With the final week of cyclocross ahead of us, we figured we should finagle in another ’cross bike write-up. We fitted together FSA, Force and Fi’zi:k to a carbon Fondriest frame. All faired fine, but the forked featured a fatal flaw — failure to free the front wheel.
OK, enough with the F words already.
Here’s the story: Maurizio Fondriest was a champion Italian road racer, perhaps best known for his victory at the 1988 world championships (Fondriest won in a three-up sprint when Canadian Steve Bauer was disqualified for putting Claude Criquielion into the barriers). Fondriest’s namesake company has been producing road bicycles for decades, but I was unaware that it also sold cyclocross bikes. So I borrowed a Fondriest RC6 Cross Carbon frameset from the company’s North American importer, Albabici, and built it up with new parts from FSA (front derailleur, cranks, bottom bracket, brakes, bars, stem, post), SRAM Force (shifters, rear derailleur), and a fi’zi:k Aliante VS saddle. I used my own Shimano tubeless wheel/Hutchinson tire combo to get the thing rolling.
The overall package was nearly great: the bike is comfortable, predictable, light and snappy. But the fork’s narrow clearances meant that I couldn’t remove the front wheel without loosening the brake pad carriers. With the brakes open, the brake pad holders struck the inside of the fork, not opening wide enough to allow the tire through.
I hope that Fondriest will redesign the fork for 2011, because the frameset is otherwise quite a treat to ride. I’ve had an aluminum ’cross bike for a few years now (Cannondale aluminum, no less), which serves as my baseline for testing. My other recent experience with a carbon ’cross bike was racing the Cannondale SuperX at CrossVegas, and I was impressed with the difference. Maybe it’s just placebo, but I swear these two carbon bikes soak up vibration more than my aluminum rig.
Here are my impressions of the other pieces.
FSA partial group
When I visited FSA in Italy in June 2009, they spoke about their goal for a complete FSA road group, with the shift/brake levers being the tricky part. Creating a workable design isn’t the main problem; it’s creating a workable design that doesn’t infringe on one of the many patents Shimano, Campagnolo or SRAM own. Besides the patents applicable to available products, all three companies own patents on additional designs as a defensive measure.
FSA still doesn’t have a complete group, but what the company offers is extensive nonetheless. Take chainrings, for example. FSA has more ring sizes than any company I know, ranging from 30 to 55. As a 195-pound guy that lives in the mountains of Colorado, I favor their 52/36 rings on my road bike. Years ago, as a young racer full of hubris and vinegar, I bought a 56-tooth FSA ring for my TT bike. (I ended up with a herniated disc, but that’s another story…) Point being — FSA can dial in your preferences, be they sensible or otherwise. For this ’cross test, I replaced the K-Force compact 50/34 setup with a 46/36. [Note: A local retailer pointed out that Specialties T.A. makes quite a few chainring options as well.]
FSA has a number of great crank options, including the top shelf K-Force that I tried. I used their bottom bracket with ceramic bearings, and although we know ceramic to be smoother than steel, I could not tell a difference. I unintentionally banged the cranks around the way one does in ’cross, and the carbon held up just fine.
I also used FSA’s Energy front derailleur, designed specifically for compact cranks. The chain-guide plates have a tighter curve to better match the radius of a compact chainring and it works quite well.
I was impressed with the SL-K brakes. They work well, which in my experience isn’t often the case with cyclocross cantilevers. Combined with the Fondriest’s short and solid head tube, there was no shudder on the fork, and the SL-Ks stopped me quickly. Bravo.
I’m a fan of compact handlebars for their smaller difference in height between the hoods and the drops. It seems more companies are moving away from the dramatically shaped ‘ergonomic’ bars with sharp angles and huge drops to the compact design. FSA’s Wing Pro Compact has slightly ovalized tops and 125mm drops.
If you’ve read a cyclocross review on VeloNews.com, you know the deal on Force — it’s SRAM’s durable second-tier road group that works very well at a good price and a great weight. I was pleased to see that the new Force comes with Gore’s Ride-On cables and housing, which feature little sleeves on the housing ferrules to help keep out grub. While not as thoroughly protective as Gore’s Professional Ride-On set-up ($65), the cables still help maintain shift performance.
The one nit I had to pick was with the front shifting. The Fondriest runs both shift cables along the top tube. Keeping the cables off the often mud-encrusted down tube is a good thing for cyclocross. But the design requires a tight 180 in the cable routing at the base of the seat tube, which adds drag to the system.
fi’zi:k Aliante VS
fi’zi:k recently began selling anatomical-groove versions of its road saddles that have a bit more padding. I’m a fan of the standard Aliante, which has a bit of a curve and some give to it. The Aliante VS ($139) felt similar, but squishier. For ’cross, where you’re always getting rattled around, I appreciated the feel, but I still prefer the regular model for the road. The channel, though, didn’t seem to make much of a difference for me.
Fondriest Cross Carbon
The Fondriest looks and performs like a good race bike. Where some frames are built for multiple purposes with fender mounts included, the RC6 Cross Carbon has a flat-molded top tube for shouldering and a decided absence of cage bosses on the seat tube. The short head tube allows for decent brake cable clearance so the housing isn’t tightly bent under the stem, and also prevented any brake-induced fork chatter.
The 57cm frame I tested weighed 1,190 grams. I did not take it in for third-party stiffness testing the way we do for our award-winning group product tests for the magazine, but it felt plenty snappy. More noticeable, however, was the comfort of the ride off-road. Running the same wheels and tires at the same pressure as I do on my bike, the Fondriest felt incredibly smooth. I can’t quantify that, unfortunately, but it was perceptible. The frameset is a monocoque design built with 12k carbon.
But then there’s the fork issue. All built up, the bike rides great, feels great, and even looks great with the red, white and black color scheme shared by Fondriest, FSA and Force. But you can’t take the front wheel out without some mechanic work. Not good.
The FSA SL-K calipers feature pad carriers with a little screw on the backside to keep the pad in place — a fairly common design. This screw butts up against the inside of the fork leg when you unhook the brake cable and the calipers splay open. Again, this is fairly common. What’s isn’t so common is the 5.1cm interior width of the fork legs. (Most ’cross forks are at least 6cm wide.) The SL-K carriers are 1.5cm wide, measuring from the back of the screw to the contact patch of the pad. With a standard 34mm ’cross tire, all this math adds up to a front wheel that you can’t pull off the bike.
I tried a number of other brakes on the Fondriest, and all had the same problem. The thinnest brakes I found where Avid’s older XTR-style cartridges, at 1cm. Even those weren’t thin enough pull a 34mm tire through when opened. The RC6 is spec’ed with Shimano cantilevers, which are about 1cm wide from carrier to pad.
The RC6 comes in four sizes, from a 51cm small to the 59cm large. The frameset — including frame, fork, headset and FSA carbon seatpost — is $2,400. A complete bike with Shimano Ultegra is $3,800.
Bottom line: The Fondriest RC6 Cross Carbon looks and rides very well, but the fork needs to be redesigned.