2011 Felt Virtue Expert
$2,800 (2012 model, $3,500) // feltbicycles.com
By: Vernon Felton
I have to begin this review with an apology. Here it goes. I'm sorry, Eddie.
Okay, now that that's out of the way, allow me to explain. Eddie McDonald is Felt Bicycle's media guy and about 6 months ago he sent me this Virtue Expert to test. Which I did. Then he asked for it back. So, I set about boxing it up…and then, due to a confluence of leaky disc brakes and sundry broken parts, I found myself in need of the Virtue again, so I unpacked it and rode it some more.
Remembering my promise, I vowed to send this bike off to Eddie, except by now it was time to head off to Interbike, so that put a crimp in the whole return-to-sender thing. Then I began riding the Virtue some more because, you know, September is one of those rare rainless months in Washington, and well, then we all loaded our toothbrushes and tire sealant and moved to North Carolina to do our Bible of Bike Tests issue and, well, I came back and rode the Felt some more because the bike kept pleading for me to blow off deadlines and go riding with it. So, yeah, let's just say Felt got their test bike back really late.
The silver lining to all this, of course, is that I wound up spending some quality saddle time with the Virtue Expert, which makes for solid review fodder.
So, with that behind us, here we go….
Felt Bicycles, as a company, has a decidedly XC racer-ish flavor to it. There are more hardtails in the 2012 line up than full suspension bikes, which is sort of a rarity these days in the bike business. And when it comes to the long-travel end of the spectrum, Felt offers their five-model Virtue series. Mind you, the Virtue isn't long travel at all—it's just the squishiest model currently in the line up. To be precise, the Virtue models run 120 to 130 (adjustable) millimeters of rear travel. In short, it's a trail bike along the lines (in terms of sheer inches) of a Stumpjumper, Fuel EX, Trance X, etc.
In the past, Felt offered the 150-millimeter Compulsion model. In fact, they still offer that model in Europe and other parts of the globe, but sadly not here in the states or in Canada. Sort of a bummer as the 2012 Compulsion is a looker. I imagine those of us in the U-S-of-A and Canuckistan will see Felt fill that slot in their suspension line up again in the near future.
But getting back to the review in question…
The Virtue Expert that you see here is the 2011 model (refer back to my slacker intro for why that's so). The good news is that this review is still relevant because the 2012 version hews closely to the same lines.
The Virtue Expert is equipped with a 7005-double-butted aluminum front triangle and a composite rear end (sort of the reverse of what you normally find). That front triangle features a smattering of sculpted (hydroformed, really) tubes. Kudos to the Industrial Design wonks at Felt, because the Virtue's frame styling is simply a thing of beauty. The rear triangle mates the one-piece composite seat-stay/chain-stay to a third member—the aluminum Equilink. Suspension duties on the 2011 version were handled by the RockShox Ario RL shock and the RockShox Recon Gold fork. The 2012 version sports the same rear shock, but opts for a RockShox Sektor fork.
Braking on our test unit was handled by Avid Elixir 5s and the drivetrain was a mainly SRAM X7 dance party. For 2012, components stay largely the same (the brakes are now Elixir 3s, but that's really the biggest change). The bits and pieces are largely house-brand and include Felt-branded seatpost, saddle, stem and handlebar. The 2011 model even featured Felt tires, though the house treads have been replaced with WTB Wolverines in 2012.
Out on the trail, the first thing that struck me about the Virtue was how quickly it gained elevation. The Equilink suspension is tuned towards the efficient side of the spectrum. In fact, pedal-induced bobbing was so minimal that I left the shock wide open for the majority of the testing. The Ario RL's suspension lock out feature was only required on asphalt climbs and on trips to and from the trailhead. In fact, the lock out was so firm that traction suffered on technical climbs when the lock-out lever was engaged. Thus, I left the shock "wide open" anytime I was on the dirt.
You can change the rear travel from 120 to 130 millimeters of travel by utilizing the second shock-mounting hole on the Virtue's rocker link. It works, but the difference in suspension feel that it yields on the trail is fairly negligible. If the rear travel changed from, say, 120 to 140 millimeters of travel, it'd be a more useful feature. That said, it's cool that Felt gives you the option to experiment with rear travel settings.
The other trait that comes across screamingly well, is rear-end stiffness. For a trail bike, particularly one without a rear through axle, the Felt's rear end dished out excellent lateral rigidity. I was a little disappointed then, to find, the front end lacking a through axle. If you're coming off a fork with "standard" quick-release dropouts, you won't notice anything at all. On the other hand, once you've tasted the control of a through-axle fork, you can't go back to noodly open drop-outs. The good news here is that the 2012 Virtue Expert gets a big upgrade on the fork front, via the 15-millimeter through-axle Sektor. The bike's overall sticker price gets bumped up as well, but the addition of the thru-axle fork is a huge gain.
The X7 kit worked reasonably well. Felt eschews the whole 2×10 trend on the Virtue Expert in favor of a triple. Personally, I never use a big ring (weak lungs, little-girl legs and big-mountain topography have teamed up to rid my life of monster-sized chainrings), but I appreciate the ability to simply remove it and slap on a bash ring, which is probably overkill in most states, but makes a ton of sense in locales filled with log and rock-overs.
Braking power on the Elixir 5s was adequate, but just so, and that was with a 185-millimeter rotor up front. If this were my personal bike, I'd immediately slap a 180 rotor on the rear end as well. I also found myself desperately wishing the brakes were equipped with some kind of lever-stroke adjuster. Sure, these are bargain-priced stoppers, but having the front brake pads engage the rotor one quarter of the way through the lever stroke and the rear pads engage near the end of the lever stroke led to a sort of braking schizophrenia that proved dicey in steep and wet conditions.
Other thoughts? I was impressed with the overall quality of the Felt cockpit components, but found the Felt-brand tires scary-slippery in my wet climate. Those same tires might, however, be the bee's knees somewhere dry and sandy. Different horses for different courses and all that…. And again, the Felt treads are replaced this year with WTB Wolverines, which are capable all-purpose tires.
All in all, the Virtue Expert is a worthy ride for trail riders who like their bikes on the brisk and speedy side. The handling and suspension tuning points more to the fast, XC whippet end of the equation. There are, on the other hand, bikes like the Santa Cruz Blur LTc and 2012 Trek Fuel EX, which run considerably slacker geometry and "plusher" rear suspensions. Which is better? That's a question only you can answer. Are you looking for a trail bike that can also do double duty as an occasional XC race bike? You should try the Virtue out, because it truly excels in that arena. If you simply must have an all-carbon model for that purpose (you know who you are), you can step up to the completely carbon Virtue Elite, which sells for $4,000. Are you seeking, on the other hand, a bike that is equally competent on descents and climbs? There are more versatile models on the market.