest triathlon bike manufacturers giving the rider the true benefit of an advanced seat angle bike that include better body aerodynamics, greater comfort and even better run performance off the bike. This is a true triathlon geometry bike, and that is where most athletes will experience the greatest performance and comfort benefit: The bike will enable them to pedal easier and more comfortably in the aero position making them more efficient and faster- even in the first two miles of run after they get off the bike.

 

The S32 is for three types of customers. Most obviously, it is for the entry level triathlete who wants to try triathlons and may be coming into the sport from a non-cycling background. The S32 is perfect for them. It has a very stable, quiet and tame front end with a shallow head angle and 40 rake fork that makes the bike a kitten to ride in the aero position. The head angle and slack fork rake mean it is more stable and less twitchy. You can ride in the aero position and reach for your water bottle provided you were positioned correctly by your bike fitter. Secondly, the S32 is for the triathlete who has made-do with a road bike using aerobars. Usually that customer comes into the store with a shopping list of complaints about their aerobar use on a road bike: Lower back pain, twitchy, unstable handling and saddle discomfort at the top of the list. A correctly fitted S32 will likely solve all those issues. A person coming off a road bike with aerobars onto an S32 will likely see a tangible performance improvement if their body dimensions predispose them to triathlon geometry. The third group who will buy the S32 is the club time trialist who really wants to go fast and benefit from the aerodynamic and biomechanical advantages of aerobars. While they don’t have to worry about running off the bike they can adjust their posture on the S32 using the zero setback post and adjustable cockpit to an excellent time trial position.


Many smart buyers have already started their triathlon experience
on the S32 and gone on to learn the sport with a bike that you don't "outgrow".

Fitting on the S32 is interesting. As with most bikes, the “sweet spot” in the geometry is from 52cm up to 58cm. The 48 uses 650c wheels, as it should, but still sports a slightly longish top tube. It won’t be a great fit on a short overall height, short torso rider. Especially in the smaller frame sizes you will be better off on the S32 if you have a longish torso.

The 52cm and 54cm frames share identical standover height and almost identical seat tube lengths nearly to the millimeter but the 54cm has a 2 cm longer top tube than the 52 cm frame. Note: we find the depiction of the top tube lengths on Felt’s website trends toward the long. If their website says the top tube measures 58cm, we find it actually measures closer to 57cm. That is actually good news given Felt’s propensity to kick the top tubes out long to minimize toe-clip overlap and owing to the frame’s 76 degree seat angle from size 54cm on up (remember, your effective seat angle-where you actually sit- will be steeper owing to the zero setback seatpost).


A front end tuned for stability and comfort is perfect for new triathletes
or those coming off a road bike with aerobars.

These are real triathlon bikes, and the head tube on them is lowish, as it should be. If your posture is “open” enough between the torso and femur when you are positioned on the bike it will be perfect and you will get the full benefit of triathlon geometry. The Profile Aerolite aerobars have very high pads too, so a low head tube helps accommodate that.

For 2006 the S32 has received some valid and significant upgrades. Considering the bike is still well below $1500 US at $1399 it remains the category leader in entry level tri bikes. Even the new deep blue color is a nice change from the typically bold, graphic colors seen on Felts. When you look closely at the new Felt S32 with all its new updates, no other bike really compares: It is standard equipment for the triathlete.
 

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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